David Bogomolny
Just a Jew in the world.

The skeptic’s kaddish for the atheist, 40

In less than a month’s time I return to New Jersey for the unveiling of my father’s tombstone, 10 months after his death. I’ve been preparing myself. Gravesite visitations never used to draw me, but I feel compelled to stand before his grave to tell my Papa how much I love him; and embrace the part of me that will remain with him forever in America.

Some days before my father’s death last summer, I was in Vilnius with my mama’s cousin, his wife, and their son. They are all the family we have left in Lithuania and diligently maintain our forebears’ graves, namely those of my mother’s grandparents. Upon guiding me to the gravesite through the misty rain, my relatives immediately took to tidying up the tombstones. To be honest, that isn’t something that had ever occurred to me to do. The moment touched and changed me.

I’d never known my great-grandparents but am named after my mother’s father’s father; and I have heard much spoken of his kindness. My Dedushka had always wanted to name a child after his father Давид, but he was blessed with three daughters. In 1979, therefore, upon arriving more quickly than humanly possible from Beer Sheva to Jerusalem and hearing my given name for the very first time, Dedushka responded to Papa with classic nonchalant gruffness, “That’s a good name.”

Last summer was the first I’d ever visited Lithuania, and it may have been the last, but the thread of my own life’s journey glistened there in the morning mist before me, as I stood looking at that particular tombstone engraved with the name Давид, at a portion of myself that will forever and ever remain in Vilnius.

Gravesite visitations never used to draw me, but then neither did mortality and meaning so consume my everything.

* * *

Need anything be inherently meaningful? My expectations of the kaddish year were arguably high from the start, I suppose. Why not just go through the motions, regardless of my feelings? Or, better yet, why bother? And, ultimately, nihilistic though it may be to ponder, what does it matter that I’ve had some breakthroughs in my prayers and writings? The most basic questions have no answers.

Many, many Jews opt in to kaddish when their loved ones die. Some find it worthwhile, some do not, but meaning is not intrinsic to ritual.

In my ongoing search for kaddish bloggers (blog #29), I came across an essay by activist and author Jay Michaelson. It’s rather unlike most other kaddish essays in that Michaelson writes that he did not find kaddish helpful or healing [link]:

 I’ve resisted writing about my year of saying Kaddish for my mother… Often, such writing carries a sense of lyrical, self-indulgent profundity. But my process hasn’t been profound. It’s been mundane, and pontification seems ridiculous.

After 11 months, having taken on a practice of saying Kaddish regularly, I’m now relieved to let it go… 

I didn’t find the ritual particularly helpful. I think of my mom all the time; I didn’t need to be reminded of her by anapests of Aramaic. I know she would’ve wanted me to do it, so I did it and I’m glad I did. But it wasn’t healing…

I recall now that in the book Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier also shares his struggles with the regular, rote kaddish recitations: “In shul and out of shul, dawn and dusk, day after day after day. Spirituality is declining into schedules” (p. 227); and “this morning there was not a single word of the prayers that held my attention. Not a single word” (p. 255). This discontent must surely have had something to do with his committed, year-long poring through the ancient kaddish literature.

Perhaps because I had long been in religious crisis, perhaps because I was already familiar with the basics of Jewish ritual life, perhaps… perhaps because I wanted more, I knew that I would never make it through eleven months of daily prayers and kaddish recitations without personalizing them. Initially, I only intended to write once a month, but fissures were propagating across my heart, pulsing with pressure and dripping with expression. My first blog post, plastered over the cracks, was saturated and leaking so I covered it with another… and then a third and a fourth…  and now a fortieth.

Lyrical and self-indulgently profound? Undoubtedly so, Mr. Michaelson, yet my sealant is holding.

* * *

Given my personal experience, I do quite agree with Michaelson’s sentiment. Traditional Jewish prayer is foremost a religious obligation, and my process has felt rather like a slog of late. I’ve been plodding to weekday services, plodding through prayers, and even plodding along through my study of Psalm 119, which continually fails to inspire me. Sometimes I can’t tell if my plodding is mental or physical; I’m spent regardless.

Still, the power of the orphan’s kaddish itself has been moving me recently. It feels right that my Papa’s death should be declared before the nation. It feels right to stand up and proclaim those ancient words that now flow so effortlessly from my lips. It even feels right to make an intellectual exercise of mundane Psalm verses representing his name: Alexander son of Mosheh. When the time comes, I shall stand tall to recite these stanzas at his gravesite.

My grief finds expression in my element.

* * *

This week’s stanza is ש (shin), which I’ve had my eye on for some time now because of verse 165, which is part of the Ein Keloheinu (אֵין כֵּאלהֵינוּ) prayer that is said every day in Israel at the end of the morning services. Also, something that I only just discovered is that verses 166, 162, and 165 are recited in that order by the mohel at a brit milah.

ר

ד

נ

ס

כ

ל

א

ה

ש

מ

ן

ב

ה

מ

ש

נ

PSALM 119:ש (verses 161-168)

[CLICK for glossary]

