My Study of Kaddish Continues

Short and Sweet

I’ve been studying the origins and purpose of the Kaddish prayer the last few weeks, and I’m amazed at the growth of the prayer’s importance to Judaism through the last millennia.

‘May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified [Amen] in the world that He created as He willed’

This is how Kaddish Yatom [the Mourner’s Kaddish] begins. Something that has always bothered me is the concept that Hashem’s name must “grow exalted and sanctified.” Whatever happened to his Name being the most High? It wasn’t until I was studying for a drash [sermon] at my synagogue that my question was answered.

In Parashah Vayashev [Genesis 37.1 – 40.23], Joseph is sold into slavery by ten of his 11 brothers. They take his tunic and bathe it in the blood of a goat to make their father believe Joseph was slaughtered by a carnivore. In response to this terrible news, the text says ,”and Jacob… mourned for his son many days… saying, ‘I will go down to the grave to my son mourning.’” In fact, we have a precursor to this grief when Torah says, “But he refused to be comforted.”

Rashi, a Torah commentator who lived 1040 – 1105 CE], said “many days” indicates a 22-year mourning period. In the text that follows, we see that Jacob’s reactions to ensuing events are chained to the bloody tunic. In the 22 years between the loss of and his reunion with Joseph, Jacob is the world’s most miserable man. Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno [1475 – 1550 CE] took special note of this and commented, “Isaac [Joseph’s grandfather] wept for Jacob’s sorrow because Jacob assumed lifelong mourning, which would have the effect of keeping the Divine Presence away from him.”

If Sforno is correct that mourning keeps the Divine Presence at bay, then the opening line of Kaddish makes perfect sense. At the time of our loss, we [often mechanically] recite Kaddish Yatom to acknowledge that all things are in the hands of Hashem because it is He who created the world as He willed. Our loss causes a momentary and mandatory time of reflection as we compare ourselves to the one who just passed. This is the healthiest part of the death of a loved one, because our loss has the effect of revealing our shortcoming and our strengths.

As we endure the mourning process, the Kaddish and the mere presence of our friends and family during Shiva help heal our loss, and our pain subsides with the passage of time. Therefore, our ability to experience the Presence of Hashem increases as our period of grief subsides and fades. This means that from our point of view, the Name of the Holy One ,blessed is He, grows exalted and sanctified, because we are once again able to experience Kavanah with [or toward] Him.

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