To Mourn, To Remember

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by R. Eliyahu Safran

Reflections on Individual and Communal Mourning

A young man is ushered into a private room by a troubled colleague.  The young, concerned about the colleague’s uncomfortable manner, asks if everything is all right.  She shakes her head and directs the young man toward a chair.  When he has eased into the chair, she looks at him and then, with watering eyes, glances away.  She draws a slow breath.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, leaning forward.

In a shaking voice that the colleague struggles to keep firm yet caring, he is informed that the office had received a phone call a short while earlier.  His father has passed away some fifteen thousand miles away.

“I’m so sorry,” the colleague whispers, tears coming to her eyes.

“No, thank you,” the young man mumbles, for the briefest of moments, more aware of her discomfort of his own situation or feelings.  He blinks.  “I’d just like to be alone if that’s all right.”

“You’re sure?”


She nods and silently leaves the room, pausing to look back only once, in time to see her young colleague’s face contort in a mask of grief, making him appear anything but a young man.

The door closes behind her.

The young man feels himself engulfed in a complete whiteness.  There is no form.  No structure.  No past and no future.  There is no left or right.  There are no landmarks.  No sounds.  

Nothing.  Not even emptiness which is, after all, a kind of fullness of nothing.  There is not even that.

Just unrelenting nothing.

And then these words come to his lips:Baruch Dayan Ha’emet

Blessed are You, the True Judge.

He does not know from where in his formless consciousness these words have taken shape and come forth.  Having been so fortunate for all of his twenty-five years to have never before had to confront the death of a loved one or even someone remotely close to him, his familiarity with death and dying has been distanced – more intellectual than emotional; more theoretical than spiritual.

Blessed are You, the True Judge.

In truth, he feels anger at those words.  He hates them as soon as they have crossed his lips.  He instantaneously rails against them.  In the instant that the words have formed, the full contours of his grief have taken shape, along with the fullness of his loss.  How can he bless God, at a moment like this?  His father has died!

The question though, is not how he could bless God at such a painful moment.  The question is, How could he not?

These words, words that Jewish tradition teach should be uttered when one hears of a death, Blessed are You, the True Judge, speak at once to our complete smallness in the face of death and to the greatness of God.  They speak to our unutterable loss, to a pain that is only a foreshadowing of the pain and sadness to come.  To a knowledge that exists before knowledge.

In that first, incandescent flame of grief, when existence itself is as white and unrelenting as the totality of the emptiness of the page before the fledgling writer, the first words begin the process of recreating order in what will be a world reconfigured.  These words, so simple an acknowledgement, so difficult a truth, represent the first step in the process of Jewish mourning, the process of losing a world and then, in the context of self and community, recreating the world anew.

These words are as fundamental a statement of our enduring faith as is, Shema Yisrael.  

One should not minimize the existential, spiritual, psychological and social aspects of this statement as the first, small step in a sacred process.  Jewish tradition teaches that “if one destroys a single life, it is as if he had destroyed the entire world.”  The meaning of this statement is clear.  The value of each and every human life is equal to the whole of creation!  Is it any wonder that when a life is taken from us, by whatever means, the world that we inhabit is fundamentally changed?  If we were without a process to work through our grief, we would find ourselves unable to recreate a recognizable and meaningful world.

Without the ability to mourn, we could not be fully Jews.


Death and Dying

All that lives must die.  This has been true since Adam and Eve, in choosing to disobey God in the Garden of Eden traded their personal immortality for a communal immortality.  Neither the fact of death, its inevitability or its profoundly uniformity of its application seem to protect us from our fear and trembling in the face of that fundamental unknown.

Too rarely, dying is an orderly process, in which it is the ultimate destination of a long, well-lived life.  A life defined by ritual and meaning.  Within this context, the rites and rituals associated with death and dying actually become the foundation upon which the process of mourning is begun.

Every stage of life is important and meaningful.  Does not the prophet Joel tell us that,

Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
your young men shall see visions.

Every stage of life is honored and respected.  None more than the wisdom of age and the distinction of the aged.  Even so, as Jews we do not pretend that our rituals or faith overcomes our fear of death.  The prospect of death is as frightening to us as it is to any person who has ever drawn breath.  

As a matter of rhetoric if not of faith we distinguish between God as the Righteous Judge who sets a limit to our days on earth and the actual “executioner”, the Malach HaMavet – the Angel of Death.  Our faith in God is that He is a loving God and, while He may test us with trials, He loves us too much to exact this final punishment on us.  In truth, we look to God to ultimately destroy Malach HaMavet.

As Isaiah prophecies, 

He will destroy death forever,
My Lord god will wipe the tears away from all faces
and will put an end to the humiliations of His people
throughout all of the earth
for it is the Lord who has spoken.

Until that time, however, we stand before God, measuring our days and our accomplishments against that inevitable end.

It is a truth that we are born alone, and we die alone.  Who can share these existential moments with us, when our very beings are most defined as individuals.  And yet, in both cases, our aloneness is not long-lasting.  At birth, we are welcomed into the world by attendants and become part of family and a community.  

That same community provides for us in death.  Upon our death, a Hevrah Kadisha, a “sacred society” takes charge of our body.  With prayers and psalms, our body is ritually cleaned and prepared for burial.  At no time from the time of death until burial is the body left alone.

Two realities define each and every aspect of the rituals of death.  The first is God as Judge.  The second is that the dignity of the deceased must be guarded.  The lessons of Judaism teach that we are to protect the vulnerable – whether the widow, or the child.  In this view, no one is ever more vulnerable that at death.   Therefore, great care is taken to preserve the dignity of the dead.

Death imparts upon the deceased a ritual uncleanliness.  Therefore, the Hevrah Kadisha, takes responsibility for ritually cleansing the body.  After the body is washed and dried, it is dressed in the kittel, the shroud that is worn on Yom Kippur.   The tallis is placed on the shoulders of the deceased.  One of the four tzitzit is cut.  For the dead are not subject to mitzvot.

The body is lowered into a plain coffin lined with a large shroud which will eventually cover the entire body.

