Kaddish Speaks to Mourners

The Kaddish responds to three questions: Is there a God? Why do people die? What is the meaning of life?

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Reprinted with permission from A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort (Jewish Lights), by Dr. Ron Wolfson.

Why is it that the mourner recites the Kaddish at the end of the service? After all, there isn't a word about death in the prayer. It is a kind of benediction, a last "good word" before ending the service so people will go home feeling uplifted. The words remind us of what we came together to do--namely praise God--and they encourage us to look forward to the establishment of God's kingdom, when there will be completion, peace. But, why should the mourner be given this honor?

Kaddish Responds to Loss of Faith

My theory is that there are three problems that mourners face that the Kaddish speaks to in a most direct manner. The first problem is loss of faith. If there is a God in this world, how could my loved one die? Maybe there is no God in this world; maybe the world is rudderless.

The blow to faith is never more pronounced than it is at the moment when you bury a loved one. Yet, here comes the Kaddish and proclaims faith in God. It isn't that the mourner is talked back into faith by reciting the Kaddish. But the fact that a mourner says the Kaddish in a minyan [quorum of 10] of Jews three times a day for a period of 11 months keeps the mourner in the community of faith. By standing up and proclaiming publicly, "Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'mei rabbah"--"Magnified and sanctified is the great name of God"--the body and soul of the mourner have a chance to recuperate, to go through a healing process.

The perspective changes from that first day, that first week, that first month. The mourner begins to see that there are magnificent mountains and blue skies and gorgeous flowers and lovely birds. You don't know that the day you bury your mother. But a month later you do; two months later, you certainly do. The denial of the existence of God, which wallops the mourner like a sledgehammer during that first week, is blunted some by the recitation of the Kaddish, as the mourner gradually regains perspective.

Why Do People Die?

Okay, so you say there's a God in the world? But, what kind of God can it be? A good God would not have taken my child. A congregant called me last night to tell me that his 19-month-old grandson has a tumor on his brain the size of a baseball. It's malignant. The chances of a 19-month-old baby surviving this are very, very slim. Maybe one in five. This same man's wife died two years ago at the age of 56. He says to me, "Eleanor, I can understand. Fifty-six years old, with children and grandchildren. But, a 19-month-old baby? Come on, what kind of God are we dealing with?"

The Kaddish speaks to this problem, too. It says, "B'almah divrah khi'rutei"--"Throughout the world which He created according to His will." There is a certain pattern to life and death in this world that seems to be inherent in creation. If God is the author of creation, then God created it as a place where people live and then die.

I once talked to a doctor and asked him about the mortality rate. He said, "It's still 100 percent!" The point is that the world was created according to God's will. Now, if you had created it according to your will, people, especially babies, wouldn't die. But, you didn't create the world. God did.

It's not that God is a bad God. Death happens when microbes get the better of us, or when accidents happen, when immune systems aren't what they ought to be. In this world, which operates according to the rules of physics and motion, which seem to have inherent time clocks, people die. God didn't choose that your father should die rather than somebody else; "somebody else" will die too. Your father died because his liver stopped working, or because he had bacteria that infected it--not because of a bad God. God really had nothing to do with it.

God created the world, which operates according to certain rules. People, even 19-month-old babies, die because they get sick, because the cells go haywire. Now that it's happened, what we have to do is find a way to cure it. Let's call upon the divine powers within us and the universe to help us find a solution. The Kaddish says first that there is a God in the world, and second that God created a world according to Divine will, in which death is the inevitable conclusion of life.

Does Life Have Meaning?

The third problem is: What's it all for? If this is the way it all ends, why beat your head against a wall? Whether it's 89 years, or 56 years, or 19 months, it's all over too rapidly. Now, people have different reactions to this awareness. Some say, "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Others say, "Withdraw from life. It will all be over soon anyway." The issue is: If it's all over so soon, why break our necks?

The Kaddish speaks to this. "Vyamlikh malkhutei b'chayeikhon u-v'yomeikhon u-vchayei d'khol beit Yisrael"--"May God establish His kingdom during our lifetime and during the lifetime of the house of Israel." When the prayer says "establish His kingdom," this is theological language for a perfect world, the Messianic era. God's rule is to be perfect and complete. So, the mourner at this moment when he or she is most sensitive to the issues of life and death and to his or her own inevitable demise, stands up and says, "There is a God who declares that it is our obligation as Jews to establish God's rule on this earth in our lifetime."

Jews are very sensitive to words. Words are very precious in Jewish tradition. This is saying that we undertake to solve all the problems in the world in our lifetime. Now, I'm 66 years old. If I live a normal life span, I've got another 11 years or so, maybe 12. But, I've had a heart bypass, so who knows? Even if I make it to 120, is it realistic to expect that all the social problems of the world, all the political problems of the world, all the medical problems of the world, all the psychological problems of the world will be solved--all in the next 20 to 30 years!? It would take that long just to list the problems!

Yet, the tradition asks the mourner to stand up and make the statement, "I'm expected to work towards the establishment of God's complete and perfect world in my lifetime." What does that say? It says, "Mourner, you have never been in a better position to appreciate the brevity of life, and the fact that you have a mission in this life--to establish God's kingdom--and you don't have very long to do it! You must therefore redouble your efforts to bring God's kingdom into existence."

Who is more in touch with the realities of the human condition than the mourner? That's why Judaism decided that it should be the mourner who proclaims in the benediction to the service the ultimate meaning of human existence.

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Rabbi Bernard Lipnick

Rabbi Bernard Lipnick (1926-2010) served as the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Amoona in St. Louis for more than 40 years.