Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Kaddish defeats Hurricane Sandy

Last night I went to a Shiva home to daven Mincha and Ma'ariv. His mother died last week. The Shiva began last Wednesday and ended this morning. In between a major storm hit New York, Hurricane Sandy. By Sunday evening the weather was getting quite iffy. The winds were gusting at over 40 miles per hour. Trees were swaying. Branches were crashing down. I'd thought about going over to the Shiva home, which was only two blocks from my home, but when I looked outside, I decided to say my prayers at home. Had I still been saying kaddish I would have had a more difficult decision: whether to make sure I fulfilled my kaddish obligation or err on the side of my own personal safety. I probably would have decided (and my wife would have urged me) that my life was more important than my mother's soul.

After the service yesterday evening at the mourner's home, I asked him whether he had gotten a minyan (quorum of ten) for each prayer service. I was expecting a negative answer given the extraordinary weather. But he told me there was a minyan for every service. Such is the power of kaddish. Not even Hurricane Sandy dissuaded the faithful from making sure this man had a minyan to say kaddish during his Shiva.

Another Giants championship!

Two nights ago I had the thrill of watching my favorite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, win the World Series. It was their second triumph in the last three years. Before their last Series victory in 2010, I never thought I'd live to see a Giants' World Series triumph. Their previous championship season was 1954, the year before I was born. They'd come close several times, most notably in the heartbreaking World Series debacle of 2002. I figured that my life and the Giants coming out on top would not overlap.

But in 2010, they defied the odds and won the World Series. What a thrill. After Brian Wilson struck out the last Texas Ranger, I celebrated with my son in our New York home as if we were part of the crowd back in San Francisco.  The entire Bay Area was swept up in Giants Fever. Even my mother, never a sports fan, couldn't resist getting caught up in the excitement. And this was in October, seven months after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She wasn't even expected to be alive by the time October rolled around.

My mother saved for me the San Francisco Chronicle reports on the World Series. Ever thoughtful of others, she purchased gear for me, my brother and my son commemorating the victory. For me she bought a cap that reads "2010 Giants World Series Champions." Thinking about this now, it's amazing that while she was getting chemotherapy and not sure how much time she had left, she was able to think about small things that her loved ones would like.

For the last two days, I've been wearing the cap to celebrate the Giant's 2012 championship. But this cap isn't just any cat. It's like so many things I have that I owe to her thoughtfulness: the seat covers she sowed for me, the candlesticks she gave us, the dishes she helped me select, the bookshelves she helped pay for, the jewelry she gave my wife as birthday presents and, finally, the clothing she gave my wife in her last year of life because she knew she wouldn't wear them again.

The cap is one of many objects around my home that I wouldn't have but for my mother. Now that she is no longer alive, these objects take on a new meaning. A sanctification of sorts. A reminder of all she gave me, the tangible and the emotional, of the myriad small and profound connections that characterized our relationship.

Had she lived, she surely would have bought me a 2012 Giants victory cap. I'm wearing the 2010 championship cap this week to celebrate their victory and in her honor. As for purchasing this year's championship gear, I'm on my own.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Mourning without kaddish

I've completed the 11 months of reciting kaddish. I am no longer a "chiuv," that is, I no longer have an obligation to say kaddish and am not chosen to lead prayers. When the Gabbai announces before services, "is there anyone observing a Yahrtzeit? . . . Shloshim? . . . A chiuv?", he no longer looks at me and I don't make eye contact with him.

On the other hand, I am still an "avel," that is, a person in the first year of mourning. I'm still obligated in the all laws of mourning: I'm not supposed to hear live music, attend joyful events, or wear new clothing. Thus, until the Yahrtzeit, I live in an ambiguous state: mourning without kaddish.

There is more to mourning than saying kaddish, but because mourning is so identified with kaddish, it's easy to feel as if my year of mourning is already over. Kaddish is what reminds you of your parent's death. Kaddish is what announces to others that your parent died recently. Without kaddish, the sense of loss is not as intense.

The ostensible reason that kaddish ends before the year of mourning relates to the supposed effect of kaddish on the deceased's soul. (see http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/05/efficacy-of-kaddish.html) You stop saying kaddish before the full 12 months because the soul is sufficiently elevated by 11 months. To continue would imply that your parent was not worthy to be elevated within 11 months. (see http://www.jewish-funeral-guide.com/tradition/kaddish-duration.htm)

Perhaps there is another less profound way of looking at the early end to kaddish. It's a way of easing out of the state of mourning. Maybe it would be too abrupt to stop saying kaddish and stop being a mourner simultaneously. And so there is a month between the end of kaddish and the Yahrtzeit to think about what mourning means without the benefit of kaddish.

