I was at a yizcor service yesterday. It was sweet. Here on the North Shore, there's not always a guarantee that we'll get a minyan, so a handful of synagogues band together on these festival celebrations. Each of the synagogues plays host in some kind of rotation, but all of the rabbis and cantors show up, and we congregants (those who can, those who need). We get a decent showing, all of us together.
I like that: all of us, together.
We rise, we pray, we sing. Probably less davening than in my Zayde's day, but there are more women than in his day as well. At least - more women praying and singing and being, right along with the men. Here, we women count. Here, our voices are heard. We are all a community, and we carry one another. And so there are enough of us all, to ensure that no one mourns alone. I like that, too.
This was the 26th yizcor service since my brother died. I didn't realize just how huge that number is until I typed it out just now. Twenty-six times, not counting all the kaddishes I chanted during the first year after his death.
Twenty-six festivals have passed. In the beginning, I wasn't sure I would get through one. Not that I thought I would die! Not that, no - but I didn't think I could make it through a memorial service without my knees buckling and my throat tightening and my sorrow threatening to dissolve me. And in the beginning, all those things happened, knees and throat and sorrow huger than anything I could bare. And every time - every single time - no matter where I was, there were hands that reached out to hold me, arms that wrapped around me.
I stuttered out the words of the mourner's kaddish - harsh, foreign, not even Hebrew, but Aramaic, so that I almost knew what they meant, almost could say them with ease - and I would hear all around me, the answering amen.
Amen - a word that has its roots in both faith and truth. The rabbis attach considerable power to this tiny (and, alas, often thrown away) little word. Rav Meir believed a child immediately earned his/her place in the world to come upon saying it for the first time. Rashi believed that all the gates of heaven open to one who says "amen" with all his strength. Most of those rabbis agree that no benediction should be orphaned. no prayer should go unanswered or unframed, as it were.
We have a lot of rules about "amen" - when to say it, when not to say it, who can say it and who can't. Of course; we're Jewish. Why wouldn't there be a host of rules? I don't know them all. I know some, mostly in the way we all know a lot of rules - I observed, someone told me some stuff and I think I read something somewhere along the way, and no one is telling me I'm wrong, so I must be right, right? That kind of way.
So, I'm not too sure of the "why" of it, but I think I have the mechanics of it down. The words of the Mourner's Kaddish are said by the mourners; the congregation responds amen - so be it (in faith, in truth, let those words be a testament).
Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash shmei rabba - Glorified and sanctified be God's great name.There can't be silence here. This phrase must be answered. And so the congregation responds, as we have been taught: amen.
And so it went, from festival to festival: I would recite the words of praise to God (because that is the essence of the Mourner's Kaddish - not about death, but the glory of God), and the congregation around me would hold me up, and hold up the words of my prayer, and they would say "amen." Or, at least, if not "they," then someone. My relationship to the prayer changed over the years. How could it not? I went from raw and desperate grief to various shades of sadness.
Then there was a time, not too long ago, when there was no answering "amen." A space of silence before everyone continued on. What? Where was it? Why didn't everyone - anyone - stop and wait and offer? Why didn't I? I'm in mourning, dammit! I have grief. My brother died. Isn't the congregation duty bound, to be present for the mourners, so that no one grieves alone? I was carrying the dead, all of them, and they were getting heavy. I deserved at least that tiny amen to lighten the load, at least long enough to get to the next festival, the next yizcor. Right?
Yeah - I heard it: that whiny, screechy voice that demands constant attention and worship. I so love my self-righteous narcissism. It's attractive, isn't it? That shook my world, more than a little. Who the hell am I, to think I am the one, the only one, to carry the dead? Who even said I had to carry them?
That's the moment it all changed for me. I can carry memory, without having to carry the dead. I can carry those in my community, lift them and lend them strength in their grief, even as I am lifted. I love those who have died no less. I don't need to prove it to them, to myself, to the world around me. I can be kind and generous, just as there were so very many who offered me kindness and generosity. I can be one within my community, no more, no less.
I can answer a benediction. And so let us say
In honor of my brother, Randy (z"l)
If you'd like to read about my journey through the first year after his death, saying kaddish, read my essay, Joy in the Empty Spaces)
- I write, mostly to keep my head from exploding. It threatens to do that a lot. My blog is the pixelated version of all the voices in my head. I tend to dive into what connects me to God, my community, my family and my doubt. I do a lot of searching, not as much finding. I’m good with that. I have learned, finally, to live comfortably in the gray. In the meantime, I wrestle with God, and my doubt and my joy.