— Honoring the conclusion of reciting Kaddish for my father, Gershon Jacobson, Nissan 19 5766, April 17, 2006 —
I am G-d Who lifted you out of Egypt to be your G-d. Therefore be holy since I am holy – end of this week’s Torah portion (Leviticus 11:45)
Is there anything more powerful than death?
Attempts to beat mortality have consumed man from the beginning of time. The Pharaoh’s of old tried to achieve immortality through embalmment. Today some are trying through cryogenic freezing. Even our cosmetics industry, botox and all, is part of the timeless quest desperately searching for the “fountain of youth,” anything that can arrest the aging process.
These efforts have only been accentuated by the human fear of death. Some argue that the fear of death is the root of all fears, and the driving force that shapes most (if not all) of our ambitions to leave a lasting mark on the universe; to be remembered even after death.
Indeed, some religions and philosophies feel that the refusal of human beings to acknowledge the imminence of death and impermanence is a fundamental cause of the confusion and ignorance that prevents spiritual progress. Spiritual growth, they believe, is achieved not by cowering from death, but by confronting it head on. They therefore prescribe an elaborate strategy to incorporate into daily life the mindfulness of death, to seriously engage the truth of impermanence and, in turn, to comprehend the true nature of human existence.
Yet other religious persuasions view the material world as fundamentally evil, only meant to be a springboard to the spiritual delights of heaven, when we will be freed of the shackles of this corrupt universe. Some fanatic elements even glorify death, especially martyrdom, as a direct ticket to heavenly reward.
But after all the attempts, and after everything is said and done, nothing seems to be able to beat death.
But after all the attempts, and after everything is said and done, nothing seems to be able to beat death.
And so I thought. Until… Until I lost my father and began saying Kaddish for him every day – 16 times a day on average, for a total of 5212 times during these past eleven months (1) – the traditional period for saying Kaddish after a parent, which my siblings and I have just concluded.
Kaddish has many meanings and many benefits. The Talmudists explain how it protects the soul from harsh judgments; how it serves as a merit to the life of the departed. The mystics explain how it helps the soul elevate from level to level, from world to world.
Following the death of his father, Leon Wieseltier wrote his fascinating journal-like book, Kaddish, documenting his personal Kaddish journey, juxtaposed over his research in the background and sources of the Kaddish prayer.
Death is a profound personal experience – perhaps the most defining one in our entire lives. As such, each of us experiences Kaddish differently.
I will therefore briefly share one aspect of my subjective journey.
But first let us look at the actual Kaddish text:
Yeetgadal v’yeetkadash sh’mey rabbah
Exalted and hallowed be His great Name
B’almah dee v’rah kheer’utey
throughout the world which He has created according to His will.
v’ yamleekh malkhutei, v’yatzmach purkonei vikorov mishichei
May He establish His kingship, give blossom to His redemption and hasten [the [coming of] His Messiah.
b’chahyeykhohn, uv’ yohmeykhohn, uv’chahyei d’chohl beyt yisrael,
in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire House of Israel,
ba’agalah u’veez’man kareev, v’eemru: Amein.
speedily and soon. And say: Amen.
Y’hey sh’met rabbah m’varach l’alam u’l’almey almahyah.
May His great Name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Yeet’barakh, v’yeesh’tabach, v’yeetpa’ar, v’yeetrohmam, v’yeet’nasei,
Blessed and praised, glorified, exalted and extolled,
v’ yeet’hadar, v’ yeet’aleh, v’ yeet’halal sh’mey d’kudshah b’reekh hoo
honored, upraised and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed be He
L’eylah meen kohl beerkhatah v’sheeratah,
beyond all the blessings and songs,
toosh’b’chatah v’nechematah, da’ameeran b’al’mah, v’eemru: Amein
praises and consolations that are uttered in the world. And say: Amen.
Y’hei shlamah rabbah meen sh’mahyah,v’chahyeem tovim aleynu
May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and a good life for us
v’al kohl yisrael, v’eemru: Amein
and for all Israel. And say: Amen.
Oseh shalom beem’roh’mahv, hoo ya’aseh shalom,
He Who makes peace in His heights [heavens], may He make peace,
aleynu v’al kohl yisrael v’eemru: Amein
for us and for all Israel. And say: Amen.
The most blatant omission in Kaddish is the soul of the deceased. Not even the slightest mention is made about our beloved one, not even about his or her soul. The entire Kaddish focuses exclusively on the Divine, exalting the greatness of G-d and His great name. Even when we briefly mention the benefit of “peace” and “good life,” it is only in context of connecting to G-d.
But therein lies the power of Kaddish, and its ability to conquer death and the pain of loss.
In its infinite wisdom, Kaddish knows that nothing can really be said to console us for our losses. No words can justify or minimize the far-reaching effects of experiencing death. Even the great Moses shuddered when confronted with death.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, can conquer the mystery of death. Its finality —I no longer can speak with my father — is just too overwhelming, too unfathomable for our beings to contain.
