CONFRONTING KDS: KADDISH DEFICIENCY SYNDROME
Kol Nidre 5771 / September 17, 2010
Rabbi Donald B. Rossoff
Temple B’nai Or, Morristown, NJ
Friends, since Yom Kippur is a time for confessions, I am going to confess something to you. No, I am not publically confessing all of my sins; it would take too long. I am sharing with you a condition with which I have lived for a long time and simply have never spoken of before — nothing to really worry about — well, maybe a little. It’s an occupational hazard, this condition, for it seems to be common to most congregational rabbis. I suffer from the effects of KDS. KDS stands for Kaddish Deficiency Syndrome. The effects of KDS involve the mouth, the memory, and the eyes, but it does its greatest damage to the heart.
In order to understand the nature of KDS, Kaddish Deficiency Syndrome, and perhaps look for a cure, we need to understand this thing we call Kaddish: what it is, why we say it, how it works, and what it does.
We think of the Kaddish — you know: yitgadal v’yitkadash shemay rabbah — as not a prayer for the dead but a doxology, a sanctification of God’s name and a prayer which asks that God’s Reign on earth come soon, while we’re all still here. The prayer has roots in post-biblical antiquity and probably has similar origins as the Lord’s Prayer, which became standard within Christianity. The Kaddish was initially used to conclude a learned lecture. Later, in a shortened form, the Chatzi Kaddish, it made its way into the standard everyday prayers, serving to make a transition between sections of the worship.
It is not exactly clear how the Kaddish became associated with mourning the dead. Kaddish Yatom, the Mourners’ Kaddish, seems to have appeared sometime in the 13th century, and many think it arose following the first Crusade and its devastating and murderous effects on the Jews of central Europe.
There arose a popular belief, controversial at the time, that the Kaddish can save a soul from suffering in Gehinom, our version of hell, and elevate its journey to heaven. That eventually became the traditional belief, that having a son – and in some opinions, a daughter – reciting Kaddish for a parent helps them in Olam Haba, the world to come. Put another way by Rabbi Denise Eiger, “Our recitation of the Kaddish prayer helps to release the soul, calm it, and help it on its journey to return to God.”[i]
Others suggest that the connection between Kaddish and mourning is the perspective it lends on life. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik taught that we say Kaddish to help reconcile personal tragedy with the big picture. As we praise God, we acknowledge that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, be it a plan in the mind of God or a pattern in the natural cycle of life and death.
Many see saying Kaddish as a submission to God’s will. For some, that means believing the death of that particular person in that particular way at that particular time was a conscious act of God for good reasons God only knows. For others, submitting to God’s will means understanding that the natural forces through which God nudged life to evolve necessitated vulnerability and mortality in order for there to be any life at all. That is more my style.
And of course, when we say v’yamlich malchutay – “may God’s Kingdom reign,” we admit that the world is not yet redeemed. The world is not what God wants it to be, not yet, but someday it will be. When that time comes, we will be united with our dear ones again. When the Kingdom reigns, there will be no death or separation or sadness; but for now, there is. Consequently we pray Yheay shalma rabba min shamaya v’chaim – “may we be granted abundant peace and life” in the meantime, ’til the Kingdom comes.
Others point out that saying Kaddish is not just about the words, which may be no more than a mantra anyway. Kaddish is about the setting in which it is recited, and especially about the people in that setting. Kaddish is about community. In his book The New Black: Mourning, Melencholia and Depression, Darian Leader writes, “Grief is our reaction to a loss; but mourning is how we process that grief…[ii] Freud saw mourning as an individual task, yet every documented human society gives a central place to public mourning rituals…. These involved not just the bereaved individual and their immediate family, but the much larger social group…” “Mourning,” Leader argues, “requires other people.”[iii]
Observing Kaddish in community provides those other people who can help us through our grief and support us as we do the work of mourning, even years after our loss, for grief is a forever thing. Reciting Kaddish in community shows us we are not alone when we mourn, and we are not the only ones who do.
Finally, there is a precious midrash that teaches that God is grieving. Three times a day God weeps for having to have put us in exile. But when we say y’heh shmey rabbah mvorach l’alal u’lolmey almayah, praising and sanctifying the name of God despite what God did to us, we are actually comforting God, perhaps even easing God’s guilt. And if you are a mystic like me, comforting and consoling God means adding comfort and compassion to existence itself. Kaddish is not magical, but its effects can be cosmic. That’s a mighty powerful thought! Regardless of exactly how this came to be, it has been Jewish practice for the immediate relatives of the deceased to recite Kaddish for him or her in a synagogue or minyan during Shiva, daily during the first week following the burial and throughout the first year, along with Yizkor and Yahrzeit. The Yizkor service is also known as “Hazkarat nefashot — remembering of souls.” It is held for us on the afternoon of Yom Kippur and the last dates of the three festivals: Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. During Yizkor, we pray that God keep the souls of those who have passed during that year and we read aloud the names of those who died during that year. Yahrzeit is the yearly communal recitation of Kaddish on the anniversary of the death, and we read the names for that week during Friday evening Shabbat services. Reading the names at Yizkor and Yahrzeit, we remember them and keep them in mind as we praise the God of life, pray for a better day and for peace to come to all.