I am using this time to plan how I will commemorate the Yahrtzeit. I am thinking about how I will incorporate my mother's life into my life. I am thinking about how I will live out the rest of my life without her earthly presence. Her absence still astonishes me. It's easier to accept now than in the days and months just after she died. But it's still difficult. I'm sure it always will be.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Birth and kaddish: a woman's story

One of the "benefits" of saying kaddish is getting to know people you wouldn't have otherwise met. There's a bond that exists among kaddish sayers. You might not have much in common with them, but there is one thing you do have in common, and that one thing is what defines your life at present. When you say kaddish, you notice who else around the room is saying it. When you look at or speak to that person, there is an unspoken understanding of shared pain and sorrow.

When you are a man and there are women saying kaddish, the connection is not quite so automatic. First of all, in an Orthodox shul such as where I pray, the women are on the other side of the Mechitza (divider between the men's and women's section), so you are not sharing the same physical space. Unless you are standing near the women's section, you may not even be aware of the presence of female mourners. In addition, only the men are being called up to lead prayers and part of the connection between (male) mourners is being in the rotation for leading prayers.

I have gotten to know some of the women saying kaddish, and I am moved to write about one in particular. She stood out because she was obviously pregnant. I thought to myself: how strange to be both a mourner and an expectant mother. How strange to be simultaneously inhabiting the worlds of death and life. To be pulled between the lost connection to your parent and toward the creation of a child. I suppose that if my wife had given birth to a child during my year of mourning, I may have experienced similar emotions. But there is something qualitatively different about having one's body literally fill up with life and feeling the emptiness of loss that a man could never experience in the same way.

A few months ago she gave birth to a boy. She named him Binyamin after her father for whom she was saying kaddish. In her D'var Torah (which she was kind enough to share with me) delivered at her son's Brit Milah (circumcision), she spoke about her newborn's name. Binyamin was also the name of the child born to the biblical Rachel who died in childbirth. Rachel named him "Ben Oni", usually translated as "son of my pain" or "son of my affliction." Her husband Jacob then changed the boy's name to Benyamin, which literally means "son of my right," the word "right" connoting strength. However, the word "oni" can also mean strength. Rachel calls him the "Son of my Strength" and Jacob affirms the name, removing the latent ambiguity of "oni" by calling him Binyamin.

These words affirmed both the sorrow of mourning her father and the hope represented by her newborn as well as the real yet never to be actualized connection between grandfather and child.

The recitation of kaddish itself, with its message of the future sanctification of God's name and realization of peace, presents a similar ambiguity between pain and hope. As I move toward the first Yahrzteit of my mother and beyond, I pray that her legacy will continue to live on in her children, grandchildren and beyond.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cleaning the covers

In the shul where I usually daven on weekdays, there are covers. One covers the Bimah, which is where the Torah is placed when read on Monday and Thursday mornings. The other covers the Amud, or prayer stand. On this stand is placed the prayer book the prayer leader uses while leading prayers. It is in front of this stand where I've spent hours and hours leading prayers. It's become a spot I was quite familiar with, that place from which I said the prayers, both silently and out loud for the community. Often I held on to the stand, at times feeling so overwhelmed that I felt I was holding on to it for dear life.

The covers, which match, are beautiful. They are a reddish purple shade with flower-like designs on them. But they were filthy. So many hands had been on them. I could tell they hadn't been cleaned in a while.

In the beginning of his book Kaddish, Leon Wieseltier comments on covers: "A red velvet cloth is thrown over the rostrum at the front of the shul, directly before the ark in which the Torah scrolls are placed. Here stands the precenter, that is, the leader of the service, that is, the mourner; and as I place my hands on this cloth, which is the color of wine, I see the traces of the hands that preceded mine. There are stains in the velvet. In places it is threadbare. This is an exquisite erosion. It is not neglect that thins these instruments. Quite the contrary. The more threadbare, the better. The thinner, the thicker" (Kaddish, p. 5).

Wieseltier may have been moved by stains, but for months I have been hoping to get the covers cleaned. In a previous post, I complained about the condition of the shul. (see http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/05/complaint.html) My mother believed in noticing everything, in paying attention to the details of our inner and outer lives. I never heard her say this, but her actions demonstrated that we are responsible for creating the physical spaces we inhabit. We are called upon to create beauty and order in this world. This was not just an obsession with cleanliness, but a philosophy that our outer world, whether they be our clothes, homes, possessions, or the way we carry ourselves, reflect our humanity.

