Absence and Presence
“Kaddish yatom, the mourner’s Kaddish. All those who mourn and those observing a yahrzeit, please rise.” When I heard the rabbi utter those words, I thought, “Oh God, now it’s my turn.” I stood up and within a moment the words flowed from my mouth, at once with a choked, emotional stutter and yet with fluidity: Yitgadal ve-yitkadash…
I said Kaddish every day for a full eleven months for each of my beloved parents. My mother died rather suddenly in 1998. My father died in 2010 after a long and inspiring struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Each time, my relationship to this prayer, to my commitment to say it daily, to my parents and their memory, as well as to Judaism changed.
Over the course of those eleven months I felt my grief slowly begin to subside. Yet when the eleven months were over, I found it hard to let go of Kaddish. Saying Kaddish had allowed my parents to be a continuous “presence” in my daily life even though I could no longer hear their voices or touch their hands. One thought, however, never changed: Kaddish is something everyone participates in. Today you may be the one saying amen; tomorrow, you could be the one saying Yitgadal ve-yitkadash.
The call and response, the public nature of Kaddish are part of what makes saying these words so powerful for me. Kaddish brings us together so that we can remember that some of us are missing. It is a profound weaving together of absence and presence. The mourner represents the absence, while the minyan represents the presence.
The second time I said Kaddish, the experience was vastly different. I was now a teacher and had two daughters of my own. When I said Kaddish for my mother, I wasn’t aware of myself as a role model. This time, I was mindful that I was modeling the importance of Kaddish for my daughters and my students. I chose to say Kaddish daily in the student-led egalitarian tefillah at the Jewish Community High School, where I teach.
A truly transformative thing happened in this minyan. For the three months prior to my father’s passing, our egalitarian minyan wasn’t a minyan. We only had about eight people, and so we davened together without a minyan. Each day we concluded our prayers with a Mishebeirach for cholim. At various times, we shared with each other those we included in our prayers for a refuah shleimah, including my father.
When he died, I didn’t go to work during shivah, and this happened to coincide with our school’s tefillah sign-up time. To my surprise, the egalitarian tefillah swelled with students. Students joined the minyan simply to allow me to say Kaddish for my dad. This had a profound impact on me. I had shared with my students my teaching that it is as important to be there for someone saying Kaddish, as it is to say Kaddish when your turn comes, as it unfortunately inevitably does, and it was truly gratifying to see that they had internalized that message.
Saying Kaddish with students heightened my awareness of absence and presence. When I said Kaddish for my mother, it was her absence that Kaddish pointed to. This time, with children and students in my life, my Kaddish pointed to many absences: my father’s and those future absences whose voids will fill the lives of these young people.
We often say to those who grieve, “May the memory of your loved one be for a blessing.” Saying Kaddish with students refracted that blessing tenfold. The blessing of Kaddish is the memory of beloved parents, their painful absence, the presence of community in minyan and the modeling of this mitzvah to a younger generation who are already taking responsibility simply by being present.