Saying Kaddish

Message delivered on Yom Kippur Day – Yizkor Service, 5764, October 6, 2003, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

In generations past, when a baby boy was born, even after several daughters, a Jewish father might express relief: Now he could be at peace, knowing that someone would say Kaddish for him after his death. We don’t hear such sentiments these days, not only because we are more egalitarian, but also because talk of the Kaddish seems to be a rather morbid way to celebrate a baby’s birth.

And yet, at the other end of the life cycle, our impulse to recite the Kaddish remains strong to this day. Many Temple members, who don’t necessarily attend services regularly, nevertheless are most faithful about worshiping when a loved one’s yahrzeit will be observed. And here we are this afternoon, in great numbers, all present to recite the Kaddish for someone: a mother or a father, a husband or a wife, a son or a daughter, a brother or a sister, a beloved grandparent, relative or friend. Sadly, many here today are saying Kaddish for a host of loved ones, now in God’s eternal care.

What do we mean, when we say that we have come to say Kaddish for someone? Yes, we have a religious obligation to remember our beloved dead, and we know that the Kaddish is the traditional prayer for mourners. Some aspects of Jewish tradition suggest that saying Kaddish tempers God’s judgment of our loved one. The idea is that the souls of our departed ones are suspended in some kind of “purgatory,” and our recitation of this prayer intercedes on their behalf, easing their entrance to God’s blessed world to come. Since we don’t really have purgatory in Judaism, the idea smacks of superstition.

For me, reciting Kaddish for a particular person means something else, very powerful and motivating for our own lives.

Perhaps you have heard that the words of the Kaddish do not mention death, or even mourning. Some folks say that it’s a praise of life, which is not entirely accurate. Instead, the Kaddish is a proclamation of God’s sovereignty and a sanctification of God’s Name. Basically, when we recite the Kaddish, we are acknowledging God as our Ruler and praising God’s holiness. When we say Kaddish for our loved ones, we are exalting God on their behalf, in their place, for they are no longer alive to glorify God here among us.

Some died at a ripe old age; perhaps we were tempted to call their passing a “blessing.” Others died too soon, for themselves and for all who loved them. Either way, we recall the words of the Psalmist, who taught that even a thousand years are but a blink of the eye to God. And what if each of us lived to be 120, the life-span for Moses and the ideal length of a full life in our Jewish tradition? Even with that longevity, and with righteous living and piety, none of us could offer God as much as honor as we have due the Holy One of Blessing.

As we recite the Kaddish, then, let us think of the multitude of ways in which our beloved dead praised God while they were yet in life. Some were pious; we honor their memories with our own religious practice. Our prayers, and specifically our recitation of Kaddish, honor their memories most directly. Others were not particularly religious, but glorified God in the daily conduct of their lives. When we say the Kaddish, may we be inspired to demonstrate our adoration by living out our own days with goodness. Some were both pious and righteous, and also blessed with years, but they, too, would urge us to discharge our responsibility, to continue to praise God, in word and in deed, on their behalf and on our own, for as long as we may live.

Let us pray, too, that our recitation of the Kaddish may restore our faith, even as we contemplate all that we have lost. In the valley of the shadow of death, many of us understandably question the love of God. We may even doubt God’s existence, for we ask how a holy God would permit such sadness to befall us. Our obligation to say the Kaddish forces us to acknowledge – in words, at least – that God remains Sovereign, and that God is eternally holy. With time, the rote action of saying those words may bolster our faith from within. Then, imperceptibly at first, our recitation of Kaddish will become increasingly heart-felt and even inspiring.

May the words of the Kaddish, spoken by each of us in loving memory, do honor to our beloved dead. May that holy prayer lead each of us to emulate the good in our dear ones’ lives, now ended. When we rise in mourning, may we sanctify the Name of the Lord.