Why I say kaddish for my father


(RNS) — It has been five years since my father died at the almost biblical age of 98, and I still cannot find his grave.

There is a reason for that. He and my late stepmother chose to be buried in a “memorial park” rather than in a cemetery.

Specifically, they did not want large gravestones with names of departed loved ones interfering with a pristine view of what could be a golf course.

No, they wanted “tasteful” plaques in the ground, upon which those names are inscribed.

This is precisely what Ernest Becker described in his book “The Denial of Death.” It goes along with our societal allergy to even mentioning death. No one dies anymore. It’s all “passed,” “passed away” and “left us.”

No matter. There I am this week, on my father’s precise yahrzeit, saying kaddish at my father’s grave. I finally found it by doing what I always do — seeing the gate through which I entered the, ahem, memorial park, and then trying to remember my precise spot, on that day five years ago, when I became an orphan.

My father would have scoffed at my practice. I cannot remember him ever marking his own parents’ yahrzeit. He would have said: “Life is for the living,” or the equally Hallmark-esque: “I remember them in my own way.”

So, why do I say kaddish for my parents?

First: It is a Jewish tradition, and for many Jews, that would be sufficient reason to do so.

Second: It is a mitzvah. Especially when we say kaddish for our parents who have died, it is an extension of the fifth commandment, which teaches us to honor our parents.

Third: It helps us remember the dead and to stand, symbolically, in their presence. Henrietta Szold, the American founder of Hadassah, once described kaddish as a way for survivors to say that they “wish and intend to assume the relation to the Jewish community which the parent had.”

But, while we like to say that kaddish helps us remember the dead, once upon a time it had great power — over the dead, themselves!

What kind of power?

Traditional Judaism has always believed in some kind of life after death. The Bible calls the realm of the dead Sheol — a dark pit beneath the earth. Over time, that idea became olam ha-ba, the world to come, or Gan Eden, the heavenly Garden of Eden. The belief in life after death is a unifying factor in Western religion; Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe in it, in some form.

People sometimes ask: “Does Judaism believe in hell?”

Not really. Judaism does have a belief in Gehenna, a place where really bad sinners go after death to become purified of their sins. Sinners would go there for up to 12 months, and then they would “graduate” from Gehenna and go on to olam ha-ba.

What could redeem a person from Gehenna?

If their child said kaddish for them.

In the early Middle Ages, there was a legend about the famous Rabbi Akiva, perhaps the greatest sage of early Judaism.

He was wandering in a cemetery late at night, and he met a man who was carrying a heavy pile of wood.

“What have you done, that you deserve such a punishment?” he asked him.

The man answered: “I was a tax collector, and I created policies that favored the rich over the poor.”

Notice the man’s sin: It was not a failure of personal ethical behavior. He did a reverse Robin Hood — that he stole from the poor to favor the rich.

It was a failure of social justice.

“Is there anything that you can do that will save you from such a punishment?” Akiba asked him.

“Yes,” he said. “Find my son; teach him how to say kaddish for me; and I will be saved from this painful fate.”

The man would have gone on to olam ha-ba, or the Garden of Eden.

All because of that one prayer — kaddish.

That is one reason why kaddish became so important and so crucial to the lives of so many Jews. Jews wanted someone to say kaddish for them, and if they had no children, they would sometimes hire someone, even a stranger, to do so. Years ago, there was even a toll-free number that you could call to arrange for someone to say kaddish.

For many Jews, it is simply that important.

It’s about immortality.

I believe that God, the Soul of the Universe, takes care of human souls and that the soul abides with God forever.

I believe those words, as have generations of my ancestors. In that sense, I have inherited their faith.

The greatest Jewish invention is a four-letter word — a four-letter word both in English and in Hebrew — a four-letter word that is the national anthem of the Jewish people.

Hope. Tikvah.

Jews invented the idea of hope — that tomorrow might be better than today; that history is moving forward; that a messianic age will come if we help bring it to fruition; that the return of Jews to sovereignty in the land of their ancestors is the summation of Jewish hope in history — and, yes — that the soul lives on.

I carried those words, those ideas, and yes, those hopes with me into the memorial park when I said kaddish for my father.

It has been five years since his death. Ever since Oct. 7, I have wondered: What would Dad have said about all this?

I think — no, I know — that he would have railed against the unfathomable evil of that day.

And, I think — no, I know — that he would have wanted his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren to have maintained hope.

Which I do.

As hard as it often is, I do.

Source link

Related Articles

Do you run a company that want to build a new website and are looking for a web agency in Sweden that can do the job? At Partna you can get connected to experienced web agencies that are interested in helping you with your website development. Partna is an online service where you simply post your web development needs in order to get business offers from skilled web agencies in Sweden. Instead of reaching out to hundreds of agencies by yourself, let up to 5 web agencies come to you via Partna.
Back to top button