Every couple of years, a spiritual moment jolts me and the veil of the ordinary dissolves around me. In that instance, I can hear — truly hear — the meaning of Judaism and specific Jewish practices. The centuries drop away and I am at Sinai, listening.
This happened recently in the “Jewish Course of Why” I’m taking at Jewish Learning Institute of Chabad of Bedford, NY, a community to which I moved six months ago. I’ve looked for a congregation to join, and this course looked like a good way to learn more about timeless Jewish questions and integrate more into what is feeling like a good shul home for me.
The format involved questions in a study book with texts, in Hebrew and English, providing an answer. The response to “Why does a mourner recite Kaddish?” rocked me, coming just days before what would have been my mother’s 96th birthday. Shirley Wallach — I gave her the Hebrew name of Shira bat Chava v’ Yarad, Shirley daughter of Eva and Jared— died in January 1984 at age 63, of cancer. She was a lifelong smoker. At the time I was a member of the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, and stumbled through the Kaddish as best I could in the months that followed.
In the decades since then, well over half of my life, I have recited and heard Kaddish in all its iterations thousands of times, learning to read and understand most of the Aramaic even if I could never fluently wrap my tongue around the pronunciation.
The response to the question, from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, said:
Every member of the community of Israel is responsible for establishing and proclaiming God’s sovereignty in this world. As the verse states, “You [Israel] are My witnesses, God proclaims” (Isaiah 43:10). therefore, the absence of a Jewish person creates a void in the expression of God’s sovereignty in the world. In order to fill this void, others need to intensify their work and proclaim—on behalf of themselves as well as the deceased—”May His name be exalted and hallowed!”
This is why reciting Kaddish elevates the soul of the deceased. While a person’s overall accomplishments are defined by what the person achieved while alive, the complete tally of a person’s achievements do not conclude at the moment of death. A complete evaluation of a person’s accomplishments must also include all that is accomplished as a result of the person’s inspiration and actions. Therefore, when those who remain alive (and especially the person’s children and descendants, whose very existence is a credit to their forebears) do good deeds, they contribute to the deceased’s accomplishments. For although the deceased is no longer active in this world, his or her actions continue to inspire positive deeds and actions.
The recitation of Kaddish elevates the soul because God is being exalted in this world due to and in the name of the deceased.
The passage literally causes chills to run through me as I considered Rabbi Steinsaltz’s comments in relation to Shira bat Chava v Yarad. What had been a meaningful prayer that I understood in a formal and distant way shifted. Now, the prayer pulses with a dynamic exchange among God, my mother and myself. I sense, for the first time, “I get it.” (This has happened before with Chabad, when I’ve felt an electric, world-shifting connection with something essential in Judaism.)
When I say the Kaddish, I’m remembering what my mother gave me, her good deeds and how my actions redound to her credit. Her achievements continue to echo through the decades—just as the values of her parents, Eva and Jared, influenced her and made her the vital force that lives in the memory of many people, far beyond me and my brother.
I know that through Facebook. I sometimes post photos of my mother, a World War II veteran who spent most of her life in her home town of Mission, Texas, where my brother and I also grew up. These photos and memories of her always draw fond reminiscences of her from people in Mission who knew her. They recall her loyalty, her steadiness, her salty sense of humor, her awesome cooking and her no-nonsense approach to life. They loved her and cherish her memory and write their thoughts about her.
That we lived in a town called Mission echos in how I understand the Kaddish. Chabad and Rabbi Steinsaltz stressed an individual’s mission, what they were meant to do in their time in this world. While my mother was not religious in any organized sense, I’ve always felt a spark of Jewishness remained in her neshama, her soul, and for reasons she never articulated, she felt a need to pass that spark on to me, with a menorah, Jewish books and the teaching of the Sh’ma.
Looking back, perhaps that instruction was the essential part of her mission in her short time here, along with the great impact she had on friends and family. I find the thought enormously comforting that she stored up credit in the World to Come and any good deeds I do reflect her influence and sustain her mission. Her mission flows into my mission,whatever it is. I leave it to others to identify and evaluate what I am doing with my life.
When I say Kaddish, I’m praising God and honoring Him through my mother’s mission, which will continue through the generations.