Simplicity defines Jewish funerals.  Every one of us is equal in death and the rituals and ceremonies reflect that.


The Living Remain – the Purpose of Mourning

The rituals of death and burial guide the process of death.  In the face of a great unknowing, rituals and sacred practices provide meaning.  Although the initial response to death is profound grief, best symbolized by the renting of garments, even in that initial grief, as we have already seen, the first outlines of the process of grieving (rather than the experience of it) begins to take shape.

Blessed are You, the True Judge.

It is natural to feel profound loss when someone dies.  All humans mourn this loss.  Ritual mourning is a formalized path that we follow in order to give our loss meaning.  As Jews, we seek meaning in all aspects of our lives.  For us then, not just mourning but ritual mourning is a natural response to death.

Make no mistake, our loss is deep.  Almost unimaginably so.  Unspeakably so.   Our world changes as a result of our loss; we mourn the death of the one we knew and loved because our world has been inextricably altered.  Our psychological, emotional, and social landscape has been jolted.  It is as if a terrible disaster – an earthquake or a hurricane – has stricken our internal landscape, changing the emotional ground beneath our feet.

We mourn not only the loss of the person who was a part of our lives up to the present but also in anticipation of the terrible absence in going forward.  Death puts an end to human potential.  All that our loved one could be, was.  There are no more possibilities.  No more dreams to dream.  

What’s more, we mourn more than the loss of our loved one.  Each and every death reminds us of the frailty of man; there will always dreams that will go undreamed, potential that will go unrealized.

Each and every death forces us to confront our own mortality.  

The final accounting brought into stark relief by death demands that we see the fog of our daily lives and the incessant demands of the now and truly ponder the value and meaning of life.  Death is a breach from which we cannot turn away.  

If we mourn “well” then we will come away from our period of mourning with a greater sense of the precious opportunities that life affords us – in our personal relationships, in our involvement in the community, in our caring for others and our relationship with God.   Our tradition teaches that it is beneficial to mourn.  The Preacher, Kohelet, goes so far as to teach, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men and the living will lay it to his heart.”

Indeed, to mourn is to fulfill and Divine commandment.  “Whoever does not mourn in the manner prescribed by the rabbis is cruel.”

In the face of such a profound loss as the death of a loved one, how could we not mourn?  In the face of death, we stand incomplete, and confused; our lives have been confused.  The basic assumptions we have made seem to have been upended.  In death, we witness the polar opposite of life, of God and of man.  It is inconceivable that in such dire circumstance we would simply go on as before.

Death is transformative to everyone.

But the nature of the transformation is in limbo.  The mourner finds himself devitalized, depersonalized, and de-identified in his normal relationships to family, friends and community.

On one level, mourning is a confrontation with a “diminished form of human existence.”  Human dignity has been stripped.  The divine image in man has been degraded.  It is painful.  It is unbearable.  It forces each of us to confront without filter the limits of man and the underachievement inherent in our natures.  

The mourner often experiences guilt.  Might he have done more?  Might he have shared more?  Might he have reached out a caring hand just one more time?   Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish essayist, satirist and historian was going through his wife’s papers after her death.  Amongst the many papers, he found note after note reflecting her deep love for him and a yearning that he would give of himself to her in a larger measure.  Reading those notes, he cried out in anguish, “If I had only known!  If I had only known!”

If we had only known.

In Tom Brown’s School Days, the hero of the story is on a fishing trip when he learns of the death of his schoolmaster.  He returns immediately, and once back at the school sits alone in the chapel, where his teacher had been buried under the altar.  Turning to the pulpit and leaning forward with his head in his hands.

If he could only have seen the doctor again for five minutes; have told him all that was in his heart, what he owed to him, how he loved and revered him, and would by God’s help follow his steps in life and death, he could have borne it all without a murmur.  But that he should have gone away forever without knowing it at all, was too much to bear.

Too much to bear indeed.

How often does the mourner beat his breast, wishing that he could have said more, done more, been more.  George Eliot writes,

Oh the anguish of the thought, that we can never atone to our dead for the stinted affection we gave them, for the little reverence we showed to that sacred human soul that lived so close to us, and was the divinest thing God had given us to know.

This state of self-negation, resignation, self-doubt and despair in the face of death forms the Halakhic state of mourning.  The one who has been touched by anti-life sits in rent garments, on the ground, without shoes, unkempt, unwashed, engaged in neither work nor the study of Torah.  He is exempt from the recital of the Shema and from prayer and from tefillin and from all precepts laid down in the Torah.  

The mourner does not recite the benedictions before or after meals; he may not repeat the “amen” when he hears the benedictions.  In the face of death, man’s relationships are temporarily suspended, even with God.  Coming face to face with death precludes any normal activity or even divinely ordained obligations.

Our commitment to God is rooted in our awareness of human dignity, tzelem Elohim, and sanctity.  Once the perplexed, despairing individual begins to question whether or not such distinctiveness or special-ness exists, the sole commitment is suspended.  Man, who has faith in himself, who is aware of his human charisma, was chosen to carry obligations and commandments.  Despairing, skeptical, denying man was not so selected.  How can man pray and address God if he doubts his very humanity, if speech is stripped by his doubts of its human characteristics and turned into mere physical sounds?   How can the mourner pronounce a benediction or say ‘amen’ if he is speechless?

Death, by its very nature, forces us to doubt whether, in the whole of creation, we are somehow special.  It creates in us the feeling that we are tumbling from grace.  We are lost.  The very thing that had always given us succor, our deep knowledge in our dignity because we are created in God’s image, is lost.  For how can we be in God’s image when God is, first and foremost, beyond the bounds of life and death and we, His creatures, are so painfully aware of our entrapment in time and in death?

Death makes us acutely aware of our smallness and, save but for God’s grace, our insignificance.  Yet, the process of mourning teaches us that we cannot, nor were we meant, to remain mired in a diminished form of existence.  Grief, that nearly unbearable immediacy of loss, cannot, by definition, continue to define our response to loss.  Nor should it.  There is no experience within the realm of Jewish behavior and tradition which has as its sole purpose and goal the self-deprecation and denial of human dignity.

