Kaddish Speaks to Mourners

The Kaddish responds to three questions: Is there a God? Why do people die? What is the meaning of life?

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Reprinted with permission from A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort (Jewish Lights), by Dr. Ron Wolfson.

Why is it that the mourner recites the Kaddish at the end of the service? After all, there isn't a word about death in the prayer. It is a kind of benediction, a last "good word" before ending the service so people will go home feeling uplifted. The words remind us of what we came together to do--namely praise God--and they encourage us to look forward to the establishment of God's kingdom, when there will be completion, peace. But, why should the mourner be given this honor?

Kaddish Responds to Loss of Faith

My theory is that there are three problems that mourners face that the Kaddish speaks to in a most direct manner. The first problem is loss of faith. If there is a God in this world, how could my loved one die? Maybe there is no God in this world; maybe the world is rudderless.

The blow to faith is never more pronounced than it is at the moment when you bury a loved one. Yet, here comes the Kaddish and proclaims faith in God. It isn't that the mourner is talked back into faith by reciting the Kaddish. But the fact that a mourner says the Kaddish in a minyan [quorum of 10] of Jews three times a day for a period of 11 months keeps the mourner in the community of faith. By standing up and proclaiming publicly, "Yitgadal v'yitkadash sh'mei rabbah"--"Magnified and sanctified is the great name of God"--the body and soul of the mourner have a chance to recuperate, to go through a healing process.

The perspective changes from that first day, that first week, that first month. The mourner begins to see that there are magnificent mountains and blue skies and gorgeous flowers and lovely birds. You don't know that the day you bury your mother. But a month later you do; two months later, you certainly do. The denial of the existence of God, which wallops the mourner like a sledgehammer during that first week, is blunted some by the recitation of the Kaddish, as the mourner gradually regains perspective.

Why Do People Die?

Okay, so you say there's a God in the world? But, what kind of God can it be? A good God would not have taken my child. A congregant called me last night to tell me that his 19-month-old grandson has a tumor on his brain the size of a baseball. It's malignant. The chances of a 19-month-old baby surviving this are very, very slim. Maybe one in five. This same man's wife died two years ago at the age of 56. He says to me, "Eleanor, I can understand. Fifty-six years old, with children and grandchildren. But, a 19-month-old baby? Come on, what kind of God are we dealing with?"

The Kaddish speaks to this problem, too. It says, "B'almah divrah khi'rutei"--"Throughout the world which He created according to His will." There is a certain pattern to life and death in this world that seems to be inherent in creation. If God is the author of creation, then God created it as a place where people live and then die.

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Rabbi Bernard Lipnick

Rabbi Bernard Lipnick (1926-2010) served as the rabbi of Congregation B'nai Amoona in St. Louis for more than 40 years.