For my own sensibility (I guess she taught me well) and to honor her, I have tried in small ways to make certain aesthetic improvements to the shul. I moved the ark slightly so that it was more centered and gave space between the Ark and the Amud (prayer stand). I purchased bookends for books the rabbis use so they wouldn't pile up.

During the high holidays, the covers on the Amud and the Bimah were replaced with white covers. The replacement during this period of the regular covers with white ones is traditional and reflects our yearning to be spiritually pure, cleansed of our sins, and to begin the new year with a fresh start. I suggested to the Rabbi and shul's Executive Director that this time be used to have the covers brought in to the dry cleaners.

Two days ago I entered the shul to find the white covers gone and the regular ones there, sparkling clean. Their presence radiated, standing out among the books and white walls. I gasped and said to myself, "Ma, look how much nicer this place is" and I felt her smile, "yes." It made my day. I was saying my prayers in a place she would have felt comfortable.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Slacking off, slightly

One of the first questions some people asked me after my last kaddish, even before I was out the door of the synagogue, was whether I intended to continue attending services. I don't "have" to anymore. The obligation to pray daily can be fulfilled by davening at home. It doesn't have to be done in a minyan (quorum of 10). Only saying kaddish does. So technically I don't need to show up to synagogue again until the day of my mother's Yahrtzeit, the 24th of Cheshvan, November 9.

I wasn't sure how going to shul every day for nearly a year would effect my religious behavior in the long term. Right now I'm in the habit of attending shul regularly. I've developed bonds with some of the people with whom I pray and a level of familiarity in the shul setting as never before. So, for the most part, I've continued to go to shul to pray.

However, my priorities have changed. When I was saying kaddish, everything had to revolve around the schedule of services. Now I'm balancing shul with family and personal needs. For example, my son has music lessons in the evening that conflict with Mincha right now. When I was saying kaddish, he took the bus or I gave him car fare. Yesterday I davened at home and drove him to his lesson. A few days ago, I felt so tired that I planned on praying at home the next morning and set my alarm clock for a half hour later than I would have had I attended morning services. With the extra sleep, I felt much more rested that day. And while I still go to shul most mornings, I'm no longer nervous (even slightly frantic) about getting there on time. I'm not leading services anymore so I don't need to be there exactly when services begin.

I guess I'm returning to my old semi-lazy, late arriving, self.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Last kaddish

I felt an acute sense of self-consciousness as I entered shul for the combined afternoon and evening services on the last day of saying kaddish. I'd already davened all of Sacharit (see previous post) and now I would be leading the Mincha (afternoon) service. As I davened, everything that I'd felt the previous 11 months seemed to bubble up to the surface: my mother's presence, the discomforts, disorientation, pride, questions, tears, absurdities. I was reluctant to take leave of these feelings but also felt relief at having reached an end point. I sensed the pride my mother would have felt in my accomplishment along with profound sadness over the reason behind my accomplishment.

After the end of the evening Ma'ariv service came the first kaddish in which I wasn't obligated to participate since November 25 of last year. It was so strange. People who I'd been saying kaddish with for months began to say kaddish. I wasn't supposed to join in. But I couldn't help it. I don't know if was just habit or an emotional need, but I couldn't restrain myself. The words and the thoughts behind them wanted to emerge. So I mouthed them quietly and put my hand over my mouth. That was my personal "half" kaddish.

By the next morning, that feeling had already faded. I was ready to be a responder to kaddish rather than a participant. As I write these words, a few days later, I'm growing ever more comfortable with my new role in shul. I'm no longer a member of the "club" of mourners. (see http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/01/welcome-to-club.html). I'm just a regular congregant again.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Protocal of the last day of kaddish

My last kaddish was two days ago.  I'd informed the Gabbai who announced to the congregation that it was my last day of saying kaddish. The Gabbai choose me to daven Ma'ariv, the evening prayer. The next morning the Gabbai instructed me to daven all of Shacharit (the morning service). That was unusual as in the past month there have been three mourners davening different parts of the service. As I began the service, I felt a nervousness I haven't felt since the days I first acted as prayer leader. Then I felt a hand on my back (I think it was the Rabbi's but I'm not sure) and a hand motion to slow down. I took a deep breath and tried to relax. I was as focused as I've ever been leading prayers, as much to appreciate the sentiments behind them as to anchor my feelings in something concrete. I was then called up for an Aliyah to the Torah, the first time that's happened on a weekday since I've been saying kaddish.