Judaism holds that man is not only free but is also master over his own deeds and emotions.  Even during those times when self-denial is sanctioned, as during Yom Kippur, there is always a higher goal.  During Yom Kippur, it is the teshuva (literally, ‘return’ but with the force of ‘repentance’ and ‘transformation’ here) realized by the process of anarchically prescribed self-denial.  

What is the ‘higher goal’ we can achieve by mourning?

In the paragraph quoted above, in which the Rambam opens with the declaration that, “whoever does not mourn the dead in the manner prescribed by the rabbis is cruel” he anticipates our need to understand exactly how this ‘cruelty’ can be averted.  Certainly, when we examine the actions of mourning, the renting of garments, not shaving or washing, not wearing shoes, sitting on the ground, etc. we must conclude that it cannot be these actions alone which have the potential to raise us up.  

Those who misunderstand the power of Judaism and the mysterious faith which has animated our people for millennia point to such proscribed actions and conclude that Judaism is a ‘legalistic’ religion, one devoted to following the ‘letter of the law’ at the expense of the ‘spirit of the law’.  

How wrong they are!

If behavior alone was sufficient to attain the higher goal of mourning, then the words of Rambam would not make sense.  Reading Rambam, one comes away with the sense that his thesis is to make clear that one is cruel if the confrontational state of fear, trepidation, and silence involved with mourning is not translated into the state of teshuvah.  In other words, if the actions of mourning do not result in transformation, then the mourning process has indeed been ‘cruel’.  

Rather, one should be apprehensive, troubled, investigate his conduct, and return in repentance.  If one of the company dies, all the members thereof should be troubled.  During the first three days the mourner should think of himself as if a sword is resting upon his neck, from the third to the seventh day as if it was lying in the corner, thereafter as if it moves toward him in the street.

Perhaps Rambam’s intent is to be instructive of how the mourner is not to remain cruel to himself.   Certainly, to remain in a state of grief, or ‘new mourning’ – when it is as if a sword rests upon one’s neck – would be cruel.  

The lesson of Judaism is clear.  Death is inevitable.  Life is good.  Thus, we can echo the words of Job when he declared, “God gave, and God has taken.  Blessed be the name of God.”

The denial of death is, ultimately, the denial of life.  What other faith or creed sees the sanctity of life overflowing into the acceptance of death; that sees both life and death as coming from the same source and therefore, both as blessed?  

Life and death are to be understood in this context.  This is the first, difficult task of the mourner, to be able to echo in his heart the words of Job, “God gave, and God has taken.  Blessed be the name of God.”  

After the initial shock of death, after the first, fiery flame of grief, there begins the process of avelut, whose goal is to return and transform (teshuvah) the one confronted with anti-life into the full awareness of the blessings of life.

The process is avelut.  The goal is teshuvah.

Rambam teaches that in order to avoid cruelty, “one should return in repentance.”  With the goal of repentance, transformation in the face of this existential crisis is not only possible, but desirable.  In his writing, Rambam does not diminish the difficulty of the mourner.  He plots out the process, the ascendancy, of mourning in the direst terms.  Even after the first moments of intense grief and through the funeral, the “way back” is not an easy one.  For the first three days (of the shiva period), he writes that a sword is resting upon the mourner’s neck.  While, for the latter four days, it is as if the sword has been moved to the corner of the room and during the thirty-day period of mourning (shlosim) it is as if it is in the marketplace.

How can we parse Rambam’s allegory here so that it best helps us understand what it means to mourn?  One may ask why, in light of the pain and sorrow the mourner already feels, Rambam sees the need to add this dark image of the sword hanging first over their heads and then further and further away?  While it is clear that the mourner requires a period of adjustment after the death of a loved one; but why this?

We choose to read Rambam here not as though he were ‘adding’ to the burden of the mourner but rather in the descriptive mode.  He is plotting out what the mourner is actually experiencing in the earliest days and weeks after the loss of a loved one.  

Who among us has not entered a house of mourning and felt his ‘heart in his throat’?  Who has not experienced that physical sensation that accompanies a fear and trembling similar to what Kierkegaarde wrote about, a fear and trembling in the face of a vast unknowing?  

How much more so is that in the mourner’s experience!

During those first three days of shiva, when grief is so sharp, so immediate, so painful that the mourner might forget to eat, to sleep, to do anything according to what had been the normal rhythm of his life, it is not unreasonable to liken the experience to having a ‘sword against you neck’.  Death is that close.  That immediate.  That real.  However, as the days and hours slowly move forward, that is, as life continues, even the mourner begins to be drawn back into the normal rhythms of life.  The immediacy of the confrontation with death is reduced – not by much, but a little.  And in this subtle change, the mourner begins to become more conscious of the living and to the community.  His attention is beginning, already, to shift.

The sword rests not against the mourner’s neck but rather in the corner of the room.  Rambam’s sword no longer hangs directly over the mourner’s head but it is slightly removed.  Finally, as the mourner leaves the shiva period and enters the period of shloshim, when he begins to engage in the reality of the everyday again, Rambam’s sword is even further removed.   The mourner continues to ‘feel’ the reality of the sword even in the marketplace, the place of commerce and community.  Yes, the sense of loss remains real and immediate and yes, the voice is ever-present, but these realities are now intermingling with the reality of the everyday, with the community and with commerce.  The mourner is beginning to reenter the everyday world of time and experience.

Even understanding Rambam in this way, one could still ask why he required these additional sharpened and focused descriptives of the tragic reality of ultimate loss.  Certainly, they are not necessary to help a mourner confront that “diminished form of human existence” that results from such a profound loss.

Reflections of this nature will put him on his mettle, he will bestir himself and repent, for it is written: “You have stricken them, but they were not affected.”  (Jer. (5:3) He should therefore be wide awake and deeply moved.

So then, teshuvah is the reason.  Transformation.  In this understanding, mourning a loved one who has died becomes consistent with the Yom Kippur teshuvah experience.  Many of the same prohibitions and restrictions apply to both.  If the actions of both are similar, then it seems not to be unreasonable that the goals of both are similar as well.  

