Keddoshim t’ hyu ki kaddosh ani Adonai Elohayhem
You shall be holy, for I the Eternal your God, am holy.
Over the past few months, I think the Kaddish has been more on my mind than ever before. With the uncertainty and social isolation caused by COVID-19, the possibility of reciting Kaddish with a minyan has become remote not only for seniors but for all of us. Yet, to me, the Kaddish is of vast importance. Its themes are at the essence of Judaism, and its soulful, mysterious cadence brings comfort to Jews across the world. These themes echo from this week’s parashah, which includes the stirring call for all of us to be holy – Kaddosh (which is the Hebrew equivalent of the Aramaic Kaddish).
The Kaddish is at once one of the most recognized Jewish prayers, and yet one of the most mysterious. The Kaddish’s sonorous repetitive cadences cry out with forgotten hints from our people’s past. It is almost a mystical incantation, where meaning is lost as its words draw us inward, or perhaps upward. Despite these mysteries, the Kaddish helps to provide us with not only a sense of connection but also of common purpose as we join together to create a world built on concepts of holiness.
The Kaddish, recited with its communal responses, offer comfort to mourners: “We are here with you in your time of pain and to give you the strength as partners in the creation of God’s kingdom.” These responses are as important as the mourner’s recitation of the prayer itself. They are a reminder that all Jews are part of a single people, and that when one suffers, all suffer. The responses are an affirmation to the mourners that life goes on, that the communal obligation for Tikkun (repair of the world), expressed in the bonds of mutual responsibility, goes on. Today in the world of COVID-19, joining in a physical minyan has become impossible, but the needs for community and affirmation remain. It is this need which gives such a powerful impetus to virtual minyanim.
This communal affirmation is hinted at in the prayer’s very name. Kaddish, meaning “holy” or “sanctification” in Aramaic, is replete with meaning. Like the comfort provided by the prayer, holiness in the Jewish tradition is not found in isolation at some remote ashram or hidden temple. Instead, it is most often found within the community. Bringing comfort, thus expressing and recognizing our interconnection with other humans, is one means of creating a holy community. When so many are alone today, we need to be creative in finding ways to generate this interconnectivity.
We can only experience God’s presence in our midst if we allow God in, through living lives of holiness. We are partners with God in all that is done. The Kaddish calls on God to be sanctified. Yet the call-and-response recitation of the Kaddish is an implicit reminder that this can only occur through human action. Just as we can recite the Kaddish only in the presence of the community, so too, the transformation of the world can only happen with the active participation of the entire human community. Today this can remind us of our collective human quest to bring healing to the suffering, but also to take responsibility for the impoverished and unemployed.
This sense of responsibility, expressed through the word Tikkun (repair), allows for a mystical commentary based on the word l’eyla (higher) found in the third paragraph of the Kaddish. Interestingly this word is inexplicably doubled during the High Holiday season, between the two major holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. These days create a period of intense introspection and rededication to Tikkun (both of ourselves and the world). L’eyla l’eyla (reaching higher and higher) is a reminder that the interconnectivity enhanced through the communal recitation of the Kaddish is an extremely effective means of Tikkun.
This process and partnership of human/divine repair is also hinted in the very last line (and the only Hebrew line) of the Kaddish: “May the One who brings peace (shalom) to the universe bring peace to us and all Israel [and to all who dwell on earth]” (derived from Job 25:2). Shalom, at a very basic level, can only be created by us as partners with God working in the world. We are called on to “seek peace and pursue it” (Psalm 34:15), but we have the free will to act or to fail to act. Yet, the word shalom has a much deeper meaning than only “peace.” The Hebrew root shin-lamed-mem also hints at completeness and absolute unity. It points to a world where each human recognizes that he or she is connected with all other people, with the world, and with God. It therefore also leads us to the Hasidic realization that there is only God, a recognition realized as we open our eyes and see (and actualize) k’dushah in whatever we do and wherever we glance.
This week, we are called upon to be holy – Kaddosh, and when we recite and respond to the Kaddish we likewise reaffirm our commitment to build a world based on a collective sense of interconnection and holiness. This commitment must be even stronger in times of uncertainty and fear, such as we find ourselves today. We must work even harder to recreate the sense of community and interconnection, which are at the very root of Tikkun, the actions that create a world of holiness.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).