Yes, we can talk about the deceased as perhaps a nice memory, but it hardly compensates for the loss. Any attempt to remember or reflect on the life of the deceased, any effort to build something in his memory, is only as powerful as the mortal strength we invest in the effort. As mortals ourselves how can we ever expect to defy and conquer mortality?
The only thing that can subdue the sheer inscrutability of death is the Source of all reality – a place that precedes and transcends life and death. The big question “why do people die” is linked to the even bigger question “why are people born?” The mystery of death is entwined with the mystery of life. However, with our limited knowledge we are much more concerned with the former question than the latter. When we lose something we wonder why; when we have it we often take it for granted.
The only thing more powerful than death is not life (as we know it), but the source of life, the One who gives and takes life. As Beruriah, the great wife of Rabbi Meir, consoled her husband, upon the death of their two sons, with words to this effect: “A soul is comparable to an object which was given to us – to each individual, to his or her parents and loved ones, to guard and watch over for a limited time. When the time comes for the object to be returned to its rightful owner, should we not be willing to return it? With regard to our sons, let us therefore consider the matter as ‘The L-rd gave, and the L-rd took back, may the Name of the L-rd be Blessed!’”
Kaddish embraces you and your loss like nothing can.
Kaddish embraces you and your loss like nothing can. We don’t focus on our own pain and loss, we don’t focus on the departed life – but on the source of all life, the source of the immortal soul — Yeetgadal v’yeetkadash sh’mey Rabbah.
In your time of need, in your moment of loss, when nothing can truly console you – death is just too final, too impenetrable – the sanctity of G-d in Kaddish, hugs you in its tight embrace, never letting go. For eleven straight months, three times a day, Kaddish, over 5200 times – yes, five thousand two hundred times – we are completely engulfed in glorifying G-d’s name, as it cradles us in its grasp.
Nothing else would do.
So is there anything more powerful than death? Can we ever beat death? Not if we hold on to our limited vision of life. Life is not stronger than death. On the contrary; Death ends life as we know it.
But if we embrace the Giver of life — or rather allow Him to embrace us — through the Kaddish — Yeetgadal v’yeetkadash sh’mey Rabbah — then we achieve immortality. We connect to the immortal soul of the departed, and to the source of all immortality.
Life alone does not beat death. But life with purpose – with Divine purpose – beats death.
This is the ultimate view of Torah on death: As opposed to the abovementioned beliefs, Judaism does not accept death as the final destination, neither does it embrace or glorify death; death remains an aberration (a result of the sin of the Tree of Knowledge). The Torah also recognizes this world as dark and cruel, but only on the surface; within its very fiber materialism contains enormous stores of spiritual energy, only to be released though our acts of virtue (mitzvot), which refine the world into a place which can co-exist and be fully integrated with spirit. Sin and evil in the world temporarily conceal the hidden “sparks” (energy) and eventually bring on death – a temporary separation between the body from its soul, which is eternal and lives on even after death. But through our connection to G-d (Yeetgadal v’yeetkadash sh’mey Rabbah) and through our efforts of refining matter and releasing its Divine energy we prepare the universe for its ultimate experience – when death will no longer be, and the body will be reunited forever with its soul.
So, thank you little Kaddishel. Thank you for being there for me, for embracing me in my time of loss, for protecting me against the finality of death, for teaching me the secret of immortality. Thank you for allowing me to connect in ways I never imagined possible to the purpose of it all, to the purpose of my existence.
Thank you Kaddishel.
Now I bid you farewell. I hope we never meet again.
(1) The calculation of 5212 was deduced this way: Our custom (Chabad) is to say Kaddish (at least) 16 times each weekday (as the Rebbe Rashab writes): 8 times in the morning service; 4 times both in the afternoon and evening service. Additionally, we say Kaddish one more time after the Psalms in the morning and before the Amidah in the evening, totaling 18 times Kaddish each weekday. On Shabbat, Holidays and Rosh Chodosh, when we don’t lead the minyan, we say Kaddish 9-13 times daily. On Erev Shabbat, Yom Tov and Rosh Chodosh, we say Kaddish 15 times (with some exceptions). On the Shabbat when we bless the New Month and Yom Kippur eve another 5 times Kaddish is said, following each of the five books of Psalms.
Throughout the year (eleven months minus one day) since the passing, there were 189 weekdays, 133 days of Shabbat, Holidays and Rosh Chodosh (some days overlap with each other), including Erev (the day preceding) Shabbat, holidays and Rosh Chodosh, 11 Shabbat Mevorchim’s and 1 Yom Kippur, the resulting totals for the entire year are:
189 x 18 = 3402
133 x 13 = 1729 + 21 (to cover for the days when Kaddish is said more than 13 times) = 1750
12 x 5 = 60
TOTAL = 5212
It should also be noted that there are four types of Kaddish: Mourners, Short, Complete, Rabbinic.