Thursday, May 24, 2012

The efficacy of kaddish

The topic of the Rabbi's D'var Torah (brief words of Torah) between Mincha and Ma'ariv has been kivud av v'aym (honoring one's parents).  The last few evenings, the Rabbi focused on honoring a deceased parent.  It turns out the commandment to honor your parents extends even after their death.  One way of honoring them is by saying kaddish.

Ask the average person, and they'd probably say that the benefit of saying kaddish is its therapeutic effect on the mourner.  Kaddish focuses the mourner on his or her loss, affirms one's commitment to God and links the mourner to the larger community as well as one's fellow mourners.

However, the Rabbi did not mention any of this.  Rather, he explored the traditional view of kaddish: its ability to aid the soul of the deceased.  Kaddish accomplishes this either by rescuing the soul from the fires of Gehenom (hell) or by elevating the soul to the higher levels of Gan Eden (heaven).    Kaddish is recited on the Sabbath because even though the soul's sufferings in Gehenom cease on the day of rest, kaddish remains effective in elevating the soul.  The benefit of kaddish to the soul also explains why it is recited more than once a day (the mandatory minimum), for each recitation helps to elevate the soul toward its intended destination.  It is also the reason that a parent's wish the child not recite kaddish should be disregarded, for if the parent truly knew the efficacy of kaddish in saving the deceased's soul, he or she would never have made such a request.  (For more information, see Leon Wieseltier's Book, Kaddish, which explores the sources that gave rise to these ideas.)

The Rabbi specifically mentioned he could not answer any questions about these ideas, for they derive from mystical beliefs that cannot be rationally explained.  (The request for "no questions please" made me chuckle.)  Such ideas do not hold much meaning for me.  It's difficult to believe that my words are affecting my mother's soul or that, given all she did for others--her clients, friends, husband, children, grandchildren, the state of Israel--and the peace she achieved in her last days with her impending death and with her relationship with God, that she needs my words to find eternal rest. Perhaps, as with other matters of faith, I will in time come to understand these ideas more fully.  As with many other Jewish practices, it is action rather than belief that takes precedence.  I will continue reciting my eight kaddishes a day, even if they aren't doing anything for my mother's soul.  If they are, so much the better.

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