Being In Shul

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By Larry Gordon

Yom tov this year was about matzah, meals, and Kaddish. In the aftermath of my mother’s passing away two weeks before Pesach, my aim was to focus on the season of our redemption along with the new adherence to what it means to be in shul for that first Kaddish and remaining there until the last one is recited at the conclusion of davening.

There’s no skimping out or cheating. The idea is to recite the Kaddish with a twofold objective—supporting my mom’s soul on her journey to a world that defies human comprehension, and righting my jolted faith in the aftermath of this loss, which I am in the process of adjusting to.

Kaddish is, more than anything, the endeavor that proclaims our unending faith in Hashem’s goodness despite the natural doubts that creep into our minds during those quiet, thoughtful times. We are instructed by a lifetime of preparation that not only is He unlimited, but that we are so terribly and desperately inept in our ability to understand.

So I’m spending a lot of time in shul or thinking about being in shul. When I’m there, I’m there. When I’m not, I’m thinking about the next time I’m going to be there. Weekday services are pretty simple. You say Kaddish toward the beginning and then a couple of times at the end of the service. Shabbos and yom tov are a little different, with Kaddish sprinkled through various parts of the davening.

So here are a few observations about being an avel and saying Kaddish in shul through three (or more) distinct tefillos on a daily basis. One of the interesting things about having that Kaddish spotlight cast on you is the matter of how many other people are also saying Kaddish, which requires the additional focus of reciting the chant on an even keel and in unison with the other mourners. For example, when the chazzan concludes prayers that the liturgy dictates are followed by reciting Kaddish, I get a sense sometimes that I’m at the gate with an imaginary voice announcing, “And they’re off.”

But we are very much “on.” With Kaddish, you never know how many others will be saying it with you. I was away over yom tov, and in the shul I was in, sometimes there was an entire Kaddish choir, and at other times, mysteriously, I was the only one. We were in a hotel with over 1,000 people, and folks just ended up at different minyanim at different times.

When I am the only one saying Kaddish, it reminds me of a game we used to play when we were young children. One of my brothers and several other friends used to make believe we were having our own minyan. My role in this setup was always the guy who said Kaddish at the end of the service. I’m not sure now why I liked that particular role, but obviously something about it caught my attention and I found it intriguing.

When I’m the only one saying Kaddish in a minyan of 100 people or more—as was the case over Pesach—it is both an outstanding and a lonely effort. People who recite Kaddish together tend to sometimes bond with one another. There is an immediate affinity as well as curiosity about the circumstances that led them to this point. They usually lost a parent, but it’s interesting and almost kind of helpful to get the lowdown on the unhappy details. So I have not determined yet which is more helpful—saying Kaddish by myself or reciting it along with others. Contemplating the matter now, I think that the balance offered by both situations is all part of the healing process in the almost yearlong endeavor.

It is a somewhat lonely matter, no matter how many people are saying Kaddish with you. Saying Kaddish in unison with others can be a challenge. There are few things as discombobulating as people reciting Kaddish in an uncoordinated fashion. It doesn’t do Kaddish justice and it is confusing for those who want to answer Amen at the right points in the recitation.

The last time I said the Mourners’ Kaddish was 27 years ago, after my father passed away. It’s still early in the process, but I’m trying to discern the difference, if there is any, between then and now. Before that, my only experience was observing my father saying Kaddish for his parents many years ago. My dad also recited the year of Kaddish for my mother’s parents, who both passed away in the mid-1970s.

So I am once again a Kaddish-sayer after a long respite, for which I suppose I am grateful. There are a lot of things that I still want to say about my mom and, yes, about my father, too, so I hope the readers will bear with me as I cerebrally work this all out. The Sheloshim for my mom halachically ended on erev Pesach, but the numerical 30 days conclude this weekend. With the passage of these 30 days, the mourning is supposed to reduce itself or subside a notch. Yom tov distracts and even detracts from the mourning process. I wanted my mom around forever, but that desire collides with reality in all instances, which we have no choice but to accept.

In a sense, for now anyway, all that we have left is this year of Kaddish. We scrupulously adhere to the tefillah schedule by virtue of our training and, in my case, the fashion in which we observed our parents conduct themselves when they were in our position many years ago.

This all reminds me of the interplay that took place between G‑d and Moshe Rabbeinu in Sefer Devarim as Moshe is told that not only would he not lead the Jewish people into the land of Israel, but that he would climb Har Nevo, where he would expire. Moshe prayed with great fervor for Hashem to reverse that decree. Moshe probably figured that if anyone could change the mind of the Divine, it was he; after all, he’d had some success in the past with similar issues.

So we learn that Moshe davened 515 prayers beseeching Hashem to let him into Eretz Yisrael. At that point, Hashem commanded or demanded that he not utter another prayer. The commentators explain that if Moshe had recited one more prayer, Hashem would have had no choice, so to speak, but to relent, which would have dramatically reconfigured the course of our history.

What was that 516th prayer which, had Moshe uttered it, would have changed everything and turned it all around? I once heard a great rabbi say that prayer 516 was “Yisgadal V’yiskadaysh Sh’meih Rabbah.” And if you take the first letters of those four words—the initial words of Kaddish—and add their numerical value, it adds up to 516. Kaddish has the ability to be a game-changer—to reverse Divine decrees and alter the course of history.

So will my Kaddish for my mom change anything? I hope it does. I’m trying. Let’s all say together—Amen.

Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at editor@5tjt.com.

 

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