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Yizkor 5777

“Who Will Say Kaddish For Us?

October 12, 2016

For several years we held twice a week daily services here at Temple Sinai.   We began them with two thoughts in mind.

First, we wanted to make sure that anyone in the Temple Sinai Family that was in mourning and needed to say Kaddish never had to go to another shul to fulfill this sacred duty.

Over the years many in our congregation that have found it necessary to do precisely that. They went to Beth Shalom, Tree Of Life- Or L’Simcha or Rodef Shalom in the late afternoon or evening because we were not able to serve their needs.  I found this sad, even painful.

After all, what are we here for if we can’t meet your most basic spiritual needs, like saying Kaddish for your parents and relatives?

Second, I very much wanted to teach liberal Jews that our prayers are not only offered on Shabbat. This is the unfortunate impression you might get coming to Kabbalat Shabbat or morning Shabbat services.

You might get the impression that Jewish prayer is only about Shabbat. You get the wrong impression that our spirituality is self-contained, from the time we light candles on Friday night to extinguishing the Havdalah candle on Saturday.

For several years the weekday minyans worked. We would get 7- 8 people on Mondays or Thursdays. As Reform Jews, we did not require a minyan of 10 adults, only some community to surround the mourner and respond as a congregation with the appropriate passages in the Kaddish.

Then some regulars said that they couldn’t make the early time, 5:30 in the afternoon. So we changed one of the minyans to 7. Then some were concerned that it was too late for them to make it. After 5 years the regular minyan had dissipated to one other person. She and I would pray in silence, neither of us needing to say Kaddish. We decided we could pray silently on our own without coming to the building.

The weekday minyan still exists twice a month – our Thursday leadership meetings always start with the Ma’ariv, the evening service.

I like the fact that our leadership reaffirms its Jewish roots before taking up Temple business. Attendance is far from perfect. Some want only to come to the Board meeting. Yet a good many attend and pray the daily service with remarkable ease and intention.

Twice a month is better than no times at all, I guess. But what if you wanted to say Kaddish and it wasn’t one, of those two Thursday nights? You’ll go to one of the places I mentioned before or you won’t pray at all. Your family member won’t be honored with your Kaddish, the words you yourself pray with your own lips.

Even well-known Jewish scholar and skeptic, the passionately erudite Leon Wieseltier, found himself drawn to saying Kaddish for a year after his father died. He found that once he began the daily routine, he was darned if he would break it. He found minyans in yeshivas and kollels and even in the corridors of lecture halls before he was scheduled to speak. He would simply round up ten and lead the evening service himself, insuring that he would not lose the opportunity to say Kaddish for his father even one time.

When I heard him speak at a rabbinic gathering on Israel last year one of my colleagues made the mistake of asking him what he would preach about Iran on the high holidays if he were a rabbi.  He didn’t hesitate a second before thundering, “I wouldn’t say anything about Iran for the high holidays!  It’s not what the high holidays are for!”

He went on to lament the incredible erosion of core Jewish knowledge, religious and cultural. He said we were in danger of flipping the course of Jewish history in just 3 generations. Whereas our great- grandparents were poor in material wealth, they were rich beyond imagining in Jewish knowledge. We are the most affluent Jewish community in history, yet we are Jewishly impoverished, most not knowing what the Talmud even is, much less how to access its riches.

The end of this trend, I think, is particularly poignant for we, who today remember our beloved fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, partners and children at Yizkor time.

We are here because we refuse to concede to the utter finality of death. As long as we are here to say Kaddish, our beloveds still live in heart. We see their images in our mind’s eye. We feel their caress in our muscle memory.  We hear their voices in the deepest recesses of our ears. Our tears run unashamedly down our faces here and now as we remember them at Yizkor.

Kaddish, which mentions not a word about death, is our spiritual resistance movement, our denial of what is plainly real, that death ends life. We say “No!” They are not dead. They live still, within us. We say Kaddish with tears, but we will not be moved from saying it. It is our sacred duty and today we will not flinch or shirk from it, even though it would be easy enough to do.

But what about our children? Assimilation and rejection of Jewish faith and practice do not bode well for attendance at Yizkor services a quarter century from now. Robert Putnam, the brilliant religious sociologist from Harvard recounts the retreat from religious engagement in painstaking detail in his masterwork, American Grace.

He details how the number of those unattached to any faith has skyrocketed since the early 90’s, from 5% then to more than 20% now.

You might be surprised to know that Dr. Putnam, born a Methodist, is a committed Reform Jew. He belongs to Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Massachusetts.  And although he claims not judge his conclusions, only report them, how can he not be distressed, at least a little?  He has children and grandchildren right here in Pittsburgh.

Who will say Kaddish for us? If our children do not see us connected to Jewish practice, going to services, saying Kaddish for our parents, how can we possibly expect them to do this for us?

I hear some of us saying to ourselves:  I don’t believe in prayer! I’m not sure I even believe in God!  But you believe in loving remembrance, of that I’m sure. Why else would you be here? Even if it was only a promise to someone precious who died, you must have believed that the promise you made was worthwhile! You know what Kaddish is and you know that you feel a sense of fulfillment when you say it. Are we transmitting that same feeling, that same depth of connection to our children?

I know, we send our kids to religious school. But we can’t do in 75 hours a year what you can, both at home and coming to services. When you decide to bring them you say that it is important to you, not just that you want them to be exposed to services as an abstract lesson in Judaism.

