David Bogomolny
Just a Jew in the world.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 33

My search for other kaddish blogs (blog #29) led me to Chanan Kessler. His final post, titled ‘From Mourning to Memory’, was published more than four and a half years after he finished reciting kaddish for his mother. Chanan writes:

… the first half year [of reciting kaddish]… serves to anchor your mourning, constantly reminding you of your loss and giving you a psychic space to focus [on] how your parent’s influence continues to live on within you. On the other hand, its incessant repetition can be numbing and its recitation an end in itself…

This is on the mark. I could never have imagined the space I’ve been occupying these months since my father died. As regards the recitation becoming “an end in itself,” I foresaw this possibility and thankfully managed to avoid it by focusing on ‘The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist’, mining my mourning experience for gems along this journey.

Chanan continues:

The second half of the year… was characterized by a growing acceptance of the loss… Time during the second half of the kaddish year seems to move quite slowly. Even though you are moving toward the end of the period of mourning, you are by this point so immersed in the kaddish year that you feel it will never end.

This is so interesting.

Having entered the second half of my kaddish year back in January, I try to find myself in Chanan’s words but fail. I feel the opposite: Knowing that my recitation of kaddish will be ending in another three months, I feel desperately short on time. I can’t do enough. (I know this isn’t rational.)

* * *

Most recently, I have been trying to derive some semblance of meaning and inspiration from the verses of Psalm 119 that correspond to my Papa’s name (Alexander). This week, I’m exploring stanza ‘כ’ (caph), which is the third letter of

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

PSALM 119:כ (verses 81-88)

[CLICK for glossary]

פא כָּלְתָה לִתְשׁוּעָתְךָ נַפְשִׁי; לִדְבָרְךָ יִחָלְתִּי 81 My soul is spent [from seeking] Thy salvation; for Thy dvar I hope.
פב כָּלוּ עֵינַי, לְאִמְרָתֶךָ– לֵאמֹר, מָתַי תְּנַחֲמֵנִי 82 Mine eyes are spent [from seeking] Thy amirah, saying: ‘When wilt Thou comfort me?’
פג כִּי-הָיִיתִי, כְּנֹאד בְּקִיטוֹר– חֻקֶּיךָ, לֹא שָׁכָחְתִּי 83 For I have been like a wine-skin in smoke; yet did I not forget Thy hukim.
פד כַּמָּה יְמֵי-עַבְדֶּךָ; מָתַי תַּעֲשֶׂה בְרֹדְפַי מִשְׁפָּט 84 How many are the days of Thy servant? When wilt Thou enact mishpat on them that pursue me?
פה כָּרוּ-לִי זֵדִים שִׁיחוֹת– אֲשֶׁר, לֹא כְתוֹרָתֶךָ 85 The evil have digged pits for me, which is not according to Thy Torah.
פו כָּל-מִצְוֺתֶיךָ אֱמוּנָה; שֶׁקֶר רְדָפוּנִי עָזְרֵנִי 86 All Thy mitzvot are faithful; they pursue me with lies; help Thou me.
פז כִּמְעַט, כִּלּוּנִי בָאָרֶץ; וַאֲנִי, לֹא-עָזַבְתִּי פִקֻּדֶיךָ 87 They had almost annihilated me upon earth; but as for me, I forsook not Thy pikudim.
פח כְּחַסְדְּךָ חַיֵּנִי; וְאֶשְׁמְרָה, עֵדוּת פִּיךָ 88 Vitalize me according to Thy loving kindness, and I will observe the eidut of Thy mouth.

 

I’ve color-coded the words of this stanza thematically, having gone through it several times:

* * *

Purple & Green

The purple text of stanza כ outlines the Psalmist’s challenges and adversaries. Evil people have put obstacles in his way (pits), oppressed him, and nearly annihilated his earthly self. Twice, he refers to his tormentors as רודפים (rodfim), meaning pursuers, thereby emphasizing that the Psalmist’s enemies are dogged in their persecution. He cannot escape on his own. 

I get a particular kick out of the “wine-skin in smoke” imagery. Rabbi David Altschuler (1687-1769) explains in his ‘Metzudat David’ commentary:

כי הייתי. עם כי הייתי כחוש ותש כח כנאד התלוי בעשן ומתייבש בו, עם כל זה לא שכחתי חקיך I have been. With [the words] ‘I have been’ – [it’s] like a feeling and weakness of strength – like a wine-skin hanging in smoke and drying in it, [even] with all that, I did not forget Your hukim.

 

Next time I’m feeling exhausted and somebody asks me how I’m doing, I’ll look them in the eyes wearily and grouse: Like a wine-skin in smoke, Friend. You know how it is.

