2017 Yom Kippur -- "Yizkor -- The Power of Words"

On Monday morning, I completed my studies to become a shochet. I passed all of my written exams, I demonstrated competence in detecting nicks in the knife and in smoothing them away, and I corrected slaughtered three chickens in a row.

This was the culmination of 3 years of study and work. I have thought about it, talked about it, read about it, and practiced regularly over that time. At the very end of the morning, after we had finished shechting all of the chickens for the day, it was time to cover the blood. As I had just officially passed my exams, my rabbi gave me the honor of reciting the blessing. He asked to make sure that I remembered how the blessing went.

I nodded, “אשר קדשנו במצותיו וציונו לכסות הדם בעפר” “…who has sanctified us with the Commandments, and commanded us us to cover the blood with dust.”

He answered: “Actually, there is a makhloket – a disagreement – about that, do we say הדם ‘the blood,’ or דם ‘blood.’ We actually say דם.” I nodded, and recited the blessing as he instructed me.

As I reflected on this moment later, it seemed incredible to me, that with all of the thought and effort that has gone into codifying the laws around shechita, that there could be a disagreement on something as seemingly trivial as whether or not the final blessing should include the definite article. How is that a point of contention? Shouldn’t my actions matter more than the words that go along with them?

On further reflection, this emphasis on the words seems perfectly appropriate in that moment. We didn’t emphasize the words at the expense of the actions, but we recognized that the words had power, and shouldn’t be overlooked.

By being careful, even with the words that I speak in the process of slaughtering these chickens, I am emphasizing the moral and spiritual weight of my actions, and demonstrating to myself and others that I take it seriously.

We are particular about the way that the Torah is read, correcting even the smallest mistake that might change the meaning of the passage. We are particular about what words enact a vow, and which words nullify one, as we did last night.

Our words – once spoken – can never be retracted or undone. The converse of that is also true: our words – once spoken – continue beyond us, and can reverberate long after we are gone.

I learned all of the laws of sh’chita from a book called the Beit David, a collection of the laws organized by a rabbi named David Kamin, who lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the very beginning of the book, there is a request from Rabbi Kamin to all who read it:

On behalf of my soul and my spirit, I have a request and an appeal, from those who will learn from this book. May it be, if it finds favor in your eyes and you find it useful – which I promise, with God’s help, it certainly will be – please, please do for me the act of lovingkindness and truth, that after I die, help my soul find merit through the prayer that were established for children for their parents in the first year after their death, and afterwards every year on the yahrzeit. As our sages, may their memories be a blessing, wrote in the gemarah, everyone who teaches Torah to the child of a friend, it is as if the child is his or her own. For without this, I have nowhere on the face of the earth anyone who will remember me, as was made clear in the introduction. Let this be my reward for all of my hard work.

I have seen such a request in several works, and I myself have fulfilled a request like this from a person that I knew who made Aliyah to the Holy Land, and made the request of me from there. Although I know that many will not follow my request, and perhaps others will mock my words, nonetheless I also know that there are found among the shochtim people with good souls and good hearts, for whom the sorrow of others will enter into their pure hearts, and it is before righteous people such as them that I make my appeal, and it is in them that I place my hope that they will fulfil my request. And in the merit of this, may God also fulfil their worthy requests. Amen, ken yehi Ratzon.

Every time that I read this, I can feel the emotion and the longing that compelled it. The longing for an heir, and the fear of what will happen after he dies. Will he be remembered? Will his life be viewed as worthwhile?

These fears translate to our lives today. How will we be remembered? Will we be remembered? What is the legacy that we leave behind, and who will care to acknowledge it?

It is in response to exactly these concerns, that our tradition first mentions the practice of reciting the Mourners’ Kaddish. One of the earliest texts that engages with קדיש יתום, the Mourner’s Kaddish, is a story told about Rabbi Akiva:

Rabbi Akiva, while walking past a cemetery at night, sees a man carrying a large burden of wood on his head and he asks, “Why do you labor so?” The man answers him, “Do not detain me because my superiors will be angry. I am a dead man. Every day I am punished by being sent out to chop wood for a fire in which I am to be consumed.” Rabbi Akiva, asks, “My son, what was your work in the world from which you came?” “I was a tax collector,” answers the ghost, “I would be lenient with the rich and oppress the poor.” Rabbi Akiva then asks if there is a way to save him. The ghost tells Rabbi Akiva that his only salvation would be if he had a son who would say Kaddish and have the congregation respond, “Amen–Yehi shmei rabba mevorach l’alom ulalmei almaya-let God’s great name be blessed forever and ever.”