And it is this reading of the names that sometimes subjects me to the effects of KDS, Kaddish Deficiency Syndrome.
You see, as I read the Yarhzeit and Yizkor lists, very often memories are sparked, memories of the persons whose names I am reciting. You would not believe how active my memory is while I am reading that list, not just trying to remember the correct pronunciation, but also seeing in my mind’s eye all the faces I might associate with the name. I raise my eyes and look for the faces I would expect would be there. When I see them in the congregation and our eyes meet, there is often a moment of recognition and connection by which I try to communicate, “I know, I know.” I have read a name that endures, because it is echoed back by a life.
And when the faces I would hope to see are not there, then my heart is saddened, saddened for the passing of the dead and the absence of the living. Like I said, KDS affects the heart.
Now, if you are feeling that I am thinking about you in particular that Shabbat you weren’t here, don’t worry, my memory is simply not that good. It is actually easier to remember those who are there than those who are not. And don’t take it personally, it’s not just you. KDS is rampant these days, when we are so frantically coping with today that pausing to think about yesterday and sometimes even tomorrow is seen more of a distraction than an opportunity, more a bother than an obligation, more a hassle than a mitzvah.
In evaluating my pained reaction when exposed to deficient Kaddishing, and looking for a possible cure, the first question I have to ask myself is why am I so susceptible to the syndrome? In other words, why do I care? What does it matter to me if others say Kaddish for their dear ones or not? After all, it’s their lives and their loss.
Is it that increased Kaddish observance would bring more people to services? Well, sure, that is part of it. But there is more. I feel something precious is slowly disappearing, something that is an essential part of personally and Jewishly connecting past to present, and the point of being a rabbi or cantor is to enrich and increase the level of your community’s Jewish living and learning, not preside over its decline. I also feel that the loss of Kaddish represents a loss of connecting memory with spirituality. And to the extent that those whose names I intoned had themselves been Kaddish sayers, something of their Jewish legacy is being allowed to wash away, like footprints on the sand after a wave. And finally, crazy as it sounds, sometimes when I read names, I almost feel like the name is calling out but there is no echo because there is no one who could connect a name with a life, perhaps only me.
I honor the concept of the community carrying on the names even when there are no direct mourners, although I don’t believe in vicarious Kaddish – having someone else to perform the mitzvah on your behalf. Kaddish is not a commodity or a consignment or a convenience; Kaddish is a consecrated connection with kin.
OK, so I guess I can’t help but care. So then how do I encourage people to be more observant of the mitzvot of Yahrzeit and Yizkor and lower the incidences of KDS? If we were Orthodox, it would be much easier. I would teach you that Kaddish is a mitzvah, commanded by the Holy One, something you need to observe because it is what your Tateh in Heaven wants. I would remind you that saying the Kaddish eases the hellish suffering of the soul for whom it is said and increases its heavenly joy in Olam Haba, the world to come. And surely you would want that for your dear ones, wouldn’t you?
But I can’t do any of that and wouldn’t if I could. Many people believe in mitzvah as the explicit will of God and the concept of reward and punishment in the afterlife, and God bless them one and all; but I don’t.
Yes, Kaddish in community is a mitzvah, an extremely important, time-honored, psychologically sound, beautiful, indeed Godly, mitzvah, but we are not Orthodox and I don’t know the mind of God any better than you do. (And if someone tells you they do, run away – quickly!)
And it is not that I don’t believe in some sort of life after death, the immortality of the soul; I do. Reform Judaism affirms immortality, and I resonate with that. I comfort with it and am comforted by it. But I think the traditional concepts of reward and punishment, of heaven and. hell, are theological tools to keep believers in line, and to reassure them that when life seems unjust, God will make everything right, if not in this world then in the next. I am more of a heaven-only believer. Personally, to paraphrase Elbert Hubbard, I believe we are not punished for our sins in the next world, we are punished by our sins in this one.
So, in thinking about what might, might get others to observe Yizkor and Yahrzeit, I realized I have to ask myself, why do I do it? Why is it important to me? Why do I say Kaddish for my parents in Temple – even when I am not in our Temple?
You may know that I lost my parents, Rosetta and Mac Rossoff, of blessed memory, when I was quite young – both in their early 30’s, both to cancer. I was about 20 months old when my father died, just over 4 when my mother passed away. I have absolutely no conscious memory of my father and scant memory of my mother.
My older brother Larry and I were raised by our mother’s parents, Dr. Irwin and Nettie Epstein, of blessed memory. Ours was an observant and Temple-oriented Reform household with very deep Jewish roots. On a normal Friday evening, we would light the Shabbat candles, have dinner, then either go to Temple or stay home and watch the boxing matches on TV. But we were just as likely to go to services as not, and of course we were always there for my mother’s and father’s Yahrziets. I don’t even remember ever actually learning to read the Kaddish – it was like a companion I grew up with, part of the family who was always just there.
