Today is the first of Ellul, the last of the Hebrew months which leads up to Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year. This is a month of introspection, so that, for example, this morning, in synagogues around the world, the shofar was blown, a ram’s horn mournfully reminding us that the New Year is approaching, of which the first ten days are called the Days of Awe, leading up to the Day of Atonement. This is a time of sobering personal reflection.
Especially for me.
Both of my parents, of Blessed Memory, died in Ellul, five years less one day apart in the common calendar, although in the Hebrew calendar sometimes they are wider apart. For me, Ellul is the cruelest month.
So in synagogue this week-end I said kaddish for my mother, and next weekend, kaddish for my father. I have watched many others say kaddish in synagogue for lost loved ones, while I, together with the rest of the congregation, responded with “b’rich hu” (Blessed be He), “y’hei sh’mei rabbah m’vorach l’olam ul’almei olmayah” (“May His Great name be blessed in the world now and forever”), and “amen” (“So be it” or “It is so”). Now it is my turn to be supported in my grief by the community of my people. The Mourner’s Kaddish is a prayer of praise to God in the darkest of times, and the responses by the congregants are audible evidences that they stand with those who mourn, weeping with those who weep, mindful that all of us face the abyss of our own mortality, comforted by a tradition and a God that have known and spoken the truth to us all along, the truth of mortality, the truth of grief, and the truth that God is worthy of praise even when life is so hard.
The Jewish tradition is uncommonly wise and realistic. My people have so much experience facing the hard realities of life, and a long history of time and again being up against a reality where the only way through is trusting yet again in God’s merciful intervention and the ultimate triumph of His goodness and purpose. The tradition knows a lot about mourning, cradling mourners in a web of rituals: sitting shiva, seven days of mourning when the family is not allowed to do anything for themselves but when the community draws near to do that needs doing, burning yahrzeit candles in memory of the departed, and specified times set aside for saying this prayer of praise to God, the Mourner’s Kaddish, in the presence of one’s people.
I think it would do all of us well this month to think of various relationships and situations in our lives for which we need to mourn, while salting our mourning with praise of God–saying kaddish. As I like to put it, “God is good even when life is bad.” It is healthy and necessary to come to terms with loss, with our own finitude, with the fact that we cannot always have what we want, cannot hold on to certain things, and really shouldn’t hold on to others. It might be helpful to explain to one or more trusted friends what situations or relationships you wish to say kaddish over this year, that they might support you in your process, and add their voice in support of your own as you say kaddish with your friend or friends as audience.
Life is full of losses, but it is also full of lessons in the losing, and with other provisions which, like the Mourner’s Kaddish being recited in community, swaddle and comfort us in our grief. As I said, it is important to mourn . . . it’s the sane and therapeutic thing to do. But while mourning, one ought never forget that God is good, and His provisions are good, even when life is bad. As evidence of that goodness, it helps me to remind myself that not only did I lose my parents in Ellul . . . it was also the month in which I was born. The LORD both gives and takes away . . . blessed be the Name of the LORD.
The Psalmist put it this way: “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.” The Book of Lamentations puts it this way, “This I call to mind and therefore I have hope, the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end: Great is your faithfulness.”
I suggest you might want to take some time to count your losses during the month of Ellul. Some of those losses were even good for you: you lost things you never should have clung to, or which were no longer serving a helpful purpose in your life. Some losses were hard, perhaps they are still hard, and you just can’t identify any loving purpose in the whole mess. But always remember the steadfast love of the LORD: You have known it in the past, and it’s coming around again, because his mercies are new every morning.
And let us say, “Amen.”
Here are the words to the Mourner’s Kaddish, slightly amended.
This picture is of Tzvi Regev saying kaddish over the coffin of his 25 year old son, Eldad, who was captured and killed by terrorists, with his remains eventually returned in a prisoner swap. See the community standing with him respectfully supporting him in his grief.
Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days, and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon; and say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us, for all Israel, and all who dwell on the earth, and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights, may He create peace for us, for all Israel, and all who dwell on the earth; and say, Amen.