How the Kaddish prayer can bridge two worlds together

The Kaddish reminds us of all that is holy and eternal in our lives and in the lives of those that have passed on.

Kaddish (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The first time I recited the kaddish memorial prayer was when my father passed away 35 years ago. Our synagogue did not have a daily minyan, or prayer quorum, so I went to a different synagogue where I knew some people.
When I was leading prayers there, some said I was too slow and some said I was too fast. How could I be both too slow and too fast? So I decided to relinquish my role as temporary cantor and just recite kaddish at the appropriate times.
To be honest, during those 11 months I didn’t think a lot about the words I was saying. I just hoped that somewhere above someone was listening to what I was saying. But most of all I hoped that my father could hear my voice trying to connect to his memory.
Now, all these years later, I am trying to understand more about the meaning of those ancient words.
We can never disconnect from our past memories and experiences. Perhaps no other time is as traumatic as when our parents or other loved ones leave this world. At times, death comes with gentleness and a kiss from heaven, and other times it comes with the harsh rod of illness, infirmity and pain.
As long as a loved one is still alive, we still have some physical connection. We can touch their hand, kiss their forehead and sit quietly by their side. But when the final moment comes and they smile their last smile, utter their last words and take their last breath, they are gone from our lives
It is at these very difficult moments that we yearn for a bridge between this world and the next. What can create such a bridge? What can enable us to remain connected to the memories of those who were so close to us?
One such bridge is provided by the kaddish prayer. While not actually mentioning anything about death, it emphasizes the idea of “kiddush Hashem,” the sanctifying of God’s name.
Perhaps it also conveys the sanctifying of life itself. Our parents or loved ones may have left us physically, but they also left us the responsibility to carry on their legacy. Nothing could be more sacred. 
In his forward to Arthur Kurzweil’s book From Generation to Generation, Elie Wiesel reflects on the meaning of names:
“In the Jewish tradition, a name evokes a deeper and more respectful attitude. We are Semites because we are descendants of Shem, which signifies name. We call God, who has no name, the Name (Hashem). In other words, our relationship with the name is of mystical nature; it suggests an imperceptible, mysterious element. Its roots go deep into the unknown… in Jewish history a name has its own history and its own memory. It connects beings with their origins.”
By emphasizing God’s name, we are also emphasizing our connection with our parents and loved ones. Just as God is always present but is unseen, so too, the presence of our loved ones can be felt even though we can no longer see them or be with them. Yet, we are attempting to enter a mystical world that we know nothing about and cannot fathom. Nonetheless, we know that we must continue the chain, those links with our past and our memories.
In the Talmud (Berachot 3), there is a profound discussion about the meaning and significance of the kaddish. Rabbi Yossi, the Talmudic sage and student of Rabbi Akiva, when traveling on the road, enters one of the destroyed buildings of Jerusalem in order to pray.
At the entrance, the prophet Elijah waits for him to finish his prayers and then asks him what voice he heard in the building. R’ Yossi replies that he heard a dove’s voice saying: “Woe to the children [of Israel] that have been exiled, and for whose sins I have destroyed the holy Temple.”
Elijah responds that there is another voice and that is the voice of the children of Israel who utter the words: “May His great name be blessed forever and ever” in synagogues and houses of study.
When God hears those words, He nods His head and says: “Happy is the King whose [children] praise Him in His house; woe to the Father who exiled His children, and woe to the children who have been exiled from the table of their Father.”
The genius of the rabbis is revealed in this aggadic interlude that reveals so much about the background of the times and the message that kaddish has for all generations. In a historical context, the Kaddish was established after the destruction of the Temple.
The destruction, or churban, signified an enormous crisis in the nation. The Romans not only defeated the Jews, they destroyed everything that was sacred to them. Thousands of Torah scholars and their teachings and leadership no longer existed.
Communication with the eternal God through the sacrifices and festivals was gone. Was there any hope for a future? And if there was, how and what would help the distraught people?
R’ Yossi was mired in thoughts of the destruction that had occurred only a few generations before. He entered the churvah, the destroyed Jerusalem, feeling there was no hope for revival of the holiness of the Jewish people.
But Elijah, representing the hope for redemption and the reaffirmation of faith, proclaimed that Jews still enter the houses of study and synagogues, and they still profess their belief in God, no matter how distant and remote He may seem.
Elijah echoes the words of Rabbi Akiva himself who declared in Tractate Yoma (Chapter 8, mishnah 9): “Happy are you Israel before whom you purify yourselves, and who purifies you, your father in heaven.”
Bereft of the Temple, the priests and the Levites, the nation faced the Day of Atonement not knowing how to continue. Then Rabbi Akiva proffered his words of great consolation, and 2,000 years later, we still find comfort in those words.
Similarly, when a loved one departs, we experience a personal crisis. We do not know how we will continue after their death. We still feel their presence and long to hold on to our connection.
Then comes the recitation and the words of the kaddish, which serves as a bridge between this world and the next. The kaddish reminds us of all that is holy and eternal in our lives and in the lives of those who have passed on.
In a most moving and inspiring poem written by Rabbi Steven Savitsky we can find this expression of the kaddish as a bridge between two worlds:
A Private Conversation With My Kaddish
You were my link to the past,
My liason to my loved one.
You allowed me to say thank you
For the thousands of times I never did.
In you I found comfort;
With eyes closed, uttering striking words
I relived moments of my life
That are now history.
I am convinced that you provided
Joy and satisfaction to my dear father,
Every day he awaited my prayer
Affirming all that he lived for and believed in.
Together, the three of us transcended two worlds.
May all those who are saying kaddish for their loved ones be comforted.
This article was originally published in The Jewish Press in 2014. It is especially appropriate now in the age of coronavirus. The writer is a rabbi, an educator, freelance writer and author of Psalms: An Eternal Treasure. He welcomes reactions at [email protected]