* * *

Red

The root כ-ל-ה* (caph-lamed-hey) occurs twice at the beginning of this stanza (verses 81, 82) and once towards the conclusion (verse 87). This is deliberate book-ending; I pull my BDB dictionary off from the shelf behind me:

The verb means ‘to be complete, finished, accomplished, spent’
The noun is some variation of ‘completion, complete destruction, consumption’
The adjective is understood as ‘failing with desire, longing’

*A side note:
The BDB dictionary also sheds light upon the word תִּכְלָה, which shares the root כ-ל-ה. This was our focus last week in stanza ל.
Apparently, תִּכְלָה has another connotation (in addition to ‘end’, ‘limit’, purpose’). It can also mean: perfection.  I must consider how this fits into and shapes my interpretation.

 

In the first two instances (verses 81-82), a crisper translation of כלה would be ‘pining’, as in – ‘My soul is pining for Thy salvation’, which is consistent with the adjective form of this Hebrew root.

As the stanza progresses, the severity of the threats faced by the Psalmist increases in urgency. At first, his soul instinctively pines (כָּלְתָה) for salvation, an instinct familiar to many people of true faith. However, by the stanza’s end, the Psalmist has shifted to an entirely different and menacing definition of the root כ-ל-ה, which means: ‘annihilate’.

Symbolically, the Psalmist’s near annihilation is limited only to earth.

* * *

Orange

In the first two verses of the stanza, the Psalmist’s soul and eyes pine for God’s dvar and amirah.

From Rabbi David Kimhi’s (1160-1235) glossary for Psalm 119, we know that these keywords represent two things: 1) the verbal expression of God’s commandments, and 2) God’s promise to man. That one might pine for [the fulfillment of] God’s promise seems the more reasonable interpretation, which is what Rabbi Altschuler suggests:

כלו עיני. עיני צופים והנם כלו על אחור אמרת הבטחתך My eyes pine. My eyes scout [endlessly], and so they are pining due to the delay in [the fulfillment of] your promise, which you articulated.

 

Tucked into this neat interpretation, there is a hint of something more nuanced than the unmistakable reference to God’s promise. Rabbi Atlschuler distinctly underscores God’s speaking.

In fact, the theme of God’s speech serves as a second book-end to our stanza. In the final verse (88) we find the following: ‘the eidut of Thy mouth.’ This attribution to God is pure poetry, recalling for us the ‘eyes’ of the Psalmist in verse 82. And – what was it that the Psalmist’s eyes were scouting for? – God’s amirah! – God’s verbal expression – how can such a thing be?

It is understood in Jewish tradition that God creates by speaking. We see this idea illustrated in the opening chapters of the Torah. How does God create the universe? Through words:

Genesis 1:3
וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.

 

It does not escape me that I am engaged in creation myself. These words, in honor of my Papa, will outlast me. The words of humankind, created in God’s image, beget memory and shape reality.

I
am
humbled.

 

* * *

Blue

Thy salvation; comfort me; enact mishpat; help me; vitalize me.

The Psalmist is not only seeking a lofty salvation; he is requesting that God take action against his enemies (verse 84) on earth. Suggestively, he asks: ‘How many are the days of Thy servant?’ In other words: what’s taking so long, God? Perhaps I haven’t been faithful enough – I’ll try ever harder.

I am reminded of political parties that campaign primarily on promises of providing their constituents with government-funded handouts. The voters are thereby encouraged to believe that they lack agency enough to care for themselves; and their political representatives reap the benefits on election day.

Israel’s Haredi parties epitomize this strategy; they oppose Haredi boys having access to proper education in math, science, English, and civics. They decry those of their flock who hope to become qualified for Israel’s modern workforce and earn a living wage. Rather, they want their constituents hovering at the poverty line, reliant upon grants and subsidies. That’s how they maintain control – by offering salvation on earth.

Now, traditional religious authorities attribute the Book of Psalms to King David who ruled the first Israelite Kingdom, but scholars suggest that the majority originated later – in the kingdom of Judah. Either way, the Psalms were written at a time when society was structured around the worship of God who would mete out reward and punishment. The monarchy and the Temple were the governing institutions, and God was the Highest Authority in accepted fact and practice.

Today people vote; once they brought sacrifices. Either way, they are taught to turn for earthly salvation to powers above.

I descend from this train of thought to a childhood memory of mine.

In second or third grade, I was being harassed by two neighborhood boys in my backyard. The particulars are long lost to me, but it was clearly bullying, and Papa witnessed it unfolding from our kitchen window.

He came outside, gently but firmly pulled the boys away from me, and sent them off.
I felt so protected.
Thank you, Papa, you are so great!
My father looked at me, lips pursed.
I wish I hadn’t had to get involved, Boy. You must learn to defend yourself.

Papa was correct; this is the actual way of the world.

My Papa didn’t want me to depend on him or anyone else; he wanted me to become reliant upon myself.

That is true and selfless 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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