As we have seen, the restrictions of Yom Kippur are meant to ‘afflict the soul’ but for a very powerful and positive purpose – teshuvah.  Transformation.  That the ‘affliction’ might cause the ‘afflicted’ to become a better person.  That the ‘affliction’ might cause the ‘afflicted’ to repent.  

By depriving oneself of basic physical needs and pleasures on Yom Kippur, the Jew comes to recognize his frailties, his shortcomings, iniquities and failings.  In other words, he comes face to face with the self that must be improved upon, which must move closer to God, which must repent.  The essence of the Yom Kippur liturgy and experience is to bring the worshipper, through quiet and personal introspection, reflection, self-analysis and confession, closer to God.

In the same way, the mourner is cut off from the outside world of daily activity, removed from the pleasures and daily routine that has formed the basic rhythm of his life.  He is limited in his social and religious interactions.  He is, in short, left – if only by default – to look inward.  He is confronted with his own quiet introspection and reflection.  He must look directly at himself and his world in the context of his profound loss.  And, in the context of that loss, evaluate the meaning and value of his life and behavior.

In short, so that he will perform teshuvah.   In Rambam’s words, Kol zeh, lehachin atzmo veyachzor veyahur mishenato [So that he will bestir himself and repent.]

As the Sefer HaChinuch reaches the same conclusion with remarkable clarity. 

Therefore, when he suffers the blow of the occurrence of death for one of his near kin, for whom nature makes affection inevitable, the Torah obligates him to do certain things himself which will move him to focus his thought on the grief that has come to him.  The he will know and understand in his soul that his sins have caused him to be visited with this grief…  Then as a man ponders this theme in his heart during the activity of mourning, he will set his mind to achieve repentance and will make his deeds worthy according to his ability.

Yom Kippur – Yizkor

 It is due to the common bond that exists between mourning and repentance that we come to understand why the memorial prayer service for the dead – yizkor – was originally recited only on Yom Kippur and not during all three of the shalosh regalim.  And indeed, the theme of Yom Kippur is, in fact, the theme of the entire Yamim Noraim season.  We pray fervently for life.  “Remember us unto life, O King, who desires life.”

“Our Father, our King, inscribe us in the Book of Life.”

It seems at first glance to be incongruous that we would ‘interrupt’ this intense focus on life to shift our attention to our memories of those who are no longer amongst the living and to recite the yizkor liturgy for the departed.  The explanation for this seeming paradox is that, of course, that there is no paradox at all.  Jewish tradition views life as continuous from generation to generation.  L’dor va’dor.  Jewish tradition is a golden chain with each link represented by a generation.  A powerful commonality unites the living with the dead.  The confessional prayers, Vidui, are state not merely as reflective of our own deeds, but as our fathers’ as well.  “For we are not so brazen and obstinate as to say before you, Hashem, our God and God of our forefathers, that we are righteous and have not sinned – rather, we and our forefathers sinned.”  The Kohen Gadol, too, beseeched God for forgiveness in the name of “Your people, the family of Israel.

All Israel.

For all time.

Yizkor is a time of communication; an occasion when the departed souls join with and speak to us and with us, reminding us of hopes and dreams which were theirs and which are now ours.  Given this understanding, what more appropriate day is there to rejoin with the souls of the departed than on Yom Kippur?

Enlarging on the lessons of the individual mourner, yizkor reminds us that man’s pilgrimage on earth is limited.  But more than individual man, a generation is limited, existing only as a link between yesterday and tomorrow.  As individuals and as a community could we confront a more compelling reason to repent?  Our days are numbered as were the days of our forebears.  None of us ever finishes his work.  As Rabbi Tarfon taught, “the day is long, and the labor is mighty.  It is not yours to complete the task…”

We are each, as individuals and as a community, given the task of completing the tasks of the generations before us, just as the generations to come will carry on where we have fallen short.  How can we not respond to this reality with a determination to, at the least, do more?  How can we not repent?

On Yom Kippur, when we reflect on and pray for a life of purpose and meaning, yizkor reminds us of the true meaning and purpose of our lives.  It demands of us that we become a stronger link in the chain of tradition; that we renew our dedication to completing the work of those who came before us, and to lightening the load of those who will come after us.  

The only genuine and authentic method of reciting yizkor is to be able to translate memories, emotions, and love of the past into new realities.  To create transformation.  Genuine tears, memories, and emotions are an unspoken acknowledgement that the present, that we, exist only by virtue of the past.  That life without the lives of those who came before us is both meaningless and impossible.  So too must the future rest upon us.  

How full of awe must we be to see that truth clearly!  How powerfully must we feel the weight of the past – of our personal past and our communal past.  How mighty were those small acts of heroism and courage; how callous the world; and how much more had been left for our forebears to accomplish.

We can feel their touch once again.  Hear their voices.  Smell their smells.  

Are we not then mourners?  Is our experience, when experienced genuinely, not the experience of a mourner grieving anew?  And so too, is not the mourner not confronting these same realities in his moment of grief?  Does he not, in his grief, recognize that the death of his loved one is also a call for him to live; to repent and to transform his life?

Mourning those who came before us, with their love and dedication, must include a confession that our present is not only their past but also holds the seeds of the future yet to come.  This awareness of the past as the foundation to our present and the key to the future is essential to yizkor.  This is the way in which God has ordained life; that we never finish our work and it is therefore left for those who come after us to complete it.  Yizkor calls us to hold high the ideals of the generations of Jews that have preceded ours, to cherish their dreams and aspirations, to share in their tears and heartaches.  

They had set many goals for themselves – some simple, others lofty – which they did not realize.  They were removed from the land of the living before fulfilling their potential.  Now that we recognize and confront that loss and interruption, it is for us to continue.

Your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
your young men shall see visions.


Repentance and transformation is not easy.  First, it requires that we recognize that what was is irredeemably lost.  This is painful.  It is grieving at its core. We recognize what must be done and yet our pain is too great.  We see the land ahead, but we cannot seem to make our feet march toward it.

