Last week, the following op-ed appeared in the New York Times:
“Like countless Jews before me, I am saying Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning. Three times a day, wherever I am in the world, I strive to find a minyan so I can recite these ancient Aramaic verses as a last measure of devotion to my father.
At each service, I repeat the mantra: “Magnified and sanctified be [God’s] great name in the world He has created according to His will.” To which my coreligionists respond with great force: “Let His great name be forever blessed for all eternity.”
I say those words and hear that refrain three times daily. The strange thing is that I’m not sure I really believe them.
The Kaddish is probably the most famous of all Jewish prayers. Leonard Bernstein set it to music in his Third Symphony; Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem by the same name upon the passing of his mother. In Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America,” two of the characters say the full Kaddish over Roy Cohn’s dead body. And it was chanted by Neil Diamond, playing a cantor, in “The Jazz Singer,” and by all of the workers in the factory in the last scene of “Schindler’s List.” Most improbably, it is even recited by Rocky Balboa when he mourns the passing of his beloved trainer, Mickey, in “Rocky III.”
Yet, the Kaddish is an odd prayer to have become the centerpiece of mourning. Despite its association with death and dying, it does not mention the word death. Instead, it is an endlessly repetitive celebration of the glory of God.”
Continues the author, “… the text of the prayer leaves me cold. Each day as I say the Kaddish, I struggle with the fact that I am praising a God who, according to Jewish tradition, created the world “according to His Will.” Does God really will that the world endure the cruelty and suffering we see so often? And, on a more personal level, did God will that my father, an intellectual who suffered from dementia, would lose the ability to communicate and have the mental faculties of a 5-year-old during his last 18 months on earth?
…Yet despite my theological ambivalence, I am turning somersaults to say Kaddish at three different prayer services each day. And in accordance with tradition, I will continue to say the Kaddish daily for 11 months within my period of mourning…
One night I took a red-eye flight back from the West Coast so I could attend an early-morning minyan near Newark Airport, because any of the available flights the next morning would have caused me to miss saying Kaddish altogether that day. Another time, I found a minyan in Orlando where everyone was a Moroccan Jew and the only languages spoken were Hebrew and French. There is a minyan in San Francisco that meets every afternoon in a Trolley car, and another in Manhattan that meets on Track 42 at Grand Central Terminal. And come spring, I know I won’t have any problem finding a minyan during home games at Yankee Stadium, just past the kosher hot-dog stand.
The fact is that makeshift synagogues where Jews can gather to say Kaddish are ubiquitous. They spring up like mushrooms wherever there are Jews. And for one simple reason: They create community.”
“Unlike some people, Jewish and non-Jewish, who take great comfort in communicating with God,” the author writes, “I am not confident that God even listens to our prayers. Yet I have reoriented my life to accommodate my obligation to say Kaddish. And I do so cheerfully because it links me to Jews across generations and continents. It defines me as a member of the tribe. My tribe.
That is the essential gift of the Kaddish. It fosters community for a person who has just suffered a searing loss of a parent or sibling, spouse or child, even when we find ourselves far from home.
Even if the words themselves offer little comfort, I take great satisfaction in this communal act of prayer; of hearing the voices of others respond to my own prayers; and of being welcomed and enveloped by a larger and transcendent community. And in that experience, I honor and reconnect with my father.”
Now I hesitated before sharing such an article. After all, I do believe that G-d listens to our prayers. I do believe that G-d runs the world in a way that I cannot fathom, and I, as opposed to the author, am comfortable with that notion. But I share it because I believe he is absolutely correct in stating that the role of a mourner saying Kaddish is to inject him or her with a sense of community. And I would add, that it is not only Kaddish. A primary purpose of communal prayer, is to bring us together, to create a sense of family.
In ancient times, the Jewish People did not have synagogues, they did not have shtieblich, they had a Mishkan or a Beis HaMikdash. And in that holy place, unless you were one of the Kohanim, you did very little. You actually did nothing! Men, women, and children would gather in the courtyard, in the azarah, and just stand there. We don’t know what they said, we don’t know what they did, I am not sure how many of them were even able to articulate a prayer in their own words. As far as I’m concerned, the role of the Jewish People in the courtyard of the Mishkan or the Bais HaMikdash was simply to create togetherness and unity. And imagine the kind of unity it created – all Jews, of all backgrounds, from all the different tribes, would stand, shoulder to shoulder, in one singular place. No breakaways, no hashkama minyan, no denominations, everyone standing together.
And so yes, I believe the author, while he is mistaken in his belief, or lack of belief in a personal G-d, I believe he beautifully conveys a most primary role of modern prayer – the sense, that no matter where you are, prayer can bring us together, just like the courtyard in the Mishkan or the Temple. Our Sages knew what they were doing when they demanded of us, a time and place, to unite in prayer.
