David Bogomolny
Just a Jew in the world.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 32

This year is pregnant with meaning for me, as well as with something else: an extra month.

In Hebrew, we call a ‘leap year’ a shanah (year) meuberet* (pregnant) – שָׁנָה מְעוּבֶּרֶת. Whereas the Gregorian calendar adds a single day to the calendar during leap years (once every four years), the Hebrew calendar adds an entire month on leap years (seven out of every nineteen years). [More on this at the Israel Science and Technology Directory website.]

*A side note:
In Modern Hebrew we no longer use the word meuberet to describe a pregnant woman. The root of the word מְעוּבֶּרֶת is ע-ב-ר, which means ‘to pass’. The fetus is called an ubar (one who passes through) – עֻבָּר, and the meuberet is the one who is passed through, rendering her a vessel. 
Pregnancy today is instead called heirayon (הֵרָיוֹן), which I believe is derived from the word har (הַר), which means mountain – most likely a description of the pregnant woman’s stomach.

 

During a Hebrew leap year, the month of Adar is replaced by two months: Adar I and Adar II. We are currently in Adar I, and the holiday of Purim, which my four-year-old daughter is looking forward to, will be next month: Adar II.

Very interesting, David, but what does any of this have to do with kaddish or mourning?

* * *

For a month,
I’m going to be in mourning limbo.

Traditionally (blog #21), a Jew mourns a parent for twelve months but recites the orphan’s kaddish for only eleven months. The anniversary of the parent’s death (yahrzeit) usually caps the end of the mourning period, but not during a leap year:

According to tradition: I will recite kaddish for 11 months; I will be in a state of mourning for 12 months; but my father’s first yahrzeit will be 13 months after his death.

I’d been imagining how difficult it would be to continue attending shul during that twelfth month of mourning, standing silently as others recite kaddish for their loved ones. Now I realize that the twelfth month won’t be the end of it. Instead of closure, I will be left waiting for yet a thirteenth month as a non-mourner!

Here’s my attempt at positive spin: the thirteenth month is an additional opportunity to gradually taper off from the intensity of this experience. I must think this way.

… Although…
What does ‘taper off’ even mean?

My father will not be less dead in 11 months, nor in 12 months, nor in 13 months. Do I expect my sadness to abate arbitrarily?

* * *

I chance upon Psalms 119:96, the last of the eight verses beginning with the letter ל (lamed), which is the second letter of my father’s name. Lamed happens to be the stanza of Psalm 119 that I aim to dig into this week. Last week I explored stanza א – the first letter of:

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

PSALM 119:ל (verses 89-96)

[CLICK for glossary]

פט לְעוֹלָם יְהוָה– דְּבָרְךָ, נִצָּב בַּשָּׁמָיִם 89 For ever, O LORD, Thy dvar standeth fast in heaven.
צ לְדֹר וָדֹר, אֱמוּנָתֶךָ; כּוֹנַנְתָּ אֶרֶץ, וַתַּעֲמֹד 90 Thy faithfulness is from generation to generation; Thou hast established the earth, and it endures.
צא לְמִשְׁפָּטֶיךָ, עָמְדוּ הַיּוֹם: כִּי הַכֹּל עֲבָדֶיךָ 91 They stand this day according to Thy mishpatim; for all things are Thy servants.
צב לוּלֵי תוֹרָתְךָ, שַׁעֲשֻׁעָי– אָז, אָבַדְתִּי בְעָנְיִי 92 Had Thy Torah not been my delight, I should then have perished in mine affliction.
צג לְעוֹלָם, לֹא-אֶשְׁכַּח פִּקּוּדֶיךָ: כִּי בָם, חִיִּיתָנִי 93 I will never forget Thy pikudim; for with them Thou hast vitalized me.
צד לְךָ-אֲנִי, הוֹשִׁיעֵנִי: כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ דָרָשְׁתִּי 94 I am Thine, save me; for I have sought Thy pikudim.
צה  לִי קִוּוּ רְשָׁעִים לְאַבְּדֵנִי;    עֵדֹתֶיךָ, אֶתְבּוֹנָן 95 The wicked have waited for me to destroy me; but I will consider Thy eidot.
צו  לְכָל-תִּכְלָה, רָאִיתִי קֵץ;    רְחָבָה מִצְוָתְךָ מְאֹד 96 I have seen an end to every finite thing; but Thy mitzvah is exceedingly broad.

 

The Hebrew of verse 96 is awkward to translate – I made a deliberate choice to translate the wordתכלה as ‘finite thing’, but ‘end’ or ‘limit’ would be more precise. I’ve also seen it translated as ‘purpose’, which sometimes works. This verse catches many a commentator’s eye, beginning with the famed Rashi (1040-1105):

לכל תכלה. לכל סיום דבר יש קץ וגבול, אבל מצותך אין קץ וגבול לתכליתה To every finite thing: To every conclusion of a thing there is an end and a limit, but Your commandments have no end or limit to their purpose.