When we recognize the need and obligation to continue and complete the unfinished tasks of those who came before us, we find that our pain is increased rather than lessoned.  We grieve rather than feel comforted.  How can one go forward without the guidance of the past?  How can the child move on but with the gentle and firm guidance of the parent?  

How can we bridge the past to the future without the wisdom of our teachers, without the trust of our friend?  Certainly, the responsibility is too great and our sadness too deep.  How can we now face up to the great challenge of our ancestors who “have left room for us to achieve and to distinguish ourselves?”  As the days of mourning progress, our sadness accrues rather than lessens.  We feel lonely.  Life seems to have no meaning.  How could it, without our loved one?

“How can I go on?” the mourner cries out.  “From where my help will come?”

The answer, the only genuine answer is, “My help comes from God, Maker of heaven and earth.”  To empower the mourner, the one who has just stared into the terrifying grave and the end of man, the mourner is now re-invited to reestablish his relationship with God by reciting Kaddish again and again for the duration of the formal mourning period.

How is this reaffirmation of one’s full faith in God to be accomplished however, particular through the recitation of a prayer that makes no mention of death or guilt or memory of the past.  For the Kaddish is none of these things.  Rather it is,

…a declaration of faith in Israel’s national purpose, of loyalty to Israel’s creator, or confidence in the ultimate triumph of the ideals for which heavens and earth were created, of longing for the time when people – all people – will accept the heavenly mission that gives meaning to life and transcends death, that will illuminate the darkest moments of personal and universal tragedy.  Such an expression gives hope and direction to life and striving.

Kaddish is, quite simply, a proclamation of faith.  It is an acceptance of suffering, reflecting Divine purpose and judgment even in the face of death.  It is Jewish tradition’s answer to Dostoyevsky’s observation that, “without God murder would be but the falling of a leaf in the forest.”  It is God who gives meaning.  Our acceptance of God’s purpose and judgment renders death not completely ‘the other’ but promises that the death of our loved one is not for naught.

But Kaddish is not ‘magic’.  It does not erase the very human feelings and suffering that the mourner wrestles with.  Quite the opposite.  Kaddish affirms that the pain of the mourner is not a myth, it is real and meaningful.  It is, in fact, the most difficult test of our faith.

Kaddish is a petition to God for relief.  But it is not a standard bakasha, request.  Rather, it is a painful recognition that our only hope for survival, for meaning, rests in the revelation on earth of the Divine presence.  It is a higher form of prayer, in which our focus is not on our everyday needs and welfare but rather our focus is on our desire that the great name of God be sanctified.  Yehei sh’meih raba mevorakh.   Finally, through Kaddish, man resolves to dedicate himself to the goal of Kiddush Hashem, of bringing about the sanctification of God’s name on earth, which may very well be considered the ultimate goal of repentance.

We see now that the recitation of the Kaddish, which sought God’s help in sanctifying His name has become an instrument in the achieving this goal.  For when we publicly proclaim our faith and prayer for God, we cause the entire congregation to respond to our words and to proclaim in a communal, unified voice, “Amen.  Yehei shemei rabba mevorakh l’olam ul’almei al’mayya.  May His great name be blessed from now until eternity!”  It is this sanctification of God’s name by the entire congregation, brought about by our recitation, that is the high point of the Kaddish.

Rav Soloveitchik casts this reality in its most dramatic terms.  “The Kaddish,” he says, “marks the beginning of a new phase of courageous and heroic mourning with a message of Divine salvation.  When a mourner recites, ‘yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei rabba….’ He declares that we are not giving up, that are not surrendering, that we will carry on the work of our ancestors, that we will not be satisfied with less that the full realization of the ultimate resurrection of the dead, and eternal life for man.”


The Kaddish then, is the ‘voice’ that speaks to the mourner, telling him that he is not alone in his loss.  His loss is our loss.  His loss is God’s loss and therefore His name must be restored and magnified to its previous greatness.  The loss of one individual, one Adam, is tragic not only for his loved ones but also for his Father in Heaven.  Therefore, we need to console God by declaring that we who are left behind commit ourselves to help magnify and sanctify ‘Your name.’  The mourner, in reciting Kaddish, switches roles from one being consoled to becoming a consoler.

Kaddish moves the mourner as yizkor does, to raise his eyes and to see beyond the grave’s mound.  The days of our years in this world are numbered, our tasks go incomplete, our mission destined to be unfulfilled.  This world’s sojourn however is but a prozdor to the world of truth, the world of souls where the “righteous sit with their crowns on their heads and bask in the glory of God.”

Kaddish reminds us, as does yizkor, that we should hold high the ideals of the past so that we can ensure a better and more secure future, that we should cherish the unfulfilled dreams and yet realize their aspirations, for after all, all Jews share in common dreams and will likewise share in their eventual realization.  The passing of yesterday’s Jew shifts the onus of responsibility to tomorrow’s Jew in fulfilling the dream, even the ultimate dream, the messianic dream.

Our worth and meaning in this world is relevant because of the past, but more so because of the future.  

The ultimate message of Kaddish is that man is not alone.  And, saved from aloneness, even the tragedy of death can be given meaning.  

Man is not alone.  His worth is measured not simply by individual achievement but in the context of his community; by his interrelationship and connection to national dreams and aspirations, which can never be realized during the lifetime of any one individual.  This, when the death of an individual is confronted, Kaddish reminds the mourner of the unbroken link with the only One who transcends mortality and assures immortality through the eternity and fulfillment of our collective dream throughout all the generations.  And so, the Kaddish concludes with the hope that ultimately, “Maybe there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us, and upon all Israel.” 


Response to National Tragedy

It is clear that mourning is a personal journey.  Even a communal one.  As individuals, we grieve and mourn.  As communities, we grieve and mourn.  But what is the Jew’s response to a national tragedy?  What do we do when national dreams are shattered, collective goals destroyed, and universal Jewish aspirations quashed.  We have come to understand – and even appreciate – how to respond to an individual’s Churban.  How do we react to a national Churban?

