It hit me during tonight’s minyan; my cousins are their father’s kaddish.
The Mourner’s Kaddish, though never mentioning death or dying, has been recited by primary mourners since the 13th century. Prior to the death of one’s parent, sibling, spouse, or child, the individual does not say kaddish.
The Reform movement broke with this tradition for two extremely sound reasons. In a time when fewer and fewer people are comfortable with liturgy, it can be painful to listen to a sole mourner stumble through the Aramaic. By having the entire congregation rise and recite Kaddish alongside the mourner, the community is able to provide emotional and linguistic support. Additionally, we are keenly aware of the horrific murder of six million of our people at the hands of the Nazis. With entire families vanished from this earth, there is no one for whom the obligation of saying Kaddish falls. And so the entire community takes on the obligation to remember those whose lives were cut short.
But Judaism makes a point of marking transitions. With ritual, we distinguish between night and day, between tamei (ritually unclean) and tahor (ritually clean), between holy and the not-yet-holy. Moving from not saying Kaddish to being obligated to say it marks the shift from one whose soul is intact to one who has someone ripped from his or her life. A tearing actualized by the act of k’riah. If one has always said Kaddish, as is the Reform practice, this shift is ritually more subtle.
Watching my cousins say the words hallowed by our Tradition, I saw the shift. No longer carefree, they are now paternal orphans. Relegated forever to a status that will change how they see the world. A world where their contemporaries still have both parents. A world in which their mother is a widow at far too young an age. A world without their father.
Will this define them? Will they mark life’s experiences as moments their father missed? Or will there come a time when life’s experiences are more than missed opportunities?