Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Kaddish and mortality

One of the "benefits" of shul membership is the more than occasional phone call and/or email informing you of the death of a shul member or relative of a member and the shiva plans. As I belong to two shuls, I get a double dose. Part of synagogue life is confronting the reality that people around you die.

Lately there have been a lot of phone calls about deaths and shivas. On Sunday I went to shul for morning minyan and counted around ten people saying kaddish. A friend is saying kaddish for his father.  An elderly gentleman and long-time shul member who survived the Holocaust is saying kaddish for his wife. One is saying kaddish for an aunt who has nobody else to say kaddish for her. Last week I attended a shiva minyan of a man whose mother died and it was difficult to get a minyan because there were several other shiva minyans at the same time. As someone said at the shiva home, we had been "inundated" with shivas in the community.

It's probably a good thing to be constantly reminded of death. It's easy to ignore it or pretend it doesn't exist. But that doesn't change the fact that these phone calls are about other people dying. It's not you. But here it is, having said kaddish for almost a year and yet I almost never thought to myself, "you know, some day my children (I hope) will be saying kaddish for me." That's why, in Yiddish, one's eldest son is referred to as a "kaddishl," literally a little kaddish, because some day that little boy (or nowadays girl as well) will be saying kaddish for his or her father and mother. I don't know when my life will end, but it will, and I just saw death up close. In my mother's last days, I saw the face of death (and it's not pretty). (See http://mykaddishyear.blogspot.com/2012/09/experiencing-my-mothers-death.html)

When you're saying kaddish, your focus, as it should be, is on the person who died. It doesn't really translate into your own mortality. But isn't that the subtext of all mourners' kaddishes? That human life, unlike the divine realm, is transient and temporary. Of course, as we live our lives, we can't really think about this too much for it is a paralyzing thought whose implications are unfathomable.

Many psalms refer to the idea of being saved from a near-death experience. (E.g., 30:4: "You brought me up from Sheol (the nether-world), gave me life from those gone down to the Pit"; 86:13: "For your kindness to me is great, and you saved my soul from Sheol"). This can be taken literally as having survived an illness or accident. But maybe it can also refer to experiencing a loved one's death. In a way, completing the kaddish year is like surviving an encounter with death, not our own death, but the taking away of a person whose existence was an essential part of your world and experiencing the loss and absence brought about by death.

I survived my mother's death. But not forever.