How do we, as a people, react to a calamity so great that it brings our concept of peoplehood to its knees?  How do we react, for example, to the destruction of our sacred Temples in Jerusalem?

Our First Temple, the Beit Hamikdash, built to replace the Tabernacle by Solomon in the 10th century BCE stood for four hundred and ten years.  It was destroyed by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE as a result of our sinfulness.  At the time, the people engaged in idolatry, forbidden relationships, and murder.  With the destruction of the First Temple, we were taken into captivity in Babylonia.   We wept and mourned our loss at that time.  

As David wrote in Psalm 137: 

By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. 

As for our lyres, we hung them up on the willows that grow in that land.  For there our captors asked for a song, our tormentors called for mirth: ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ 

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? 

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, 

If I set not Jerusalem above my highest joy. Remember, O Lord, against the people of Edom the day of Jerusalem, how they said, ‘Down with it, down with it, even to the ground.’ 

O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy the one who repays you for all you have done to us, Who takes your little ones, and dashes them against the rock.

How we grieved and mourned.  And then Cyrus of Persia led his people in battle against the Babylonians.  When he defeated them, he allowed us to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Beit Hamikdash.

In 70 CE the Second Temple was destroyed by soldiers of the Roman Empire led by General Titus.  From that time forward, we wandered through the centuries, cast adrift from the land that God had promised us.  The destruction of our Second Temple was a tragic story of the downfall of a nation, our nation.  We, a once proud and noble people, reduced to a nation of wanderers, beggars and slaves, of a people, once admired and revered, who became the object of scorn.  

How far had the Lord’s chosen fallen!

How could we possibly mourn such a national calamity in a way that brings about teshuvah?  The destruction of the Second Temple changed the course of Jewish history and destiny.  The subsequent changes wrought havoc and confusion to the religious, national, social and cultural context of the Jewish people.   What comfort could there be found for a people when their “Holy city and the suburbs have become a disgrace and been looted; all her treasures have been buried and hidden?  How could a broken people rekindle their faith “when I see every city built on its hilltop, while the City of God is degraded to the nethermost depth?”

Where is the comfort?

“I am that man who has seen affliction by the rod of His anger.  He has driven me on and on into unrelieved darkness.  Only against me did He turn His hand repeatedly all day long?”

Is teshuvah possible?

How can a people transform themselves in the face of such a calamity?  

There are three kinds of responses to the destruction of the Temple, each directed at three different phases and serving different purposes relevant to the Churban.  Each of the responses relates to specific elements of the Churban:  past, future, and God.  Avelut and tzaar – mourning – is a response to the past; zikhronot, tziyunim, and semalim – memorials and remembrances – focus on the future; teshuvah and introspection focus on our relationship with God.

The obligation to mourn and grieve over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple comes from the prophet Isaiah:  “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all you that love her; Rejoice for joy with her, all you that mourn for her.”

On the basis of this verse, the Talmud teaches that “whoever mourns over Jerusalem merits to see her joy, and whoever does not mourn over Jerusalem does not see her joy.  When 17th Tammuz heralds the advent of the Three Weeks of mourning, our remembrance of the destruction of God’s dwelling place on earth culminates once again in the soul-searing tones of Tisha B’Av’s mournful lamentations.  The pain and sorrow we experience during this period, the restraints we practice, culminating in the actual mourning on the Ninth of Av, reawakens but a glimmer of recollection for the historic tragedy which forms the backdrop for our customs of mourning.  There are those for whom the destruction forms the blueprint for their liturgical year.  They are Avelei Tzion, Mourners of Zion.  For them, the destruction of the Second Temple is an on-going tragedy.  Since that time, the pious did not eat meat nor did they drink wine.  When Rebbi Yehoshua questioned their practice, the pious responded, “Shall we eat meat that is offered on the mizbe’ach and is no more?  Shall we drink wine that is sanctified on the mizbe’ach and is now dissolved?”

The pious asked, How can we go forward as we did before?  How can we not be transformed and have our transformation reflected in our behavior?

The second form of zikaron obligation deriving from the Churban has two aspects.  The first asks of us active remembrance of the destruction: leaving a spot of the house unpainted; leaving over a part of one’s meal; making mention of Jerusalem in tefilah and birkat ha’mazon.  In other words, we demonstrate a lacking in a direct, concrete manner.  We come to this demonstration of our remembering from the verse in Tehilim: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, Let my right hand forget her cunning.  Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; If I remember thee not: If I set not Jerusalem above my chiefest joy.”

The well-known wedding custom of breaking a glass under the chuppah is likewise derived from mournful cry of the Psalmist.  

These are all physical, concrete means of demonstrating that we will not forget that terrible tragedy; that the actual tragedy remains as real to us as it was to the poor souls whose eyes bore witness to those terrible days in the First Century C.E. 

The second aspect of our obligation to remember Jerusalem and all that she represents Jewishly and halakhically comes from our performance of mitzvot just as they were enacted and performed in the Mikdash itself.  For this reason, Reb Yochanan ben Zakai legislated that the lulav must be taken throughout for seven days (during Temple days it was only taken for seven days) as a Zecher l’Mikdash.  

The Talmud asks, “How do we know that we are to establish a remembrance for the Mikdash?”  Reb Yochanan responds, because the verse says, “For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds, says the Lord; because they have called thee an outcast:  She is Zion, there is none that cares for her.”  The last part of the Posuk Tzion hee doresh ein lah teaches us that we are to seek Jerusalem out in the very manner which ideal Jerusalem exists.  That is, mitzvot.  

Beyond the obligation to perform mitzvot in the post-Churban times in the same manner in which they were performed in the Mikdash (in order to always make real and immediate the Mikdash experience).  There is also an injunction to perform the mitzvot that were only performed in Eretz Yisrael during Temple days, outside Eretz Yisrael as well.  Jeremiah exclaims: “Set thee up marks (tziyunim), make thee guideposts (tamrurim)” – markings and posts that will remind us of the paths we left behind in the land of Israel.  (And which, therefore, mark the way back.)  For by separating terumot and ma’aserot even out in your own land, we remember how to live in the land.

