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. Depending on the layout of the shul, 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 Yahrzeit of my mother and beyond, I pray that her legacy will continue to live on in her children, grandchildren and beyond.

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