The Last Kaddish

When Buchenwald was liberated, Elie Wiesel recalled, some people ran to the soldiers. Some ran to their families. Some broke down and cried. One group of men gathered and recited the Kaddish.

Wiesel pauses.

“I don’t think God deserved that Kaddish.”

That story helps define Israel to me. God gave us the name Israel. It means the people who fight with God. And we live by that name.

My last Kaddish is more mundane than Wiesel’s. I’m not crying for millions. I’m crying for my mother.

“May His great name grow exalted and sanctified.” Or perhaps, “May our appreciation and understanding of God continue to grow.”

I still don’t really know who or what God is. I get hints during the morning prayers. The Kedusha is a brief dialogue, between the idea of an infinite, unbounded, transcendent God and the idea of a God who chooses to act, or to not act, locally and non-uniformly in space and time. The debate’s details are less important than the debate’s existence. God’s truth is not a proclamation but rather a discussion. A respectful dialogue among complementary partial truths. Jews seem to particularly delight in finding the partial truths that complement conventional wisdom. The “respectful dialogue” part is more of a challenge.

I can’t connect to most of the prayers, but some prayers penetrate even me. I enjoy prompting the Kohanim’s blessings. “May God bless you and keep you. May He shine His face upon you and guide you. May He raise His face towards you and grant you peace.” I could use peace. The Kohanim bless He who commanded them to bless Israel with love. At the risk of sounding like JK Rowling (not that that would be a bad thing) I like thinking that “blessing with love” doesn’t only meant that they should feel love when they bless, but rather that love is the blessing.

Early in the year, leading prayers every day started going my to head. At some point I started feeling like I wasn’t announcing what day it was, but rather declaring what day it would be. By that logic, for a second or two this morning, it was Thursday.

I started feeling ownership over the Bimah area. If kids used it for a shortcut I would think “get off my mound.” There are probably three or four deep character flaws embedded in that errant thought.

As the year progressed, my attitude improved. It has been helping me find peace.

The Kaddish ends with requests for peace and life. The end of the Kaddish sheds light on the beginning. Who or what is this God who should be sanctified? The God of life and of peace.

The founding myth of the Kaddish is Rabbi Akiva’s encounter with a suffering man hurrying to perform endless and difficult tasks.

“How can I help you?” Akiva asks.

“You can’t,” the man answers. “When I was alive I did horrible things. Now I’m suffering this eternal fate.”

“Is there any way I can redeem you?” Akiva asks.

“I heard the only way I could be spared is if my son were to learn how to lead the congregation in sanctifying God’s name.”

So Akiva finds the son, teaches him, and the dead man is freed from his torture.

“I am not the advocate,” Leon Weiseltier writes regarding saying Kaddish for his father. “I am the evidence.” My Kaddish, and good deeds, don’t just prove my mother’s merit. They increase it.

I was at a parenting course at my daughter’s high school. Some parents indicated that it was too late for parenting tips, our kids had outgrown our sphere of influence. Well, I’m forty three. My mother continues to influence me. And she’s not even here.

So I’ve been saying the Kaddish. To praise God. To honor my mom. And to try to become a better person. More respectful, committed and responsible. I know how that will sound to some. Instead of saying Kaddish, why didn’t you spend the time doing good things, some will no doubt wonder. I try to do good things. The Kaddish isn’t instead of those. It’s the repeated reminder that I’m part of something bigger. That people worked hard to get me here. And that I honor their efforts by striving to be a better man.

My mother was a wonderful person. I hope that by living her values and following in her paths that I continue her contributions to the world.

I’m about to recite the last Kaddish of her mourning period. It’s harder than I expected. For 11 months, my life was oriented around her Kaddish. Tradition views this as a transition period for her. It’s a transition period for me too. After this Kaddish, I fear, she’ll feel more gone.

May the name, meaning, and appreciation of God grow. May He bring us life and inner and outer peace. And may my mother’s memory be a blessing. Amen.

About the Author
Gil Reich is the author of If You Write My Story, which helps kids deal with life, love, and loss. He is also co-founder of internet marketing and development company Managing Greatness. Previously Gil was VP of Product Management at Answers.com. He has been a popular speaker at internet marketing conferences around the world.
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