Chazal established three types of remembrances (zikaron) to help us to cope with the Churban experience.  The first are zikaron experiences meant to invoke memories of Jerusalem throughout all of life’s experiences, from the mundane, such as eating, or religious obligations, such as praying, and even at the most joyous times of our lives, such as marriage.  With the Temple’s destruction, there ascended a perpetual state of mourning upon the Jew’s life experience.

We would never be the same.

We should never be the same.

If our remembrance of Jerusalem diminished, we would be diminished as a nation, as a people.  Our past is not mere prelude to our present and future.  It is an essential ingredient in who we are.  We cannot be transformed without remaining in some very profound way unchanged.  Therefore, though we could no longer offer sacrifices at the Temple, we offer prayers as both remembrance and as sacrifice.  As memory and as action.

In very real ways, we internalize as a people the reality of the Temple so that our character and our actions as a nation continue to represent the reality of the Temple.  We keep the Temple alive so that it remains a living, dynamic presence in our continued lives and so, when the Temple is rebuilt, we can return to it and reestablish the sacred rituals of the Temple as if they had never been interrupted.  

Because of this, even the choson walks down the path of happiness with ashes on his own head, because even as an individual Jew, he is a member of the collective Jewish nation and for the collective Jew there can no moment of joy, no unadulterated joy, without its memory of sadness, no experience in this life that does not connect to the Temple.  

How many times have we heard a friend or family member say, while attending a simcha, “so-and-so would have loved to be here”?   The absence of that loved one dampens the pure joy of the simcha.  If an individual’s absence can do that, how much more so is our joy moderated by the knowledge that the Beit Mikdash no longer stands in Jerusalem?

There are zikaron experiences that call to mind the lost regal mitzvah moments of the Temple; the great pageantry of the Beit Mikdash.  Finally, there are remembrances of a total lifestyle and religious-national mood that is no longer part of our Jewish routine.  Each of these zichronot evoke emotions and sentiments of the world that was, and which is sadly no more.

Just as active manifestations of mourning are insufficient for the individual mourner, so too are they lacking for the national response to the collective sense of mourning.  Actions are not enough to honor our loss and to satisfy our emotions.  It is not enough to light the yahrzeit candle.  Without something more it is merely an act, no different than lighting a candle in the evening to ward of the darkness of the coming night.

The Churban demands more from our collective mourning, more than mere memory.  We have become a nation without Kohanim at our service, Levites at our songs.  We can no longer make our way to Jerusalem to satisfy the requirements of the Three Pilgrimages.   We are no longer able to offer up sacrifices to God.  

No more does our Sanhedrin sit in authoritative judgment of the people, determining what is right and wrong according to Torah.  

We have lost so much of our spiritual vitality.  We are left with quiet introspection and reflective thoughts.  Fast days and commemorations.  And so, we incorporate zecher l’Mikdash rituals, restrictions, lamentations and fasting.  But are they necessary?  Does the “city and its inhabitants who sit in solitude, who became like a widow, who weeps bitterly in the night and her tear is on her cheek” need further prodding?  Isn’t our sadness and pain sufficient?  Aren’t the constant reminders of our forlorn state enough to assure that, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning?”

There are days which are observed by all Israel as fasts because tragic events happened on them, the object being to stir hearts and open the way to repentance, and to remind us of our own evil deeds, and of our fathers’ deeds which were like ours, as a consequence of which these tragic afflictions came upon them and upon us.  For as we remember these things we ought to repent and do good.

Rambam is making clear here that our rituals, observances, prohibitions, and restrictions are an important means of moving toward teshuvah.  These actions can stimulate the heart and the mind to probe and analyze why these national calamities have befallen us – certainly they are not mere coincidences or chance encounters with the impersonal forces of history – and therefore, how we can be transformed by them.  After all, if we are merely the victim (or beneficiary) of chance events, there is nothing to be gained or lost from examining them.  The event and experience cannot – and should not – change us.  It cannot be meaningful at all except in the most immediate and superficial sense.

However, we have stated that mourning is designed to bring about teshuva, transformation.  By definition then, our loss cannot be chance.  It cannot be random.  Our loss itself must be meaningful.  

The sociological or military or economic factors which play into a particular national event are academic studies best left to the political scientist and sociologist.  For the man of faith, these explanations are wholly insufficient.  Rambam is clear that to believe that when trouble befalls a community it is merely,

the way of the world for such a thing to happen to them, and their trouble is a matter of pure chance, they have chosen a cruel path which will cause them to persevere in their evil deeds.

Tzara, Churban, tragedy and oppression do not call for behavior alone.  They call for teshuvah.  They demand the introspection and soul-searching (as individuals and as a people) that can bring about transformation.  Just as Rambam states that, “whoever does not mourn in the manner prescribed by the rabbis is cruel” (because it is only through mourning that teshuvah can be realized) so too he declares that attributing Churban to mere chance is also cruel because one could never attain a real level of understanding in a way that could lead to teshuvah.  

There is no meaning in random events.  There is no significance in chance.  The falling of a tree in a forest is meaningless without God, how much more so the falling of a leaf?  Without God, murder is meaningless.  Death is meaningless.  Life, too, must therefore be meaningless.

In such a world, teshuvah is not only impossible, it is unnecessary.

Such a worldview is not a Jewish worldview!

God is fully engaged in the Jewish people.  He Himself prompts His nation to remember that when “It shall come to pass, when all these things come upon you, the blessings and the curse, which I have set before you… and you shall return unto the Lord you God, and you shall obey His voice.”

I have set before you.  

Could there be a more direct affirmation of God’s presence.  There are no ‘arbitrary’ events.  No mere ‘chance.’  God is present.  Meaning and faith are possible.  As the prophet Jeremiah calls out, “Of what shall a living man complain?  A strong man for his sins!  Let us search and examine our ways and return to Hashem, let us lift our hearts with our hands to God in Heaven: We have transgressed and rebelled; You have not forgiven.”

…and return to HashemTeshuvah!