I know, you did not come to Yizkor to be hectored, guilted or shamed. That is not my intent. Really, it is not.  I am just a messenger, or more accurately, a canary in the coal mine.  The fewer young people who come to services regularly, the fewer will have the seeds of connection and Kaddish sown deep in their neshamas, their souls.

There is a family I know that is anguished over their adult children’s detachment from Judaism. They wonder aloud if they will be honored with Kaddish when they die. When asked if they brought their kids to services they said it didn’t seem important at the time and besides, they didn’t enjoy them all that much.

Their words broke my heart.  If your shul is not touching your spirit, it’s time to go to another shul. The connection, the living chain of tradition through our families, is too precious to throw away because you don’t like a particular rabbi’s sermons, or maybe, his jokes.

Who will say Kaddish for us?

Author Lawrence Epstein shares a story about one of the pioneers of Jewish genealogy, Arthur Kurzweil. Kurzweil spent time trying to rediscover his roots throughout Eastern Europe. He visited a small town in Poland where his great- grandfather was born. There,

“…he befriended an elderly couple, both [Holocaust] survivors…[he] spent a lot of time with the couple. A few years later, Arthur returned and decided to visit the couple again…He knocked on the door and was met by the woman, who stood all dressed in black. It turned out that…her husband had died a year and half earlier and she was still in mourning. [She] looked at Arthur, grabbed his arm, and said ‘Do you know the Kaddish?’

[She said fervently] ‘Tomorrow morning we will go to the cemetery…’ [She] was up early and was clearly anxious to get [there]…as quickly as possible…They walked through the gate of the cemetery to her husband’s grave and stood next to each other, the elderly woman clutching Arthur’s arm while he began to recite the Kaddish. He had only spoken a few words when the woman began to cry. Arthur, moved by her…struggled to get through the prayer.

A few days later, [her] black mourning dress had been exchanged for more regular attire and her face was…filled with relief. She had waited a year and half for someone who could say Kaddish so that she would be able to get on with her life". (A Treasury of Jewish Inspirational Stories, Lawrence J. Epstein, Aaronson Books, Northvale, NJ, pgs. 72-73)

Can you imagine someone in your family that desperate to say Kaddish for you or me after we are gone? Can you imagine feeling so desperate and cut off from family and community that you would do anything to have someone say the Kaddish you didn’t know how to recite?

That story is from Poland, where the Jewish community is virtually non-existent. Here, we have all the freedom in the world to practice our faith and we are in danger of this happening to us.

We Reform Jews have trouble with being commanded, as we all know. But it would be so terribly sad to fail to plant this seed in our children. Seeds left in the package never grow. Plant the seeds of Kaddish and prayer in your children and grandchildren. Don’t expose them to prayer. Pray. Pray your hopes, dreams and memories. Don’t watch your children perform in services. Pray with them. You know as well as I do that children learn from watching what we do, not hearing what we say.

And over time you just might find more reason to pray here, together, as a family and in community. On second day Rosh Hashana I spoke about our need to know how to walk the spiritual path in Judaism, not to have to invent it for ourselves. Our communal rituals and prayers are our “rote-map” to connection, both to each other and that which is beyond our touch. Like the memories of our beloved dead we cherish at Yizkor.

At a recent board meeting, Rabbi Gorban was challenged to explain the drop in Religious School enrollment. All expected her to lament the rise of alternative programs of Jewish engagement, such as J- JEP or J-Line.  Instead, she said one word:  “Sports.”  And realization dawned that for many families, their children’s participation in sports has far more value than anything we offer here.

But, if that is true, who will say Kaddish for us?

I propose that we turn ancient custom on its head. It used to be that you never went to Yizkor if your parents were alive, lest you bring down the chance of death upon them. I say, bring your children, bring your teenage grandchildren to Yizkor.

Let them see your tears as you say Kaddish for your parents and grandparents.  Let them know you care about them saying it for you.

Let them know that you would be terribly sad if you were not honored with Kaddish as we have honored our beloved dead for more than a millennium. Break tradition. Bring your kids to Yizkor at Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah, Pesach and Shavuot. Even if it means taking them out of school, bring them to watch you say Kaddish and know that as you have defeated death through its words, they can do so after you and I are gone.

I want desperately to end my words this Yizkor with comfort. But as my revered teacher, Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus, put it, “Divrei nechomoh?  Words of comfort?  The best comfort is reality!” (From “My Testament,” Rabbi Jaob Rader Marcus, 1989).

Reality is knowing that we can stop this rush to oblivion. Reality is knowing that we can bring our kids and grandkids here to say Kaddish or watch us say it. Whether or not we can revive a twice weekly daily service here, who knows?

Yizkor offers us two paths: To wallow in the sadness over the finality of death or to live our lives honoring the values of those we loved so fiercely, to say Kaddish with our lives. Let us choose the second.

Our task?  To live as Jews, to gather in prayer, to insist for ourselves and those we love that we will not lightly accept our disappearance into the ether forever. Our task is to live and say Kaddish instead, with hope, commitment, faith and love.

With hope, faith, commitment and love, maybe we will not have to worry about who will say Kaddish for us. We will rest easier this year, just knowing that as we do for our beloved dead here and now, our children will do for us. Yitgadal, v’yitkadash, sh’mei raba. May God’s name be magnified and sanctified, by our lips and our lives. By our lips and our lives.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784