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Reflections on the Memorial Prayers and Honoring One's Parents

Today is my mother's birthday, and if she were still alive, she'd be 71 years old today. Because it's her birthday, I've been thinking today about some of the ways I've been honoring her memory, and my father's memory as well.


Most people are familiar with the concept of the Mourner's Kaddish, a prayer that is said only by mourners during Jewish religious services. If you're not Jewish or not religious, however, you may not realize that the kaddish isn't actually a prayer for the deceased. It's simply a doxology, or a sanctification, of God. For those of you who would like to read it, here's a link to the text of the Mourner's Kaddish. As you can see, it says nothing about the deceased. It's mostly praises of God and expressions of a desire for peace in the world. (There are actually a variety of different kaddish prayers recited during a service; the Mourner's Kaddish is just one of them.)

Some of the reasons for reciting Mourner's Kaddish can be found at Judaism 101: Life, Death and Mourning. As to why I recite it, I'm drawn to two ideas: firstly, that I recite the kaddish to express a continued faith in God even in the light of personal tragedy; and secondly, that reciting it might aid the soul of the deceased in its journey to the World to Come. But I also consider the Mourner's Kaddish a very public declaration of my status, a reminder to all around me that I am still in the early stages of having lost a parent.

No matter what anyone says, no one achieves closure on a parent's death in the first year. In fact, I would say that one never completely "gets over it," nor would we want to. You eventually incorporate the fact of the loss into your life, find a "new normal" (as Rabbi Shmuel Feld put it at my mother's funeral), and continue on with your life. But that first year is the rawest, and by loudly enunciating the Mourner's Kaddish as I do, I remind my community of my status and the status of others in the same situation as myself. (I'm pleased to note that I've received quite a few compliments on my clear recitation of the Mourner's Kaddish. I suspect it will come as a minor shock to the community on the first shabbas morning when they suddenly don't hear my voice anymore.)

But if the Mourner's Kaddish isn't a prayer specifically for the dead, are there any prayers we recite with the purpose of memorializing the deceased? As a matter of fact, there are.

One of the most important prayers we say in honor of the deceased is the Yizkor prayer. The word "Yizkor" means "May He remember," and the prayer is a direct request to God to remember the deceased.

Yizkor is only said four times a year, in conjunction with certain of the major Jewish holidays. We recite it on Yom Kippur, Shemini Atzeret, the last day of Passover, and the second day of Shavuot. In some ways, Yizkor is an interesting phenomenon to observe, because many people have a tradition of leaving the shul during Yizkor if their own parents are still alive. For someone like me, who lost his father when I was only 20 years old, I've found myself left alone in the shul with a much older group of men and women reciting the prayer. Even now, I look around the room and realize that I'm skewing on the younger side of the people staying for the prayer.

Now, as many of you already know, a few weeks ago Nomi and I observed the last few Jewish holidays of the fall season. So there was Yizkor to recite. And I got to thinking the same thoughts I had just before Passover, which took place only a few months after Mom died.

Mom was never religious, but I knew that she felt the loss of my father very deeply. Although she never went to services, over the last ten years or so, whenever the calendar approached one of the major Jewish holidays, she always had one question for me.

Mom always wanted to make sure that I was lighting a memorial candle for my father and reciting Yizkor. She took comfort in the fact that someone in the family was doing this on his behalf.

And every time she asked, I felt grateful for her question. Mom never quite got my interest in living a more observant life. We finally did achieve a breakthrough in her understanding and accepting this aspect of my life, but ironically, it happened when I last saw her in December 2006, just about a month before she died. Ever since then, I've been reciting Yizkor for both her and Dad, and if I ever contemplated skipping shul that day, I know I would hear her voice in the back of my head, reminding me of its importance to her. Since she's died, I've also gone on to recite Yizkor on behalf of all my ancestors, whomever they were, since without them I would not be here today.

There's one other thing that I will be doing soon to honor a parent's memory. After a parent dies, the child observes what is called a yahrzeit, or the Hebrew anniversary of the parent's death. My father died on 15 Heshvan, which by an interesting coincidence falls on the shabbat of October 27 this year. In previous years, I've recited the Mourner's Kaddish on that day for him, as one is supposed to do.

Another aspect of observing a yahrzeit is receiving an aliyah, an honor in which one is called to recite from the Torah during services. In truth, most people who are called to the Torah simply recite the blessings, and the Torah is chanted by someone else who is familiar with the cantillation, but the honor is bestowed upon the person called. This year, I'm doing something special for Dad's yahrzeit.

After Mom died, when we were digging through some of the cabinets in the house, my brothers and I found my father's religious artifacts, including the tallis (prayer shawl) that Dad received for his Bar Mitzvah in 1942. I've had the tallis cleaned, and in two weeks, when I'm called to the Torah in his memory, I'll be wearing the very same tallis that Dad wore when he was first called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah. I know Mom would have appreciated this gesture, and so in a way, the honor is for her as well.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein

Comments

That's beautifully written, and helped me understand a bit more of my own heritage (from my father's side). Thank you.

And I'm happy you have your father's tallis and are going to wear it when you're called to the Torah. That's wonderful.

[hugs]

That's lovely. Thank you for sharing it.
That's awesome, Michael.
Thank you for sharing that. The care you take to honor your parents is obvious from your writing.
Beautiful. Sorry we'll miss the aliyah.

Interestingly...

...10-15-07 would have been my father's 73rd birthday.
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