In the afternoon, I led the prayers for Mincha. I stood at the Amud (prayer stand), the place that I'd stood as prayer leader so many times during this last year. Nobody could see me as the Amud is in the front of the shul, but they heard me and I'm pretty sure the tone of my words conveyed the heaviness of my heart. Afterwards I shook the Rabbi and the Gabbai's hands to express my appreciation for their support. I don't think they were overly moved--I wasn't the first mourner they've seen go through this process and I won't be the last.

After Mincha I returned to my seat thinking I'd recited my last kaddish. But as the Rabbi began talking, I remembered there was also a Kaddish D'rabbanan (Rabbi's Kaddish). I couldn't pay attention to the Rabbi's words at all. I have no idea what he said (it was something about a mishna in the tractate of Rosh Hashana).

And so I learned the protocol of the last day. You lead all the prayers for one last time (until the Yahrzteit). You are honored by being called to the Torah. In an unspoken way, the protocol was a way of acknowledging my effort in attending shul every day to pray and say kaddish. I am grateful for the the rules and the structure of Jewish public mourning. And I was grateful to have been supported in my mourning by a community of shul goers. I take pride in my accomplishment. It's nice when one's efforts are recognized. I was honored, and through that recognition, so was my mother. And if anyone deserves to be honored, it was her.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Kaddish exhaustion

I'm exhausted, physically and emotionally. For 11 months, I've been getting up early each morning to go to shul. I've attended an 8:30 a.m. minyan on Sundays so at least on Saturday night I got to sleep till 7:30. But for 11 months I've been getting up on a consistent basis earlier than I ever have in my life. To get to shul and then to work on time, I've attended the 6:45 (Monday and Thursday)/6:55 minyan (Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday), which meant I had to get up by 6:00 a.m. at the latest. Sometimes, if I had to be at work earlier, I was up at 5:15 to attend the 6:00 service. On Saturdays I've been getting up at 6:15 a.m. to attend the early 7:00 minyan. (I come home, take a snack and go back to sleep for an hour.)

For the last month, shul began even earlier than usual, first because of Slichot services which began a week before Rosh Hashana and lasted through Yom Kippur and then for the Sukkot holiday, when, due to the additional prayers, services began at 6:20 a.m., and therefore I had to be up by 5:30. Since I was committed to saying kaddish, I've had to make sure I got to shul in time as the first kaddish is recited a couple minutes after the prayer service begins.

And so there is a sleep deficit due to not enough sleep plus not sleeping that well at night. (I know depression negatively affects sleep and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that mourning for a parent also does.) In addition to the sleep deficit, there is an emotional toll to saying kaddish and dealing daily with the death of a loved one. It's like some kind of weight, a heaviness, that is wearing. Mourning demands energy. That's one of the reasons I have been taking mood regulating medication. (See http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/02/anti-depressants.html and http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/07/strangeness-of-mourning.html) How much energy it's taken out of me I hope to find out when, after today, I stop saying kaddish. A good night's sleep would also help.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Getting ready to say goodbye to kaddish

I am getting ready to say goodbye to kaddish. I've said over 2500 kaddishes (average of 8 per day, so about 240 per month times 11 months). (See http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/02/quality-or-quantity.html) When I look at that number, it's difficult to believe how often I've recited it.

Now I have only 16 kaddishes left (not counting those I will recite annually on my mother's Yahrzeit). Actually, I wasn't sure when exactly my kaddishes ended. One rabbi told me that you say kaddish for 11 full months after burial, which would make tomorrow, the 25th of Tishrei, the last day. Another rabbi told me I should say kaddish for 11 months plus a day. I was happy about that because in a strange way, I don't want it to end, so I'll follow the latter's decision.

I mean I do want it to end, but I don't. It's both. It's both because kaddish has been like a friend to me. It's not only a prayer I say. I've internalized it. It's become part of me. Sometimes it's meant a lot to me and helped me mourn, other times it was just words. At times I felt the words were emanating from my mouth involuntarily, as if I they were disassociated from my being. My lips were moving and making the sounds of the words. But were the words mine? Or coming from somewhere else? From some place inside of me that I do not know exists?

