Rabbi Cohen’s Sermon – Yom Kippur Yizkor – Kaddish: A Congregation of Mourners

Every time we reach the kaddish we are usually already standing because we just recited Aleinu. I continue with words such as, “we take moments now to remember those who are no longer with us and those who’s memories are woven with our own.” And then I read the kaddish list of those who we remember on that Shabbat and the coming week – the coming week so that we are reminded to light the yahrzeit candle on the day of our loved one’s anniversary of passing. Being a part of this congregational family, there are names I recognize year in and year out. Some of them, I never knew because they have been long gone but not forgotten. Then there are so many names of those whose funerals I have personally been a part of. Those whose families I sat with before, during and after death. Those whose memories have been given to me as a fine thread to be woven into a tapestry of memory, that then I am able to give to the family to hold on to and find comfort. I am sometimes jarred when I read the names of those whose passing brought me to tears as well because I knew them, because I loved them. Their thread is a part of my own tapestry. And even when I walk through the cemetery at Harbor Lawn or Pacific View, I remember their stories, I remember whose lives they touched and how they touched mine.

Yet still, I feel a bit guilty when I am saying kaddish for them along with their families. I wonder, am I intruding on a sacred moment that should belong only to the family, only to those whose responsibility it is to say kaddish? Am I taking something away from them because I want to say kaddish too? Is it my place?

Some would suggest yes, it is my place because all too often a family is not able to say kaddish for a loved one. They don’t know how to recite the words themselves, either because no one taught them or they just were not comfortable enough to speak them out. It is traditional that the the only people who stand for kaddish are those who are in mourning or observing a yahrzeit. However, there was a tradition that began in the early 19th century because of people who were so uncomfortable reciting the words of kaddish that they turned to young rabbinic students for help. Not to teach them the words, rather, people would pay the rabbinic students to stand in their place for kaddish and recite the ancient prayer on their behalf.

This tradition then developed into the entire congregation rising for kaddish so that no one would know who was reciting kaddish for a loved one or who was there to support another.

Today, there are families who look to me with eyes longing for me to recite kaddish for them. And I do, but slowly, in hopes that maybe they will see on my face, ‘it’s not if you can pronounce the words perfectly, it’s that you are allowing the words to come forth from your lips.’

But it is a very different experience when you are personally remembering someone so very close.

I’ve been very lucky over my lifetime. My parents are alive and very well, thank you God! The closest family members I have lost have been grandmothers, aunts and uncles. And yes, those losses were painful, but not like losing a parent, sibling, a spouse, a child – those who many of you remember at this time. And while I’ve sat with many of you, I know I don’t fully comprehend the pain you endure. All I can do is love you and care for you and make sure you know you are never alone.

Wendy Bocarsky wrote an essay, “Kaddish Club” in which she shares her experience of entering into this club no one actually wants to join, but will at some point in their lives. She entered this Kaddish Club when her father died a few years ago. As an oncology nurse, she walked through the valley of shadows with families every day. Some who came with their own traditions of mourning and others who were lost as to what they were “supposed” to do. Some with no family at all. Wendy wrote:

For years I have been reciting the Kaddish for a patient with whom I developed a particularly close relationship.  Victor, (a patient of Wendy’s) had no one in his life at the end.  As his nurse I promised him that he would not be forgotten, one of his greatest fears.  Every year on the anniversary of his death as well as at Yizkor, I have lit a memorial candle at home and then have kept my promise to him in the synagogue by rising as a mourner and reciting the ancient words.  I have always been filled with a strong sense of a holy mission as each opportunity to remember Victor comes.

But, as Wendy writes, it was very different when it was time for her to rise as a mourner in her congregation and recite Kaddish for her father. The words do not come easily, not because she does not know them, but rather because she knows what they imply. That she is a mourner, that her father has died and now she takes her place with the other mourners to recite Kaddish.

 

This past January, my best friend, Shawna, a rabbi in Northridge, lost her father after many years of battling cancer. She kept saying, ‘no, I don’t need anything,’ but I am not a very good listener. I called her and said, ‘I’m on my way, like it or not, to sit with you in the hospital.’ And there we sat, together and with family. I sang to him and held Shawna in my arms and we cried. As a rabbi, she knew the process of dying but this was very different, she was losing her Daddy. She called him almost every day. When something happened with one of her three girls, or she needed advise, or Isaac her husband, was trying to fix something in the house and she needed him to talk him through it or give him the number of a good handyman, she called him. And the reality struck her – he was not going to be there any more. She was not going to be able to call him and hear his voice.

And when he died and the day of the funeral came, she wanted me close but was worried because the small chapel at Eden did not have many seats in the front. I told her, don’t worry, I’ll find room. And so, I sat at her feet, holding on to her legs, collecting tissues from the family and never let go. I stood with her at kaddish, but this time, I didn’t say the words except the traditional responses – I needed her to say kaddish for the first time for her Dad alone. And she did.

Months went by and every time Kaddish came around in the service, Shawna struggled. She would stand back from the mic when leading services. She knew the congregation needed her to help them say the words for Kaddish, but it is this time that she needed to say the Kaddish for herself, for her Father.

Have we become a congregation of mourners? Have we taken these moments away from those families in mourning by not allowing them to be recognized as mourners so we can give them comfort? By having the full congregation standing from Aleinu through Kaddish, have we made those who are in mourning invisible? Do we know who they are so we can comfort them at this time of loss and memory?

It is not easy to say Kaddish. The ancient Aramaic words are difficult to formulate on our lips, and that’s even for those of us who are more comfortable in reciting Hebrew. While we don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable because they cannot say the words themselves, we still should give them the kavod, the love and respect of being mourners in our congregation.

After Aleinu we will be seated. Part of reciting Kaddish is our responsibility as a congregational family to support those who have experienced a loss or who are remembering a loved one at that time. As we recite the names on our Kaddish list, either of those who we lost over this past year, and those names that we recite each Shabbat, I want to encourage you, when you hear your loved one’s name, stand if you choose. I know there will be times that some don’t want any attention drawn to them while in mourning, but I want to give you the opportunity to allow us to embrace you and support you as you remember. And then, together as a congregational family, we will rise together because there are those, who like Victor, who like the entire families who were completely destroyed, that we take into our hearts with our own. And together, we will say kaddish.

When Wendy entered the Kaddish Club and began reciting Kaddish for her father, she wrote, “And yet through my tears, I find comfort.  I feel the virtual hugs of the other members of the club, who like me did not become a member willingly and the support of the rest of my community who either have been a member of this select group or will become one in the not too distant future.”

The Kaddish Club is one that many of you are a part of today and one that we all will be a part of at some point in our lives. And even through those difficult times of mourning, especially when the wounds are so fresh, realize, while we love and support you during your mourning, we are grateful that you love and support us when it is our time to mourn as well. Sometimes we are the ones who need comfort and sometimes we are the ones who need to comfort, and both are truly blessings.

Today, we gather here for our Yizkor service so that we are not alone. May we never be alone in our grief and may we always know that we are surrounded by those who want to love and support us at these difficult times. Though the words may not come easily from our lips, may they come forth as blessings of remembrance for our loved one and all those who came before us, for their memory is truly a blessing.

Amen v’Amen

 

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