So, if teshuvah and transformation are our goals, how do we manage to go forward for our collective community, the people Israel, to go forward in the shadow of Churban?  Remembrances only heighten our pain and keep us cognizant of our terrible loss.  Where is our consolation?

Once again, the answer is to be found in the soothing knowledge that man is not alone.  God is.  God too mourns.  He too feels bereft of His glory, and He too recognizes that Churban means an obstacle to complete service and a diminution of His splendor on earth.

When He exiled His children from His/their land, He too went into exile – Shechinta begaluta.  The Divine Presence is in exile.  Kol makom she’galu shechina imaen.  Every place that Jews have been exiled, God is with them.

The Shechina, the Divine Presence, is involved with Israel in the misery of their exile.  

Israel is never alone.  Israel is never without God.  When God informs Moshe how He is to be introduced to B’nai Yisrael in Mitzrayim, He proclaims, “I am that I am.”  Among the many understandings of this powerful statement of identification is this one in the Talmud, “I will be with them in this sorrow and (asher) I will also be with them in the subjugation they will suffer at the hands of other kingdoms.”

God readily admits to the necessity of His suffering along with His children.  Moreover, God sorrowfully laments every day, three times a day, the destruction and exile He brought upon His children,

I hear a divine voice, cooing like a dove, and saying: Woe to the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed My house and burnt My temple and exiled them among the nations of the world!…Not in this moment alone does it so exclaim, but thrice each day does it exclaim thus!

The Talmud concludes this passage reflecting on God’s pain and pangs, with the following insightful and instructive statement about the principle passage of the Kaddish:

And more than that, whenever the Israelites go into the synagogues and schoolhouses and respond: “May His great name be blessed!” the Holy One, blessed be He, shakes His head and says: Happy is the King who is thus praised in this House!  Woe to the father who had to banish his children, and woe to the children who had to be banished from the table of their father.

In other words, God admits to His own grief and bereavement!  He openly proclaims that He is with His children in their distress, lacking and missing their company, having been banished from His table.  Therefore, ever since the Churban He needs to be ever so much more assured, as it were, that “His great name be blessed.”  This passage, more than any other, substantiates the idea that Kaddish is the vehicle through which the mourning Jew (both individual and collective) hears that message that he is not alone and, not being alone, can find meaning and, finding meaning, achieves teshuvah.  

Man is not alone.

Loss and destruction are not suffered by man alone.

Woe not only to the banished children but also to the Father who had to banish, destroy and exile, and thus cause an insurmountable Chillul Hashem necessitating our renewed and reassuring faith in Him through the recitation of Kaddish.

According to the R. Hayim of Volozhin, the ultimate reason for man’s prayer is to pray for the removal of the pain and agony caused above when man suffers below.  

Teshuvah not only heals us, it heals God as well.

For this reason, God refers to every victory and salvation attained by Israel when calling upon Him as “My salvation.”  Is there a clearer statement that Israel’s salvation is His as well?  “He will call upon Me and I will answer him.  I am with him in distress, I will release him, and I will honor him.  With long life, I will satisfy him, and I will show him My salvation.”

God is with us in Israel’s distress.  Even in the midst of our most devastating exile, a long, dark night with no hope of a coming dawn – just like that of an individual’s travail in the depth of personal grief – the Psalmist offers a fervent prayer for God’s help.  “But as for me, I trust in Your kindness:  My heart will exalt in Your salvation…”

Our salvation in God’s salvation.  Therefore, “I will sing kindly to Hashem, for He has dealt kindly with me.”

Prayer, Mourning, Teshuvah

Prayer’s highest level and reason when a man mourns is not to beseech God to simply remove one’s personal pain and anguish.  Prayer’s aim and objective is – particularly when we have desecrated His name, diminished His glory, and caused suffering above, even as we suffer below – for God’s own sake.  To relieve the suffering above as we seek to remove the suffering below.  Our suffering is God’s merciful way of prodding us to recognize His suffering, so that we would prayer.

Prayer, according to R. Hayim of Volozhin, is the mechanism by which man’s suffering – a result of his own sins and failings – elevates man to recognize and empathize with the sufferings of the One Above Who shares and participates in man’s tza’ar.  This insight allowed Chazal to declare that whoever involves God in his tza’ar will have his parnasah doubled, a reward for his own agony, as well as for the agony caused to God.

Is it any wonder then that when man suffers the Shechinah exclaims, “I am burdened by My head, I am burdened by My arm.”?  Why head and arm?  Because they, more than anything else, demonstrate God’s complete identification and sympathy with man’s suffering.  The head and the hand hold man’s tefillin in place.  God, as it were, also dons tefillin.  Man’s hand-tefillin symbolizes Israel’s love of God, His Unity, and the remembrance of His miracles.  The head-tefillin symbolizes that Israel adorns itself with God’s glory, and His commandments serve as its crown.  

God’s tefillin demonstrate that the One God chose the one Israel, that He raised Israel over all the other nations, that He considers Himself praised when Israel fulfills the commandments.  He testifies that His prime desire of creation was that Israel exist and that His original thought in creating the world was to create Israel.  In a binding relationship says the Chatam Sofer, each partner wears jewelry as a reminder and declaration of the love each has for the other.  This is the symbolism behind both Israel and God wearing tefillin.  

Our bond is clear.  Our relationship is strong.

That bond is damaged when we mourn.  When man’s world is shattered by the advent of the death of a loved one, he may not don tefillin.  The relationship between him and God is distanced.

That mutual – and temporary – suspension is man’s greatest consolation, both in his personal as well as his national bereavement.  Man is not alone.  God too cannot don his tefillin.  God too coos like the dove, saying, “Woe to the father who had to banish his children.”

God awaits His nation’s proclamation, “May His great name be blessed” as He awaits the individual’s same proclamation.  Teshuvah, transformation, is the essential dynamic of re-establishing the bond with God, more closely than it had existed before.

May His great name be blessed, so that He too may be consoled!

  • This essay originally appeared in Meditations at Sixty, Ktav Publishing House, 2008

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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