But at the end of every prayer service, the kaddish was there for me. Now I feel I'm getting ready to say goodbye to a dear friend. (Am I leaving my friend or is my friend leaving me?) Like friends, we were closer at some times than others. The approach of the date of parting means I'm reaching another milestone in the process of mourning. I'm forced to confront in a more vivid way the reason I've been saying kaddish these months: my mother died. Yes she did. The sadness and tears move again to the surface. And as I prepare to say goodbye to kaddish, I am also saying another painful goodbye to her.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Yizkor thoughts: the war against forgetting

Tomorrow is the holiday of Shmini Atzeret and with it another Yizkor, the fourth and final of this year of saying kaddish. Here are some thoughts as I enter into this day.

Yizkor means remember. It's message is more than that, however. It means "remember!!!" You must. You have no choice. It's your duty. Either because you want to. Or because guilt is making you feel you have to. It doesn't matter. Just remember.

Why do we need to be ordered to remember? Because it's so easy to forget. So so easy. Really, forgetting is easier than remembering. I truly believe that forgetting is built into our true nature as a human being. If we remembered everything, we couldn't function. If we remembered every trauma we endured growing up, every slight, every injury, physical and emotional, we'd all be damaged goods.
What happens when we cut ourselves. We heal. A scar is left. You can't really see the scar unless you look close. Only a remnant of the cut is left. We are back to "normal." What happens if you break a bone. Slowly the bones heal, usually with no long term negative effect. perhaps they are even stronger than they were before the break.

How do people who lived through traumatic events rebuild their lives? To ponder of the amazing stories of Holocaust survivors and what they endured and then what they were able to accomplish afterwards. They couldn't have succeeded without forgetting or repressing or somehow shoving aside the horrible memories.

Maybe this is what Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is talking about. In Chapter 2, verse 16, he writes (using Robert Alter's excellent translation): "For there is no remembrance of the wise, as with the fool, forever. Since in the days to come, all will be forgotten." And again in Chapter 9, verse 5: "For the living know that they will die, and the dead know nothing, for they no longer have any reward, for their memory is forgotten."

But we Jews are commanded to remember, to fight against Kohelet's fatalism. We are called upon to remember national events such as the Exodus from Egypt and what Amalek did to us when in the along the way from Egypt. As we begin the new year on Rosh Hashana, on the day we call Yom HaZikaron, the day of Remembrance, we pray that we remember our covenant with God and that God remembers us for good. And, through kaddish and Yizkor, we are called remember where we came from, those who brought us into this world, to whom we are eternally attached to spiritually.

When your parent dies, you say kaddish for nearly a year. The kaddish has many functions, but the main one is to keep the memory of your parent close to your heart, to fight the battle against denial and forgetting. And after the kaddish year is over, there is Yizkor four times every year to continue your battle against denial and forgetting. Originally, Yizkor was recited only once a year, on Yom Kippur. At some point the Rabbis instituted it for each of the Three Festival holidays, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Maybe they felt that once a year was not enough.

Every time we pray, we begin with the words "Zocher Chasdai Avot" (the one who remembers the kindnesses of the forefathers). God, we pray, will remember our ancestors, for their lives are worth remembering. Through Yizkor, our job is to join God in the war against denial and forgetting and to remember the goodnesses of our own parents, how much they meant to us and how deeply they will always be with us.

Silencing the talkers

I've written before about trying to say kaddish when other people are talking or walking around getting ready to leave shul or, during Sukkot time, putting away their Lulov (palm branch) and Etrog (citron). It's just annoying and disrespectful and rude.

Still, I understand it. To most people, kaddish doesn't mean that much. It didn't mean much to me before I began saying it. I'd like to quote Leon Wieseltier again from his book Kaddish: "Until now, the mourner's kaddish used to be the least important part of the prayer service. I mean, for me. It was the small print in the liturgy, a morbid recitation in the interstices of worship. But no more. Now I inhabit the interstices" (Kaddish, at p. 28).

Today being Hoshana Rabba, there was a lot of activity in shul, so I was already expecting noise during kaddish. Last week someone was putting away their Aravot (willow branches) in aluminum foil during kaddish and it drove me crazy. I didn't say anything to him because I didn't want to embarrass anyone in particular.

On numerous occasions during this kaddish year I've said in my mind to others as I was saying kaddish: "shut the fuck up!" Today, I didn't use these words, but, before beginning the Mourner's Kaddish after the Hoshanas, I said to the congregation, "please be quite for the kaddish." That worked.

