Forever light

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.

11 thoughts on “Forever light

  1. Wow, do I ever like this. We’re meant to be light-bringers, light-bearers. The torch must be passed on. Reminds me of when Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. You cannot hide a city that has been built upon a mountain.”

    • Yes! And I think it’s such a beautiful way to conceive of “eternal life.” It’s not so much about living forever in heaven but more about playing our parts here on earth to pass the light-pulling abilities to the next generations.

  2. Yes, beautiful, and I have been pondering this all day. Yes, it is such a big job, bringing God’s light to the world, crossing hundreds even thousands of generations and it dawned on me tonight that it’s not about us or me or people or the individual. True faith is all about God who extends over thousands of generations, overseeing our lives, loving us, calling us to know Him, bringing His truth and grace. God, who created it all and preserves it daily, deserves the praise given.

  3. Light plays an important part in many belief systems. The Unitarian Universalists are no different. Every church or fellowship has a chalice which is lit on Sunday mornings and at other times of importance. In our sanctuary, we repeat the following words together:

    We light this Chalice in deep respect for the mystery and holiness of life,
    with honor and gratitude for all who have gone before,
    with love and compassion for those who dwell among us,
    and with hope and faith for the generations to come.

    Lighting the chalice has many meanings, obviously, which are not owned by any one group–lighting the way to doing good works, etc.–but it is a wonderful uniting tradition which I much appreciate.

  4. Chesterton called tradition “the democracy of the dead”, how those who’ve come before us stay connected to the present, and we can project ourselves into the future. I’ve always been interested in Judaism’s expression of eternity as what we leave behind in this world. So much of modern Christianity puts too much emphasis on personal salvation after death, at the expense of our duty to live the Kingdom of God in the here and now for others. Jesus used light as a metaphor for that duty as well, when He said “You are the light of the world”.

  5. The phrase Tikkun Olam reminded me that one of the names of God is El Olam, the Eternal One. (Don’t think Spanish here)….”El” means “strong one”, a name for God, used in many combinations, such as El Shaddai, “almighty God.” Since God charged his people with being the “light of the world,” the light offered from God through his people would indeed “repair the world”.
    It occurred to me from what you’re writing, Corinna, that all these ceremonies ARE tied together, in some way invoking God as his covenant people in all the “ordinary” things of life. The Jews were big on memorializing their history with God and what he had done….in that spirit, it would not surprise me at all that in a “Mourner’s Kaddish” they would be praising God, YHWH, the covenant God who led them to the Promised Land.

  6. What I thought of was the “Christ Light” in our church. It is kept lit in the Sanctuary, and is only removed after the Good Friday service, representing the Light of Jesus Christ leaving the world. One of the joy’s of Easter Service is to see the candle lit again.

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