 

There’s something profound here.

It would be easy enough to say, as Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) says in Chapter 3, that there is a [finite] time for everything – implying that everything has a beginning and an end. But that is not what verse 96 is saying. Nor is it what Rashi derives from it.

Rashi writes that every conclusion comes to an end, but isn’t that inherently obvious?

I’ve become acutely aware of the finity of all things, and yet where do my thoughts go when faced with the pending end of my kaddish journey? I steel myself, counting every remaining day, every kaddish left to me, squeezing drops of meaning from time itself even as it vaporizes. The less left to me, the more precious each moment. And then – it’s over, opportunity exhausted: the end inevitably ended.

But not so with mitzvot, says Rashi.

Rabbi David Kimhi (Radak, 1160–1235) elaborates:

מצותך רחבה מאוד, ואין לה קץ, ואף על פי שהמצוות יש להם קץ וחשבון ידוע, הענפים היוצאים מהם רחבים לאין קץ… ואמר מצותך – לשון יחידה ‘Your mitzvah is exceedingly broad’, and it has no end, even though the mitzvot have a known end and accounting [in the World to Come], the branches that come from them are broad and have no end… and it says ‘mitzvah’ – [this is in] the singular.

 

Traditionally, and according to Radak’s glossary for this Psalm, a mitzvah is a Divine commandment, including acts of kindness, such as visiting the sick, as well as particular ritual acts, such as wrapping phylacteries on one’s arm. Colloquially, even in the most traditional communities, the word mitzvah is also used to simply mean ‘good deed’. (Incidentally, the recitation of the mourner’s kaddish is not included on any list of 613 Divine commandments that I’m aware of.)

Radak picks up on a nuance that intrigues me: the word mitzvah is singular: according to Psalm 119, every individual mitzvah has an endless impact. Personally, I feel too finite to make such sweeping claims, but I can certainly relate to this as a beautiful aspiration. The impact of a good deed has limitless potential. The mitzvah’s moment may be finite, but not so its consequences.

I cannot make the end of my kaddish journey last longer, but its impact may extend beyond this year of mourning.

* * *

Two other aspects of this stanza speak to me.

First, the word pikudim is repeated in verses 93-94. According to Radak’s glossary, this is one of the eleven keywords for Psalm 119 so this bears noting. Pikudim are: the Divine commandments instructed by common sense, stored in man’s heart. This has an implication upon my understanding of verse 94:

‘I have sought Thy pikudim’
=
I have sought my heart’s Divine inclinations

Secondly, the only verse in this stanza with none of the eleven keywords is verse 90. What is the message of this verse? “Thy faithfulness is from generation to generation; Thou hast established the earth, and it endures.”

Traditional commentaries, including Radak, posit that God’s faithfulness to humankind is in the continued and reliable existence of the natural universe. My mind, however, is not so traditional.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Might we not ask: “If the next generation is not around to experience the world, does it still exist?” Isn’t it only because of the cumulative experiences of generations upon generations of people, including ourselves, that we believe anything to be true?

My four-year-old daughter, for example, is learning Truth not only through her own eyes, but also through mine. For the past two weeks, she has insisted upon going to shul with me in the afternoon on Saturday, despite my suggesting that it may be boring for her. My Truth, and therefore her lens, is that shul and prayer are important. For her, these values exist.

* * *

Yevgenia Shekhter z”l

With heavy hearts, my family and I learned of the passing of my father’s beloved cousin Zhenya last Thursday. My father fondly called her Zhenichka, which is how I knew her. Formally, She was Yevgenia Shekhter, daughter of Abram and Rina.

In our interactions, she came across as humble, family oriented, and profoundly loving. I particularly recall her tinkling laughter. Her heart was naturally predisposed towards Good and Truth, full of those Divine inclinations which should be most natural to all of humankind, even without her seeking them. Zhenichka’s children and their families will forever experience the world, in part, through her lens; and the impact of her many mitzvot carries on through them and the many others that she touched so warmly, including me and my father before me.

To my mind, her family, our cousins, are a testament to her Goodness. It is truly rare to meet a family so affectionate, gentle, and giving; and we are very, very lucky to have them in our lives. Today, through every living generation, Zhenichka’s descendants are continuing her legacy of sincerity, sensitivity, and love.

About the Author
David Bogomolny was born in Jerusalem to parents who made Aliyah from the USSR in the mid-70's. He grew up in America, and returned to Israel as an adult. David has worked as a Russian-speaking Jewish educator for the JAFI, the JDC the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, Moishe House, and Olameinu. He now works for Hiddush - Freedom of Religion in Israel. He and his wife and daughter live in Jerusalem.
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