Back then, we prayed in Ashkenzi Hebrew, Yisgadal v’yiskadash, sh’may robaw. Sometimes when we prayed “l’aylaw min kol birchawsaw v’shirawsaw,” in my mind I put an “f” at the end of the phrase, making it “birchawsaw v’shiRossoff.” Look, the Kaddish knows my name! Not only was the prayer personal but personalized! Like I said, part of the family. So I guess that I do what I do because it is a family thing. I observe Kaddish now because we always did it, and as long as I keep it up, there will be a “we” to talk about.
But as I reflected a bit more deeply on why saying Kaddish has been important to me, I discovered another reason, one that is probably specific to my situation, hopefully not to yours.
It’s that saying Kaddish for my parents on the dates that they died has been an essential way of experiencing the fact that they lived at all. Of course, I am their progeny, genetically 50% of each, and I know each of them left an early imprint on me, in their presence and in their absence. But with little or no memory of them, not knowing how they did this or what their opinions were about that or knowing what made them laugh or cry, there is not much that is of the heart to connect with them. I don’t even remember what their voices sounded like, although I was told once that I talk like my mother.
I had heard stories about them, although fewer than you might imagine; my grandparents coped with their losses with a ‘50s philosophy of not looking back: You don’t talk about death, especially not with children.
So along with a handful of stories, what is left of my parents in my life are those fleeting memories of my mother, their wedding album and a number of assorted pictures, a couple of letters somewhere, my father’s Army discharge papers, perhaps 2 or 3 minutes of home movies (silent of course), a watch and two name bracelets, some silver plate and some steak knives — wedding gifts they never used — their death certificates, their genes, their graves… and the Kaddish. So honoring their deaths is one of the living things that makes them real to me. And with that comes a modicum of comfort, knowing that I can still carry that part of my past with me into my present. Leon Wieseltier in his monumental work, Kaddish, writes, “Whatever happens to the past will happen to it posthumously. And so the saga of the family is also the saga of the tradition.”[iv] The saga of my family is refracted through the words of my Kaddish. And that is why it means so much to me.
This summer, I was given another lesson about memory and connection from my family’s saga. I discovered this gift as I read a cousin’s translation of a handwritten document entitled “Zichronot l’Asher Anshel mibayt Rozov – The Memoirs of Asher Anshel from the house of Rozov,” a family history by my great grandfather, Asher Anshel Rossoff, of blessed memory, from the Belarusian shtetl of Dockshitz.
I was moved by what he penned at the end of the document: “I have prepared these memoirs,” he wrote, “as a legacy for the generations after me, so that future generations will preserve the tradition of their sacred ancestors…,” “My desire,” he said, “is that the connection not be broken and that the generations after me will remember… their origins, להנתק מהארזים הגדולים אלש, so that they not be disconnected from the great cedars.”
So picture this with me: I now have this image of standing in a spiritual forest of cedar trees, some giant, some not, many, too many, cut off before their time. Each cedar stands separate, but their roots intertwine beneath the earth, and within me. Each waits to be named and remembered. Some of them I can name, most of them I cannot; but as I become increasingly aware of my own mortality and need to be remembered, I feel more than ever the debt I owe to each of those cedars and to the forest itself. I am their legacy, along with hundreds, even thousands of others to whom I am connected as I peer deeper and deeper into the woods.
They exist in the realm of the transcendent, real but beyond the limits of time and space. Kaddish (any time I recite it) provides a bridge to them – to all those of whom I have no memory, to all those whom I cannot name, but without whom I and my children would not be who and what we are, without whom we would not be. My great grandfather, of blessed memory, wanted that the connection not be broken. Kaddish connects. Kaddish links and reminds, and as I elevate their memories and the fact of their existence in my heart, I elevate their souls in heaven — and elevate my own soul, as well.
And do we not all live in the midst of such forests, surrounded by the cedars of our own origins? No, we cannot name them all and cannot recite Kaddish for them whenever their Yahrzeit might have been, but we can do that for those closest to us, those whom we do remember and can name, those whose lives were most concrete to us. Those lives we can commemorate, celebrate, and continue to consecrate.
Kaddish anchors us in family, in tradition, in community, in history, and in hope. Kaddish is a testimony — with congregation as witness — that these persons lived and live still in the lives of those whose mouths are open with praise.
Saying Kaddish is not about them and not about us; it is about our relationship with them, affirmed in the context of this tradition of whose roots in us are deeper than we know, in the presence of God the Rememberer.
And so, beloveds, I accept that Kaddish Deficiency Syndrome is a part of my life and always will be as long as I occupy a pulpit. I pray that it is not part of yours.
What connections will saying Kaddish on Yizkor and Yahrzeit make? What presence will it evoke? What great cedars will it help you see? What loss, pain, and anger will it heal; what comfort and compassion will it bring to your heart, to your world, to your God?
I just know what it does for me. As for anyone else, there is but one way to find out.
G’mar chatimah tovah, dear ones. May you be inscribed for a year of life, of joy, of love that never dies and of many blessed memories.