Part-way through the Friday night Sabbath-welcoming service, the singing stops and the rabbi makes his way to the front of the room. Several individuals break from the congregation to join him.
This is a joyous occasion, the rabbi explains, because tonight the newest addition to the family before you receives her Hebrew name. Only then do I notice that one of the women is holding a tiny bundle in her arms and I put the pieces together: this is a naming ceremony, one of the most significant of the Jewish life-cycle rites of passage. Boy babies are normally named during a bris eight days after being born, but female newborns are named at the synagogue in front of the entire congregation.
The mom, holding the infant, huddles with both grandmothers. The rabbi wraps their shoulders in a single prayer shawl, pulling them in close. He speaks to the women, expressing sentiments you might expect to hear: how this baby is the future, the continuation of all of her ancestors who lived before her. Then he flips the script and addresses the baby directly. “You will one day be an ancestor like us,” he tells her. For me, his words conjure an image of this room in 70 years: this brand new human is the older generation wrapped in a prayer shawl giving out special names.
I still have that in mind when the congregants begin singing the Mourner’s Kaddish. When I first realized this prayer for the deceased was a part of every service at every synagogue, I thought it was intended specifically for those who were grieving. When we came to it, all those who had lost someone within the last year or so stood, and sometimes the rabbi requested them to call out the name of the departed. I didn’t know or understand the significance of the Hebrew words being recited by the congregation, but I sensed it was a sorrowful lamentation, the shaking of a metaphorical fist at the cruelty of death. I thought people stood because they were meant to see one another and thereby know they were not alone in their grief and to allow the rest of the congregation to identify those in need of our support. I believed the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish was akin to other life-cycle ceremonies in Judaism—whether a naming or bar mitzvah or wedding—that act as markers in a person’s life tying her to millions of others in the past, present, and future. The ceremony might transform what feels like an ordinary occasion into one with extraordinary potential or it might reassure a person who feels overwhelmed that what they are experiencing is actually very ordinary.
I was surprised when I saw an English translation of the Mourner’s Kaddish and realized it doesn’t even mention death. It’s simply a collection of lines praising and thanking God. Only then did I learn the true purpose is to rise up and proclaim your joy and love at a time when you might feel bitter or lost or angry. But the Mourner’s Kaddish continues to be spoken by the entire congregation day in and day out long after the official grieving period for any one person has passed. The gratitude it expresses is offered on behalf of all those who are departed, giving voice to worshipful words they can no longer utter here on earth. Through future generations, the dead continue to honor God.
Only then did I sense how those who are no longer here rely on those who are to continue expressing faith thereby carrying on the task of bringing light into the world. It’s such a big job, no one generation can do it alone. It’s an on-going responsibility that rests on the shoulders of countless generations. Only together can the ultimate goal of Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, be achieved. I learned that the literal translation of Tikkun Olam is something like “forever light.” Each generation after the next working to endlessly shine light here on earth is how the healing takes place.