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Mourner’s Kaddish: Grasping for Praise in Sorrow

Yitgadal, v’yitkadash Shemei Raba…Exalted and Sanctified is Gd’s great name. These words open every  Kaddish prayer that we recite. They are particularly poignant in the Mourner’s Kaddish-Kaddish Yatom. Words of praise are recited at times of great sorrow. No mention of death or destruction, and word after word of praise written in an ancient Aramaic. Why now? Why do we recite these words at the least obvious moments? The Mishna in Berachot (Chapter 9 Mishna 5) states that, “A person is obligated to bless on the bad just as they are to bless on the good.” Perhaps, that is one answer to this paradox of a prayer. Simply, we just have to do it.

Another answer might be found in the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai’s poem “A Person in his Life.” He writes the following:

A person in his life doesn’t have time to have
a time for everything.
He doesn’t have enough seasons to have a season
for every purpose. Qohelet didn’t get it right when he said that.

A person needs to hate and to love at the same moment,
with the same eyes to cry, and the same eyes to laugh
with the same hands to throw stones, and with the same hands  to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and to forgive and to remember and to forget,
to arrange and to confuse,
to eat and to digest what history elongates
over a great many years.

What Yehuda Amichai highlights is the reality that we can and need to feel contradictory emotions at the same time. Reading Kaddish Yatom through this lens we can learn to recognize the blessings through the words, and hold onto the challenges and the difficult feelings with our heart all at the same time.

One more possible answer comes in our own liturgy. The Mourner’s Kaddish said in Pseukei Dezimra directly follows Psalm 30. This Psalm ends with the words “Hafachta Mispadi Lmahol Li Pitacta Saki v’Ta’azreni Simcha, Hashem, Elohai Leolam Odeka -You have turned my mourning into dancing, and opened my sack cloth, and made it in to a robe of joy, and for that I will forever thank you.” Maybe in some sense that is also what the words of Kaddish Yatom are trying to do.  By speaking words of praise we can be propelled from a state of mourning to a state of joy.

Whatever reason you accept or perhaps don’t accept right now, the Kaddish Yatom with all of its mixed emotions is there to bring us from mourning to joy. This prayer helps us recognize that among the sadness and loss, we still have something praiseworthy to hold onto, however small our grasp might be.

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