As my mother often told me as well as to her clients, people often don't know what they are supposed to do. They need to be told, nicely, politely and clearly. Today I finally heeded her advice. I wish I would have done so earlier.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

End of kaddish anxiety dream

Less than two months into my year of saying kaddish, I had an anxiety dream about saying--actually about missing--kaddish. The dream reflected the stress I felt about getting to shul to say kaddish and how much it meant to me to do so. (See http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/01/kaddish-anxiety-dream.html)

This Shabbat afternoon, almost ten months after my anxiety dream, and the last Shabbat on which I will be saying kaddish, I had another dream about kaddish, so different than the earlier one. In my dream it was Shabbat afternoon. I was in an auditorium. Children were there presenting a play, and I was in the audience. The children were having trouble; the director explained to the audience that some of the child actors were missing or unable to perform. Some time later I was sitting on a bench when one of the actors, a young girl of about eight years old, sat down next to me. She told me she wasn't feeling well. She asked me to feel her head. It was warm. She laid her head down on my lap. Just then I heard people starting to say kaddish. It was the end of the Shabbat mincha (afternoon) service. I was conflicted: should I stand up and say kaddish per my obligation or continue to sit and comfort the girl. I decided the girl needed me more than I needed to say kaddish. I didn't feel a compelling need to say kaddish any more. After the kaddish was over, I took the girl to the director; she ran toward him and he hugged her.

After the dream, I awoke and looked at the clock. It was 5:40. Mincha had already begun. I dressed hurriedly and got to shul in time to say kaddish.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The "honor" of holding the Torah

The holiday of Sukkot (Sukkos) began Sunday evening and lasts through next Sunday. It's definitely the most unusual holiday of the year. In shul, you take four plants, a Luluv (palm branch), an Etrog (citron), Hadas (mertle) and Aravot (willow branches), put them together and shake them. Then you take a Torah scroll out of the ark and march around it with your plants in a procession calling out "Hoshana" (save us). This Hoshana ceremony is as powerful as it is mysterious.

Just when I thought I knew everything about the obligations of being an avel (mourner), I learned that as a mourner, I don't get to participate in this procession. Instead, I get to hold the Torah. Or, if another mourner holds the Torah, I just stand there chanting along. Everyone else marches around. I didn't ask why I'm excluded but it's not too difficult to figure out: the procession is an expression of joy from which I, as a mourner, am excluded.

Holding the Torah while everyone else parades around is a perfect metaphor for the status of an avel in shul. You are singled out and made the focus of attention. You are called upon to lead prayers and say kaddish. Everyone is aware of your status as a mourner. There's no hiding it. The congregation responds to your words, whether you're davening or saying kaddish.

But while you're made a focal point, you are not fully part of the community. You don't participate in joyful activities. You don't lead prayers on the Sabbath or holidays. The mourner is at once honored and dishonored.

And so I was "honored" to hold the Torah. It's not a dubious honor. It's a real honor, but an honor whose origins lay in my very exclusion from the community of celebrators.

But it all makes sense in some way. The death of a parent may cause a rupture in your relationship with God. And so you are forced to get closer to God's revelation, the Torah. You hold the Torah either because, as a mourner, your pain somehow makes you closer to it or because your are forced to confront your distance from it. The possibility of escaping your sorrow into a experience of elation is denied. No dancing to the music or marching to shouts of salvation.

But, oh Lord, I want to be in that number . . .

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The end is near

One more week of kaddish to go. I've got mixed feelings. True, saying kaddish these days hasn't the same emotional power it had in the first few months after my mother died. I can't remember the last time my eyes teared saying kaddish. Now, to the extent any feelings arise when I say kaddish, I feel a general sense of loss and sadness. Still, I'm attached to my kaddishes. They're so much part of my daily routine. It's difficult to contemplate a life without them.

But, on the other hand, I can't wait to be done with the whole business! To be able to go to concerts, wear new clothing, go out whenever I want and not have to worry about minyan, wake up late on a Sunday, not have to rush to shul in time for kaddish.

I think that's one of the ideas of saying kaddish. Your parent's death is emotionally devastating. You need to create a routine that draws you out of your private grief into the broader community. You need the structure and time to feel and experience the pain. But eventually you begin to chafe at the restrictions. You're ready to have your life back.

It's like the story of the shtetl peasant who complained to the rabbi his house was too small. The rabbi told him to bring all his farm animals into his home. He could barely move. Then the rabbi told him to remove them. He had so much more room he stopped complaining about space. I'm ready to remove the animals and see what it feels like to resume what will pass for a normal life without my mother.