The Last Kaddish
Mourning for my mother saw me through anger, doubt, and numbness—and brought me closer to her
I thought I should save my mother during her lifetime and of course I couldn’t; how preposterous to think that I could save her now that she was dead? And yet, this is precisely the Kaddish proposition: A son must say Kaddish to save his mother from Gehenna. The Kaddish is thought to raise the soul of the deceased out of the depths, to lighten her “punishment” and to “cool” down the fires of the afterworld—to lighten her load. Saying it is a son’s sacred obligation. We have it by way of tradition that all but the very wicked spend “only” 11 months in Gehenna; hence the Kaddish is said for 11 months only. As it is in death, so it is in life—a boy feels impelled to save his mother.
Anger at God and at the ways of the world might have at least energized me while I said Kaddish, but worse, far worse than that were periods of seemingly no feeling at all. The Kaddish often seemed its own punishment, superimposed and out of place. Obsequious and coerced praises to the Creator of death and life—Heaven forbid—a catechism to numb the mind and the soul. The mourners’ drone.
Thankfully, these periods of “deadness” did not at all characterize my very “good” mourning year. In fact, it was powerful forces set in motion long ago that led me again and again to the prayer stand—to say the Kaddish and to do it well, with feeling.
Looking back on the past 11 months, I can see that there were incidental “pleasures” or satisfactions in saying Kaddish. It made me face, at 49, my own foray into old age—getting to be an old man, with irreparable losses and gray whiskers, someone who might be called on in shul to utter something wise on occasion even though he is no rabbi.
Through those months, through the disbelief and the anger and the numbness, I said Kaddish with one goal in mind: Say a beautiful prayer in the name of a beautiful woman—my mother. Mostly, I succeeded; and multitudes stood behind me responding in unison to my Kaddish: Yehei shmeh rabba mevarakh lealam ulalmey almaya. May his great name be blessed forever, and to all eternity.
Now she and I must endure one more horrible separation. The Kaddish will no longer bind us. She no longer has need of my rescue. For these past 11 months, she needed my prayer. I who could not save her in life may have saved her in death. But that is over now. What will become of me and her? Time will certainly try to break those bonds. Time always seems to win. But I am not convinced. Time and consciousness exist in two separate realms. Years go by, but a son remembers.
In a sense, the Kaddish prayer was meant for my mother: a mixture of right-ness, righteousness, and piety—the spiritual equivalent of the “stiff upper lip.” There is a God despite it all. Though we may not see him—we want to see him—this is how he is seen. There is an old saying from the Rebbe of Kotzk: “Where is God?” a man asks. “Wherever you let Him in,” the rebbe answered. My mother surely would have agreed with the Hasidic master.
That first morning in shul after my Yom Hafsakah, it was quiet after service. No Kaddish. The silence was, unexpectedly, absolutely beautiful.
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