קסא שָׂרִים, רְדָפוּנִי חִנָּם; ומדבריך (וּמִדְּבָרְךָ), פָּחַד לִבִּי 161 Princes have pursued me without a cause; but my heart is in awe of Thy dvar.
קסב שָׂשׂ אָנֹכִי, עַל-אִמְרָתֶךָ— כְּמוֹצֵא, שָׁלָל רָב 162 I rejoice at Thy imrah, as one that findeth great spoil.
קסג שֶׁקֶר שָׂנֵאתִי, וַאֲתַעֵבָה; תּוֹרָתְךָ אָהָבְתִּי 163 I hate and abhor falsehood; Thy Torah do I love.
קסד שֶׁבַע בַּיּוֹם, הִלַּלְתִּיךָ– עַל, מִשְׁפְּטֵי צִדְקֶךָ 164 Seven times a day do I praise Thee for Thy righteous mitshpatim.
קסה שָׁלוֹם רָב, לְאֹהֲבֵי תוֹרָתֶךָ; וְאֵין-לָמוֹ מִכְשׁוֹל 165 There is great peace for them that love Thy Torah; and there is no stumbling block for them.
קסו שִׂבַּרְתִּי לִישׁוּעָתְךָ יְהוָה; וּמִצְוֺתֶיךָ עָשִׂיתִי 166 I have hoped for Thy salvation, O Lord, and have done Thy mitzvot.
קסז שָׁמְרָה נַפְשִׁי, עֵדֹתֶיךָ; וָאֹהֲבֵם מְאֹד 167 My being hath observed Thy eidot; and I love them exceedingly.
קסח שָׁמַרְתִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ, וְעֵדֹתֶיךָ: כִּי כָל-דְּרָכַי נֶגְדֶּךָ 168 I have observed Thy pikudim and Thy eidot; for all my drakhim are before Thee.

 

The final section of the Ein Keloheinu prayer, which includes Psalm 119:165, is taken directly from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot 64a (the final folio):

אמר רבי אלעזר אמר רבי חנינא תלמידי חכמים מרבים שלום בעולם שנאמר (ישעיהו נד) וכל בניך למודי ה’ ורב שלום בניך אל תקרי בניך אלא בוניך (תהילים קיט) שלום רב לאוהבי תורתך ואין למו מכשול (תהילים קכב) יהי שלום בחילך שלוה בארמנותיך (תהילים קכב) למען אחי ורעי אדברה נא שלום בך (תהילים קכב) למען בית ה’ אלהינו אבקשה טוב לך (תהילים כט) ה’ עוז לעמו יתן ה’ יברך את עמו בשלום R. Eleazar said in the name of R. Hanina: The disciples of the wise increase peace in the world, as it says, ‘And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of thy children’ (Isa. 54:13). Read not banayikh [thy children] but bonayikh [thy builders]. ‘There is great peace for them that love Thy Torah; and there is no stumbling block for them’ (Ps. 119:165). ‘Peace be within thy walls and serenity within thy palaces’ (Ps. 122:7). ‘For my brethren and companions’ sake I will now say, Peace be within thee’ (Ibid. 8). ‘For the sake of the house of the Lord our God I will seek thy good’ (Ibid. 9). ‘The Lord will give strength unto His people, the Lord will bless His people with peace‘ (Ps. 29:11).

 

For those who feel themselves at home at shul, these words are very familiar.

Regardless, their theme, at a glance, isn’t subtle.

* * *

In his commentary on the Book of Psalms, Radak (1160–1235) riffs on verse 119:165:

שלום רב. כי לעולם אוהבי התורה לא יכשלו כי דרכם דרך ישרה ולעולם יהיו בשלום כי הם מסתפקים במעט שישיגו מן העולם הזה ולא ידאגו לכל מקרה והנה להם שלום רב Great peace. For the lovers of the Torah will never falter, for their derekh is the straight derekh; and they will forever be at peace, as they are satisfied with the little that they’ve obtained from this world; and they will not worry in any case, and this, for them, is ‘Great Peace’.

 

Love of Torah leads one to live a moral and satisfied existence, says Radak. Inner peace is the ‘great’ peace. It’s that simple. It is the kind of peace that we turn to religion for. It’s the kind of peace that we can reasonably attain.

* * *

Peace is one of the most fundamental of human aspirations, and its continued absence in this world poses a challenge to faith of profound proportions. Our verse 165 was one of several biblical gleanings fashioned together in the Talmudic passage above (and then inserted into the Jewish liturgy), as if to say – look, the Bible is relating to your lived concerns and experiences – and the Almighty has responded!

Verse 165 inspired and affirmed the rabbis’ reflections on peace, as it is the only one of Psalm 119’s 176 verses to mention shalom at all. Hence it was assigned a prominent spot in Jewish prayer and study.

The orphan’s kaddish, on the other hand, comprised of six sections, dedicates the final two of these to the theme of peace. The penultimate section is in Aramaic:

יְהֵא שְׁלָמָא רַבָּא מִן שְׁמַיָּא וְחַיִּים עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשרָאֵל. וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן May there be great peace from heaven and life for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

 

Immediately, we see that this “great peace” for “all of Israel” is something entirely different than the personal “great peace” described by Radak. Also, this line of kaddish offers us no formula – how does one bring such peace about? The [predictable!] answer lies in the final line of kaddish, the famous ‘Oseh Shalom’ in Hebrew:

עושה שָׁלום בִּמְרומָיו הוּא יַעֲשה שָׁלום עָלֵינוּ וְעַל כָּל יִשרָאֵל וְאִמְרוּ אָמֵן He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

 

With ‘Oseh Shalom’, the kaddish concretizes its strategy for achieving peace: God.

Just pray to God.

May He make peace for us. Amen.

What? No peace yet? Well, let’s keep on praying then.

* * *

Unexpectedly, after weeks of plodding analysis through the stanzas of Psalm 119 in honor of Papa, I have found a precious nugget buried in the crevices of its type. A relatable alternative to the lofty language of faith. Amen.

Personally, as a mourner, I am hurting and hungering for an inner peace this year, much more so than an elusive, universal peace for the Jewish people. If I were to write a prayer of my own (a kaddish perhaps?), I would be inclined to end it with the words of Psalm 119:165.

There is great peace for them that love Thy Torah; and there is no stumbling block for them.

My love of Torah has been bringing me some measure of peace these days. Amen.

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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