Meditations on the Mourner's Kaddish
"Fragments of the Divine Imagination"
by Hillel Goelman

Me as the kaddish
My dad used to call me his "kadish'll", his little kaddish. When I was small I thought that "kadish'll" was just another funny sounding endearing name he had made up like "skazook" or "the little bandit'll". It made me feel special to have a special name. It made me feel that I had a special relationship with my dad. At some point, and I don't remember exactly when, he explained to me why I was his kaddish. He told me that after a father died the youngest son in the family, who would presumably outlive all of his siblings, would be the last of his children to say kaddish for the father. This added a whole new and disturbing dimension to what had previously been just a sweet little nickname. Now I was introduced to a world of finality, loneliness and loss, a world I did not care to encounter. So, growing up, a part of me knew that I was my father's kaddish. It was kind of like knowing there was a fire extinguisher in the house but never thinking I'd ever really have any need for it. I have now said the mourner's kaddish for my father for 11 months. Almost every single day I have risen early, gone to minyan and said the kaddish for my father. And, almost every single day, I returned to shule for minha and ma'ariv to say mourner's kaddish for my father. The kaddish has been there for me and I have been there for the kaddish. We were not always on good terms but we were never indifferent to one another. I have wept and swayed while saying the kaddish, I have stood immobile; I have seen the kaddish appear before me with great clarity and I have searched for it through the mists of my pain and loss. I have the felt the kaddish cut through me and I have felt the dull, blunt end falling on me. I have said kaddish with my eyes open, my eyes closed, loudly and softly, with gentleness and with anger. And now, my 11 months is coming to a close. I will never stop hearing my father's laughter and he will never stop hearing my kaddish. This is what I saw and felt during the 11 months of saying kaddish.

1 The drum beat
The first and most powerful part of the kaddish was the rhythm. "Yit-kadal-Ve-yit-kadash, shmay-ra-ba". The rat-a-tat-tat quality of the Aramaic words seemed to drum on top of my head and the inside of my body. Standing at attention, my heels together, the military cadence continued and rattled, giving me sentences with an alarming punctuation, but devoid of words, meaning or grammar.

2 Threading the needle
Each word, each syllable, each letter had to be placed precisely in the right, tiny space that was engraved in space for that letter. Each word, syllable and letter had its own precise size and shape and teach one could only be placed into its proper place with the greatest of care and concentration. Focusing, peering intently, now at the words, now into space into which they must fit, I hold my breath and hope that this time, I will be able to do this.

3 Like a rock in tumultuous waters
Before the "song at the sea" in the morning prayers we read of the Egyptian soldiers pursuing the children of Israel through the Red Sea. The Israelites escaped but the Egyptians sunk into the sea "like a rock in tumultuous waters". I say these lines and they stay with me throughout the morning service. As I come to say the mourner's kaddish on this day I know exactly what it feels like to sink like a rock, inert and lifeless, and as I say the words of kaddish I see them escaping from me like bubbles hurrying to the surface.

4 Mumbo jumbo
Everyone - EVERYONE - is saying kaddish and I can barely hear my own voice in the chaos of voices, old, young, and guttural, with different accents, different ways of bending the words depending on which part of which far-flung Jewish community you are from. The din reminds me first of a crowded train station with announcements of over a loudspeaker mixing with shouts and cries and shrieks of those arriving, leaving and waiting. No, now it is the floor of a stock exchange with persistent shouts and urgent pleadings, offerings. I can barely hear myself and I think "kaddish bullies" are people who leave no room unless I fight for my verbal space to say my kaddish.

5 Hang gliding
I can see everything from up here. Not in great detail but shapes and colours are so vibrant. In the closing prayers just before the kaddish I read the words, "a great wind came up behind me" and when we get to the kaddish I am lifted off the ground, gently, firmly, comfortably and from up here I can see everything. I can see the words and letters of kaddish laid out far below me. Its quiet except for the warm rushing wind. I can see the words from above and I wonder if they see me. As I drift down to earth I'm also wondering whether I will land in the white spaces between the letters or in the dark, black mystery of the letters themselves.

6 Word down the well
I'm standing for kaddish, leaning over the well and one by one my words drop from my mouth into the dark fullness/emptiness of the well beneath me. As I say each word I try to count the second until I hear the previous word splashing into the water below. Each word leaves my mouth in turn, falling, tumbling towards...I wait and listen...and I wait and I listen...and I wait and I listen.

7 Wall to wall words
This kaddish is huge, in fact it fills the room. The words are strong, large, firm and there is barely room for me to squeeze in among them. I twist and strain but they are immovable and so I must try to find a foothold, a place to put my arm while scraping me face against the hard, unyielding granite. There is no room to move and I can't stand and I can't sit and I see where I am because these huge, huge words take up the entire room.

8 Skimming rocks on the water
These words are round and smooth, a perfect size and shape for skimming over the surface of a still pond. I carefully heft the weight of each one, my hand intuitively knowing the right grip, the right angle, the right rhythm. I wind and rock and in perfect synchrony I fling the each perfect stone/word and each one rides through the breeze, catching the currents of air and dipping to kiss the water first here, then there and then once more over there.

9 The typewriter
Hunt. And peck. And hunt. And peck. And - where is that word? Where is that letter? It was here a minute ago - oh, yeah, here: hunt. Peck. I can hear each metallic word slamming into the paper, crushing that small piece of ink off the ribbon. Each word, slamming, punching, cranking. The word wasn't here a minute ago, but now I've found it and have pounded the right key so that - CLANG - there; got another one.

10 Crossing the creek on slippery stones
Careful, now, this could go bad. Stop. Look around. Find the next word. It looks easy to get to but what's needed to get there is balance. And clarity. And I can't look up, so how do I even know that I'm going in the right direction. Now I know: there is no direction at all. Just rocks, and water and not knowing what will happen next.

11 There is no minyan today
We count over and over, but no, we don't have the ten people required to allow mourners to say kaddish.. We pray silently to ourselves but I am not permitted to say "Magnified and sanctified is God's great name" out loud. So I say it to myself. I whisper it quietly. I hear myself and say amen to my won blessing.

12 Where does this kaddish come from?
I can hear the kaddish coming out of my mouth, I can feel my neck muscles tighten, my jaws moving up and down, my lips, tongue, teeth moving and shaping the words, but where do these words come from? What is the traffic on my neural pathways that bring these words into the world? Where do the words "yitgadal v'yitkadash" fire across synapses in my brain? Do the electrical impulses come from my right brain? Intuitive and emotional? From my left brain? Linear and logical? In which direction do these impulses cross my corpus colosum and what do they look like as the electricity and hormones and chemicals bring these words to my mouth?

 

 

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