Judaism Challenges Us to Find Purpose in Grief

Memory and mourning are intertwined, each necessary to the healing process.

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A Memorial Day event at the Black Arrow Monument in Israel's south, May 5, 2014.
A Memorial Day event at the Black Arrow Monument in Israel's south, May 5, 2014.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Over 2,000 Kaddishes. That’s the total number of mourner’s prayers my wife and I have jointly taken on to recite at synagogue in memory of her mother, attending three services daily, over this coming year.

The Kaddish takes on a special significance on Memorial Day, as the Jewish people mourn those who died serving the State of Israel. Memory and mourning are intertwined, like strands forming a knot, each necessary and complementary to a healing process.

The Kaddish, sanctification, is recited at various times during daily prayer to denote the beginning or conclusion of a section of the liturgy. It has various forms in Jewish worship. The Rabbi’s Kaddish is recited after studying or reading text as part of the prayer service. The most often repeated version is the Kaddish Yatom, the Orphan’s Kaddish, which is usually referred to as the Mourner’s Kaddish. All need to be recited within a minyan, a prayer quorum.

It is curious that while the Rabbi’s Kaddish and Kaddish Yatom are most often recited by mourners, their subject has nothing to do with death. One explanation is that the text demonstrates acceptance of Divine judgment by expressing praise to G-d at a time when one might be plagued by doubt and bitterness. Another explanation is that the public sanctification of G-d’s name, along with acts of righteousness performed by relatives, accrues to the merit of the soul in the world to come; an elevation process for the deceased over the year of mourning.

But perhaps the best clue as to why we recite the Kaddish is within the prayer itself. “May His great Name be blessed forever and ever. Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed is He beyond any blessing and song, praise and consolation that are uttered in the world.” If understood as a call to action, the Kaddish challenges us to seek ways to bring G-d into the world.

My wife and I are at the beginning of our journey. And while the Kaddish remains a constant reminder of our loss, our Jewish tradition provides a path for healing through doing. Through tzedaka (righteous giving), Torah study, and assisting others who are in need, we create meaning out of our mourning.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman views the three national holidays observed this month through the lens of an evolving Israeli narrative:

“In remembering our fallen, the country mourns the price we have had to pay to build our state... It is that somber mourning that serves as the foundation for Yom Haatzmaut [Independence Day]. It gives birth to a responsible joy, of having to earn the life enabled by such a heavy price. When we turn to Yom Haatzmaut the next day, we turn with a deep sense of responsibility...the sadness of Yom Hazikaron [Memorial Day] does not give new meaning to Yom Haatzmaut; rather it gives it gravitas.”

When we lose someone we love, whether the person was young or old, the circumstances tragic or mundane, avoidable or unavoidable, the impossible question we often dwell on is "why." Mortality is something we all must confront at some point. Fixating on the "why" of death is an exercise in avoiding the inevitable.

The more significant and ultimately more constructive question which Hartman is grappling with and challenging us to ponder touches on the purpose of mourning. Hartman conveys the life-affirming idea that Memorial Day and Independence Day are not just related, but are integrally connected, like winter to spring.

“It reminds us of the price we paid and, as a result, the care, responsibility and duty we have to build a great country and to live and to give our lives special meaning,” Hartman concludes.

The sacrifices of those who have fallen in their service to Israel find their meaning in the seriousness with which we strive to build a state that is better, more compassionately righteous, an expression of Jewish values: a Kaddish, a public sanctification of G-d’s name.

The concluding verses of most Kaddishes are, “He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel. And let us say: Amen.” If we do our part, may G-d do His, for Israel and all humankind.

Rabbi Yehoshua Looks is COO of Ayeka, a teacher and a freelance consultant to non-profit organizations. The opinions expressed are personal and not representative of any organization with which he is associated.

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