When I embarked upon the sad journey facing a new life after losing my Dad, Neil Israel, one year ago, I was nervous about the necessity to recite the mourner’s Kaddish multiple times every day as an avel (mourner). However, I found that its rote repetition never became a burden; but rather a bracha (blessing). The ancient Kaddish prayer is an affirmation of God’s presence in this world and a call to God to bestow peace upon us. Personally, Kaddish became a yearning for a structured connection to spiritually talk to Dad, as I had almost every day of his living life.
Although I felt early on, and certainly feel now, that Dad’s neshama (soul) is in a better place, closer with God, I still had to face that he was now distanced from me. But each time I said Kaddish, I was enveloped in warm memories of Dad’s encouraging, loving support, as it conjured my childhood memories of sitting next to Dad in shul (synagogue), where he was a lifetime regular attendee.
Fortunately, I never had to bear the responsibility of remembering Dad alone, as my journey was shared with my mother, brother and sister; I was lovingly supported by my life partner, Suzy, and tolerated by my six children. I also remembered Dad with my fellow mourners. I came to better appreciate the phrase, “Bitoch shaar evlay tzion v’Yerushalayim,” (amid the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem) that we commonly recite to an avel in a shiva house. Each new avel was welcomed in to our Kaddish Zugger’s (reciter’s) club, and together, we set the tempo and emotional pace of Kaddish recitation, lifted each other’s spirits and recalled our loved ones.
But alas, after the yearlong journey that provided me so much comfort from and within Jewish tradition ended on Dad’s first yahrzeit, Jewish law demanded that I abruptly cease my ritualistic mourning. All I felt was an empty chasm and faced a void of emptiness. Although I was no longer inconsolable in the emotional sense, my entire being and neshama cried out to keep going, to retain a strong connection to my Dad through the medium of prayer kavannah (focused intent).
Over the past few weeks, I shifted from simply reciting words to internalizing their message. I comprehended that Kaddish is much more than a spiritual slogan but rather it’s a call to action. It is not just believing in Kaddish’s power of kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name) as I confidently feel my Dad did on a daily basis through his honesty; not just reciting about kiddush Hashem as so many of my dad’s friends and relatives shared with me about him, but by living for kiddush Hashem.
While my tears of grief have slowly dried up and been replaced by loving memories of my Dad that inspire me to celebrate and live a fuller life, I can no longer simply remember Dad during tefillah (prayer), but must emulate his life in everything I do. I need to transfer my mourner’s journey of words from my lips to my hands and from my tongue to my feet: to incorporate Dad’s life lessons into action for all upcoming voyages that lie ahead.
Rabbi Ari Israel is executive director/rabbi of the Ben and Esther Rosenbloom Hillel Center for Jewish Life on Campus at the University of Maryland.