And look around – they were wildly successful! I am not even talking about the people shmoozing outside this room right now. Think about where you sit! How many of us choose to sit with a friend? And that’s okay. And those who deliberately choose to sit away from their friends end up becoming friendly with those they sit next to. This is the Azarah! This is the courtyard where the Jewish People stood! We no longer have a Mishkan, but shul is the closest and most beautiful replica of that institution.
One of the strangest things we do in shul is shake each other’s hands. It always strikes me as somewhat bizarre. If I see you during the week, I say hi. But on Shabbos, we shake hands. Every once in a while, I think to myself, I’m just going to stand here when the Torah goes around. What’s the point of shaking everyone’s hand? Of saying hello? Of saying Good Shabbos? I’m not running for office, it could seem so silly!
But then I realize, that IS the point. A primary function of shul, is the bond we create when my hand clasps yours, or when we smile at each other and say, ‘Good Shabbos’. Coming together is not secondary, it’s a primary goal of the rabbinic institution of the Bais Haknesses.
But the comparison to the Mishkan does not end here. One of the strange ironies of losing a Bais HaMikdash, is that we gained something in the process. Because whereas in Temple times, it was only the Kohanim who could enter beyond the courtyard to perform the Avoda, to conduct the rituals, in a post, and pre-Temple era, all of us are Kohanim, all of us are invited to perform the rituals. Our Sages explain that our prayers are instituted in place of the offerings. And they’re not meant to be said only by the Chazzan, they are said by all of us. All of us have a siddur, all of us are expected to perform a modern application of the Kohen’s ritual – prayer.
And it gets even better. Because whereas in the Temple, the Holy of Holies was off-limits all year-long, with the exception of Yom Kippur. And even then, it was only open to the High Priest, to the Kohen Gadol. Only he could stand alone with G-d. It was only he, as our representative, who could connect in the deepest of fashions, now words were said, he just stood there, appreciating G-d’s presence. Today, we are all invited to stand before G-d, to enter the Holy of Holies, every time we pray. The Rambam writes that there are two components to prayer; saying the words, i.e. the ritual, and meditating on the fact that you are standing alone before G-d.
There is a Holy of Holies, a solitary communion with G-d, accessible not only to the Kohen Gadol, not only to the priests, but to all of us, every day of the year – if we so choose to enter inside.
And so while in Temple times, there was a courtyard, where people would stand together, maybe even talk together. Beyond that, there were the Temple grounds, where the priests, and the priests alone, would diligently do their service, the rituals. And beyond that, there was the Holy of Holies, a place where only one person could enter at a time, to stand alone before G-d. Today, we attempt to merge the three; to somehow create community, while engaging in the rituals by praying, while simultaneously ignoring our surroundings and standing alone before G-d.
And it’s that last component of shul, the aloneness before G-d that is the most beautiful and most powerful, and yet the most difficult for us to tap into. We have so many things that get in the way of such a mindset, of really standing in G-d’s presence. We’re distracted to no end, and perhaps more importantly, very much like the author I quoted earlier, we don’t believe that G-d is listening to us. Not because we don’t believe in Him, but because it’s hard to imagine that we are really standing before Him. We don’t believe in ourselves, in the notion that we have the right and the privilege to stand in the Holy of Holies, that it’s you and G-d.
But we do have that privilege. And it’s the epicenter of our shul experience – or at least it should be.
If we want our shul-experience to be complete, we need to incorporate each one of the Mishkan’s functions; we must create a loving place for community, a deeper knowledge of the rituals, and a mindset that we can truly stand alone with G-d. We excel at the first, we are overwhelmed by the details and the texts of the second, and we don’t take advantage of the most magnificent and gratifying component, of standing before G-d. If I could suggest that instead of being so intimated by ritual, by the siddur, by knowing when to stand and when to bow, of catching up to the Chazzan, I think we would gain so much more if we focus our most intense energies on the Holy of Holies. While all of the ritual is crucial, so is the meditation of us standing before G-d.
So let’s try something – if I could ask you to close your eyes (for real!). Imagine yourself standing in the azarah, surrounded by your friends and family. Now make your way from that courtyard, leave your friends behind, and slowly walk into the Mishkan, into this beautiful, brilliantly decorated room. There are Kohanim, dressed in regal white garments, running about. The Menorah is on your right; a tremendous candelabra, with brilliant, sparkling lights. To your left is a table with twelve loaves of bread, you could smell their freshness permeating the air. You walk forward, and there is a small altar, with incense burning. The sweet smoke fills the room, making it hard to see. You walk forward and you slowly, reverently, part the curtains of the Holy of Holies, and you walk in. The room is filled with smoke, you cannot see anything, but you feel something. Something special. You feel G-d’s presence in the room. And it’s just you and Him. He understands you. All the feelings you bottle up, all the emotions, there is nothing you can’t say. And it’s just the two of you.
That feeling you just experienced is the essence of prayer. Da lifnei mi atah omed – when we pray we are truly standing before G-d.
A shul is made up of community, ritual, and communion. Let’s stand together, let’s stand in prayer, but let’s also stand by ourselves in G-d’s presence, just you and Him alone.