Growth Through Kaddish
After my father died, we continued to grow together.
My father passed away just a little over a year ago. Fortunately, Judaism provides many tools to help a mourner cope with the grief and to accept the loss. One of these tools is the Kaddish prayer. Jewish tradition says that Kaddish is so powerful that the whole world is maintained because of it. Kaddish is written in ancient Aramaic and is recited daily during the prayer services. For the loss of a parent, the mourners' Kaddish is recited daily for 11 months.
After I finished saying Kaddish for my father, I wondered what he would say about that experience and how it affected both him and myself. Here is what I imagine he would say if he was speaking to us directly from heaven…
Like many fathers and sons, my relationship with my son Ari was challenging at times. Sometimes I would tell Ari something serious, and I wasn't sure if he was listening to me. So after I passed away I didn't know if he would follow through and say Kaddish for me.
I had asked Ari to do that many times before I passed away. When he was 12 years old and I was driving him to bar mitzvah lessons I told him that I want him to say Kaddish for me every day. I told him how I said it for my parents, and that I wanted him to say it for me. I told him that even if someone offered to say the Kaddish for him, he should say it himself. But Ari just laughed!
When Ari was 19 years old he was out of the house and attending college. I was getting older and I started to wonder again whether he would say Kaddish for me when I passed away. So, I wrote him a letter saying how I had made all other arrangements regarding my passing, and all I wanted him to do was say Kaddish. Again, I was not sure whether he would follow through and do it.
Some 14 years later, on May 17, 2003 (Iyar 15, 5763), I left the physical world.
The question remained: Would my son say Kaddish for me?
Kaddish is an affirmation of life. I knew it would help my son.
As I ascended out of this world, I could see my family in the physical world. I could see the pain they were going through as my loss began to set in. My son Ari was particularly distraught. I prayed that he would follow through and say Kaddish, as I had for my parents. I knew it would help him. The Kaddish is an affirmation of life, declaring that even though we have suffered a loss, God knows best and we place our trust in Him. Up here I clearly see that God has an ultimate plan for the world. And it is a merit for the deceased to be the cause, so to speak, of having this praise of God expressed publicly.
Then, as my body was laid to rest, with my family and friends gathered at the cemetery, I heard something. It sounded distant and broken, and I couldn't quite make out all the words because the tears were preventing the words from coming through clearly. But it sounded like my son was saying something special. Then I heard:
Yisgadal v'yiskadash …
The Kaddish! I suddenly felt much better. Up here everyone knows the story of how Rabbi Akiva once found a man who was as black as charcoal carrying a heavy burden. The man explained to Rabbi Akiva that he was a dead man and that he needed merits -- but those could only be accrued on earth. Rabbi Akiva asked how he could help, and the man replied that if his son would say Kaddish (among a few other things) he would gain those merits. So Rabbi Akiva found the child, taught him how to say Kaddish, and the dead man gained the merits he needed.
So you can imagine my relief when, early the next morning, I heard the same words again:
Yisgadal v'yiskadash …
My son was in fact saying Kaddish and although his voice broke at many times, it did not matter. He was saying Kaddish. However, as pleased and excited as I was, I still wondered whether he would continue for the next 11 months. I knew that if he did so it would not only be good for me, but it would be good for him, too. Since the Kaddish causes a spiritual elevation of my soul, while the pain of Ari's loss remains, this knowledge is a comfort to him.
For the remainder of the week, while he was sitting shiva, my son continued to say Kaddish -- morning, afternoon and evening. Each time he said the prayer, we both felt better.
The week was just about over and then I heard the words again, only this time something was different… something was special.
This time the words were extra powerful. I wondered why, and then I realized, it was Shabbat! Although it was comforting to hear Ari say Kaddish all week, hearing it on Shabbat was an extra lift. And even greater was that my son was actually observing Shabbat for the first time. He didn't drive a vehicle or speak on the phone or turn on lights. He went to services and prayed to God. I knew that if he kept this up, he would enjoy being reconnected as a Jew and his life would get better.
Ari returned to Los Angeles, and I could see the impact of this powerful prayer already. He was changing and growing. He was feeling proud of being Jewish and he started to wear a kippah every day. And he was keeping Shabbat.
He joined a morning minyan and started putting on tefillin.
He bought mezuzot for his home, and a pair of tzitzit.
It turns out that Kaddish was just one of the ways -- along with accepting more Jewish involvement and commitment -- that Ari was making a difference for me, for eternity.
He started to eat kosher and attend Torah classes.
Then he started to read the weekly parsha and books on Jewish philosophy. And he began reading the prayers in Hebrew.
The more Ari said Kaddish, the more he grew. Saying Kaddish was affirming a new awareness of God, and it had grown out of Ari's relationship with me, in whose memory he was saying Kaddish.
As time went on, each time he said the words I could feel that he himself was healing, and that I too was rising. As my son was honoring my wish to say Kaddish, he was growing closer to God and Torah. I did not think it could get any better. But then…
My son took a trip to Israel!
Talk about extra lift. When he was in Israel he said Kaddish at the Western Wall and at Masada and all throughout the land. It was amazing. The intensity of those prayers he said while in Israel was beyond words. It was like every day was Shabbat, of course except for Shabbat itself when that was like 100 times Shabbat!
I had to brag a bit, to show all the relatives how much Ari had changed and grown.
I was so proud that my son was in Israel that I gathered all of my relatives on both sides of the family, including Ari's grandparents and his great-grandparents who are here with me. After all, I had to brag a bit, to show them how much my son had changed and grown.
When December 31, New Years Eve, came around, as the rest of the world was partying and celebrating, my son went into the mikveh of the holy kabbalist the Arizal in Tzfat. And when he came out, he led the Maariv service. Not only would I never have imagined that he would say Kaddish every day, but to lead the service -- in Israel of all places, and at such a holy spot! To think that just eight months earlier my son did not even know what a Maariv service was, and to now be leading it in Israel. That was the best thing I could have experienced.
When Ari returned to Los Angeles, with only three months to go before finishing the 11-month period, he continued saying Kaddish every day. And as he prepared for Passover, by cleaning his apartment and taking classes, I noticed that he started practicing leading the Mincha service. I knew something special was going to happen as Passover rolled around.
That practice paid off and he led the Mincha service on the eve of Passover. It was so powerful, and I was so proud. I felt more elevated than ever. What was he going to do next? Could he and I go much higher? I eagerly awaited the next Kaddish. I figured now that Passover came in, it would probably be extra special. As I heard the end of the "Aleynu" prayer, I eagerly anticipated hearing his Kaddish.
Instead it was silent. Ari did not say anything.
Then it hit me. The 11 months were over. The Mincha service was his last time. I would not hear him say Kaddish daily anymore. Ari had completed the task I had prayed for and he accomplished so much more than I ever imagined. I was ecstatic. My son had become a mensch!
And then in my joy I was suddenly overcome with sadness. Because in that silence where my son no longer said Kaddish, I felt his thoughts. He was wondering what he was going to do now that the 11-month Kaddish period was over. For 11 months he had a purpose a goal, and now that was over. What would he do now? What path in life would he take?
And then it came to me. A short time before I passed away I sent Ari an email with the answer he needed. I prayed he would find it.
I did find the email. It was just a few words that my dad wrote about two months prior to his passing. But like most of his advice, it was what I needed to hear and contained the answer I was seeking. It is advice that I think we can all follow. He wrote:
"Believe in God and enjoy your life!"
In loving memory of my father, J. Jerry Zeltzer.
Click here for the hebrew words and english translation of Kaddish.