So, Rabbi Akiva sets out to save this man. Returning to his town, he asks about the tax collector. While the townspeople curse the tax collector and his wife, they also tell Akiva that he had fathered a son, whom the people of the town never bothered to circumcise, or teach in any way. Rabbi Akiva finds that son, brings him into the covenant, teaches him to pray, and equips him to say Kaddish. After the passage of some time, Rabbi Akiva brings the boy into the synagogue where he says Kaddish and the congregation responds “Amen, Yhei shemei rabba…” At that very moment, the man is saved from his eternal punishment and thanks Rabbi Akiva in a dream.

Rabbi Akiva worked – for months or longer – to teach this man’s son so that he would be able to recite קדיש יתום. It was important, essential even, that this man’s son be able to lead the community in this prayer, and for the community to treat him as an acceptable leader. Rabbi Akiva helped him to achieve that.

Just as I experienced with the blessings on Monday, the exact words are important in this context. They are important because of the meaning that they hold – in this case the praise of God, even in times of grief and suffering. But more important that the exact meaning of the words, when we make a point to recite them correctly, we are emphasizing the solemn and serious nature of the blessing or prayer.

However, this can be intimidating. Few in our community are fluent in Hebrew, and even fewer are fluent in Aramaic – the language of קדיש יתום. Reciting the Kaddish is a moment of significant vulnerability, whether it is at the graveside, or in synagogue years later. Even someone who is knowledgeable and experienced could find themselves flustered in the moment.

This is one reason why, at a funeral, at the graveside, in a shiva house, and at the PJC, I always make sure to recite the Kaddish along with the mourner. I don’t wait for them to ask me for help, I don’t try and guess whether or not they will stumble over the words. I recite the prayer with them – whether it is familiar or not.

What to do when someone doesn’t know the words – that’s an easy problem to solve. You help them feel comfortable, you work with them, and you hope that eventually, they will learn the words and be able to recite them on their own.

As was the case in the story of Rabbi Akiva, the Kaddish is meant to be a way to maintain a chain of tradition, to carry forward what had been passed down to us, and to model for the next generation what they should do when the time comes.

But as the plea from Rabbi Kamin hints, the Kaddish, and the Yizkor prayers can be said even outside of this context. And in fact, this is probably the most frequent halakhic question that I am asked: “can I say Kaddish for so-and-so, even though they weren’t family?” This question reflects the reality that our lives and relationships in life are rarely as cut and dry as they are on paper. How can we ensure that our prayers are responsive to this truth?

Each week, when I introduce the Kaddish, I say “In solemn testimony to the unbroken chain of tradition that links us one generation to the next.” But the story of Rabbi Akiva, and the request made by Rabbi Kamin challenges this sentiment. Certainly, the tax collector’s son was not following the path that his father had cleared for him. By standing up in front of the community and leading them in prayer, he was emphatically breaking the tradition of his family. And yet we are told that it had a real and positive impact on his father. In a similar, yet fundamentally different way, Rabbi Kamin’s request also rejects the common understanding of a chain of tradition. How can I recite Kaddish for him, if I was born more than 60 years after he died?

This challenge is played out in our community as well. Some of us here will recite the Kaddish for avowedly secular Jews, people for whom ritual was meaningless or worse. Others will recite Kaddish on behalf of non-Jewish family members – clearly the Kaddish was not part of the tradition that they passed on. Some recite Kaddish for people who were not family, individuals who would appear to be outside of their personal chain of tradition. And some of us will be remembering people who caused pain, someone in whose tradition we would not want to follow.

Yizkor is a moment for all of these people, and all of these relationships. It is a time to recognize the ways that we have been shaped and impacted by those who came before us. Whether they were family, or not. Whether we knew them, or not. Whether they were Jewish, or not. Whether they were kind, or not. Each of us declares to them: I am living a life of value and of values. You played a role in that.

And together we answer back:  אמן, יְהֵא שְׁמֵהּ רַבָּא מְבָרַךְ לְעָלַם וּלְעָלְמֵי עָלְמַיָּא. – Amen, May God’s great name be praised throughout all time.