January 17, 2019

From Darkness to Light

Each morning and each evening, the people of the daily minyan gather to recite the obligatory prayers. It isn’t exciting. The melodies aren’t particularly uplifting. Sometimes there is a word of learning, but no sermon; none of the flourishes, trappings and trimmings of professional homiletics.

The poetry of prayer is often drowned in the rapid-fire rhythm of traditional davening. And at the end of the service, most of the minyan rises to recite "Kaddish" — in memory of a loved one recently departed or recalled at this yahrtzeit. It isn’t exciting — but it is profoundly moving and deeply spiritual.

Spirituality today has come to mean emotional experiences of ecstasy and wonder — peak moments revealing the presence of God in stirring song, powerful words and the uplift of a responsive community. These are true and significant experiences. But there are other kinds of spirituality. The spirituality of the minyan isn’t ecstatic or exuberant. The spiritual genius of the minyan is located in a deep experience of the steady, regular unchanging rhythms of life. This is a spirituality of constancy and continuity. It is unexciting and unremarkable — a stable, unvarying, supportive context where the mourner, the bereaved and the broken are lovingly mentored back into life.

Ecstatic spirituality is like romantic love, filling the soul with light and heat, but soon fading away. It corresponds to the human ability to experience rebirth and transformation in moments of radical change. The minyan’s spirituality bespeaks constancy and continuity. Like the trusting, deep and loyal affection of the long married, this spirituality points to the permanent and unchanging in life — all that continues.

The most powerful expression of the minyan’s spirituality, and the center of its rite, is the recitation of Kaddish. The Kaddish is not about death. It contains no mention of death. It provides a context in which death can be met and overcome. Kaddish is a reaffirmation of faith in God, the Creator and Redeemer. For the one shaken by death, the Kaddish provides a way back to faith, hope and life. Its healing power is not in the radical theology of its words or in extraordinary language of its poetry. Its healing power lies in the simple constancy of its repetition, even in the regularity of the cadences of its syllables: "Yitgadal v’yitkadash…yitbarach v’yistabach v’yitpa’ar vyit’nasay…."

In his moving book, "Living a Year of Kaddish" (Schocken Books, 2003), Ari Goldman describes the power of Kaddish as an expression of continuity: "To me, the hardest thing about dying must be the not knowing the end of the story. My mother and father left this world while their grandchildren were small…. Maybe Kaddish in itself is a kind of afterlife. The one thing my parents know with reasonable certainty was that we, their sons, would be saying Kaddish for them. They would be gone someday, but their Kaddish would live on. I like to think of it as more than a prayer. I think of Kaddish as a portal for the dead to connect to life."

This unique spirituality is born in this week’s Torah portion. "The Lord said to Moses: Speak unto the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: ‘None [of you] shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin, except for the relatives closest to him…’" (Leviticus 21:1-2). The portion opens with this severe restriction on the service of the priests. It concludes with a detailed description of the priests’ responsibilities at each of the yearly festivals and holiday.

The priests of ancient Israel offered the daily Tamid and Mincha sacrifices each morning and afternoon. They lead the communal rituals sanctifying Sabbaths, New Moons and festivals. But the priest — the agent and embodiment of the community’s connection with God — did not officiate at communal rites of grief and mourning. The priest celebrated all that was permanent in life, all that continued — sanctified the rhythms of time, the passing of seasons, the steady movement of the year. Just as the Kaddish does not mention death, priests did not attend funerals. In this way, the priest represents the pathway from death back to life — he holds open the door from darkness back to light, from despair back to hope.