By Larry Gordon
This is the halfway mark in my Kaddish odyssey, which started shortly before Pesach and continues in a fashion that has redefined my daily and nightly routine. Reflecting upon the experience at this juncture, at the advent of Rosh Hashanah, leads one to ponder the commitment to a practice that maintains an audible connection to my mom, who lived a good and exemplary life on so many levels.
It is also the halfway mark for my brothers-in-law who are saying Kaddish for their father—my father-in-law—who passed away, you might recall, one week after my mother.
An additional reason to revisit this story that I have related in this space over the last six months is that over the past month two babies have been born in the family—one male and one female—one that now bears my mother’s name and the other my father-in-law’s name. For those of you who have been down this lifecycle road, perhaps you will agree that the process is somewhat surreal and even difficult to reconcile.
For me this goes back 25 years, when we named our son Nison after my father, who passed away a couple of years prior to our son’s birth. Frankly, I had a difficult time saying the name. I expected to feel that way even as I anticipated the birth of a baby boy who would bear a name that all my life was hallowed and even sacred to me because it was my father’s name.
It looks to me that, amongst other things, Kaddish is a conduit of sorts, a bridge that separates while holding on at the same time, if that is possible. As I was contemplating these issues on Monday morning, my other computer screen displayed the 9/11 memorial ceremonies taking place at Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center attack that took place 16 years ago.
Loved ones were reading the names of those who perished on that day in 2001. As they read the approximately 3,000 names, the readers paused at certain intervals when they reached the name of a loved one who died in that still shocking and cowardly terror attack on New York and the heart of the American spirit.
The readers of the names spoke directly to the loved one whom they lost and still miss so dearly. One spoke about her brother’s sense of humor, his powerful intellect, and the way in which she enjoyed their conversations that she now misses so much. Another man spoke about his brother who missed his son’s graduation from college and his two daughters’ weddings that took place in this last year, six months apart. The latter said that he hopes his brother is looking down and protecting his family, but still, he said, addressing his brother, “You belong here.”
Sixteen years is a long time, but memories from 2001 come rushing back—not unlike the torrents of water that we witnessed in recent days as storms ravaged Houston and South Florida. And then with one eye and ear on the nearby news broadcast, I stop and pay attention when I hear that to this day, the remains of 40% of the victims of those attacks have still not been identified. It’s unfathomable and painful to even contemplate.
The year passes by, we are all distracted and busy, but still on our modern-day 9/11, we observe and commemorate in silence and recite a quiet communal Kaddish remembering and declaring—in seemingly contradictory terms—our abiding faith that also seems so incongruous with the pain of our losses.
It looks like, to this observer anyway, Kaddish is that exact and precise crossroads. It is the language that connects us to our loved ones not just through this first 11 months of mourning but on an annual basis through eternity.
And sometimes it is our silence that speaks in the most declarative fashion. For example, there is the matter of the fact that this coming Shabbos we will not “bentch rosh chodesh,” bless the advent of the upcoming month of Tishrei the way we do every other month around the year.
Also, next Wednesday, on erev Rosh Hashanah, we will abstain from blowing the shofar while resuming the sounding of the ram’s horn on the next two days over the yom tov as is the tradition.
Our commentators say that the reason for these two departures from our usual plans is so as to confuse and distract our heavenly accusers who will figure that the abstention has come about as a result of two considerations. If he (and I’m only imagining it is a he) senses that the Jewish people forgot the great mitzvah of blessing the new moon or the mitzvah of sounding the shofar on a day of the month of Elul, then we will have done his job for him. That is, he will not have to prosecute or point out our shortcomings as they are rather obvious.
A similar theory postulates that we deliberately skip over rosh chodesh bentching on this all-important month of Tishrei and “forget” about blowing the shofar as a way of deceiving the Satan, so as to make him think that both days already passed and therefore there is no reason for prosecution; what is done is done, and he will just move on and busy himself with something else.
Another way to view this change in routine is from a completely different vantage point. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in a dissertation on the subject, sees these events somewhat differently. The Rebbe says that if we think into the practice of voluntarily not blessing the chodesh or intentionally avoiding shofar blowing, we will be struck with an air of disbelief. How is it, we might feel, that we can sacrifice such important and valuable mitzvos like birkas ha’chodesh and tekiyas shofar just so we can manage to hopefully avoid being prosecuted by the heavenly tribunal on the Jewish New Year.
Grasping this great sacrifice will hopefully shake us up and will force us to come to grips with our behavior and how we may have conducted ourselves over the last year, leading to an epiphany focused on true teshuvah.
And then there is the usual close proximity of the 9/11 commemorations to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the High Holy Days. The Islamic terror assault on the U.S. and downtown New York City has a way of driving people in the direction of seasonal introspection. It is also important to note that the 9/11 attack was not the first of its kind.
Eight years earlier, in 1993, there was a first attempt to blow up and bring down the WTC that did not work out quite the way the terrorists had intended, though six people lost their lives. The very first Islamic terror assault in New York was directed at the Jewish community. That was on November 5, 1990, when El Sayyid Nosair murdered Rabbi Meir Kahane on the East Side of Manhattan. So 9/11 was a colossal tragedy, but not really anything new.
Which brings me to the headline of this essay: “Kaddish at Halftime.” After rereading these paragraphs, it occurs to me that there are really no references at all to anything even resembling football. So let’s just say that after yom tov, once we change the clock and the NFL playoffs arrive, it might sometimes be a challenge to pull away from the big game when it gets dark at 4 or 4:30 in the afternoon. That might have been an issue sometime in the past, but I don’t see that being a matter of any import going forward.
As this year begins to fade into history, we are looking forward to great days ahead, remembering those who left us this year, always being mindful of those we lost on 9/11, and looking forward to drawing closer to G‑d through our tefillos. Now that’s a great way to kick off a New Year.
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.