Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba
Those words trigger a Jewish instinct; we stand to attention and know just what to do, like some sort of ancient reflex to join in mourning, whether out of sorrow or as strangers, side by side.
The structure of the Kaddish-prayer is beautiful, and it reflects how we as Jews relate to death and mourning. We let the mourners speak of their sorrow but we interrupt them, interject as to say, “you are not alone”. We prop the mourner up when he cannot stand for himself and when his voice breaks we pick up, letting him know that if he goes silent we are here to carry the tune.
I never really understood the kaddish, not until last night. Last night I sat in a kitchen, holding a mother who had just buried her child and I heard the men praying net door and I could hear how they carried the father, answered him in the way we know how, telling him that he would never be abandoned. What I before had found repetitive was now meditative and meaningful and before the man with the broken voice is even done asking for God to reveal his majesty in our time he is interrupted by a loving unison
Y’hei sh’mei raba m’varach
l’alam ul’almei almaya
And at this point, I start to cry.
I cry because these are no longer words, but a prayer over my dear friend Sara, who was buried just as she had turned 18. I learned of her death as I was walking home from dinner in downtown Tel Aviv and I remember very little of the rest of that night, except the cold feel of the apartment floor as I failed to get up from it, hours after hours on end. I scrolled through my phone in search of pictures of her until I got to my favorite – one where she is braiding my hair in my kitchen while we rummage through my mother’s old jewelry box. We were talking about life and love and Sara told me that she was impatient to get out there, into the world that was eagerly awaiting her, so that she could fulfill her two dreams; curing epilepsy and moving to New York to become a famous actress.
Out of the mouth of anyone else those would have sounded like pipe dreams, but for Sara they were anything but. She walked into a room and she was noticed, and more importantly – she truly noticed you. Always helping, always giving, seemingly unaware of the beauty she possessed. At the end of that night I gave Sara a Magen David-pendant I loved but never ever wore, knowing I could never pull it off. The stones and gold would outshine me, but on her it looked just right, as if it hung around her neck not to rival but enhance her perfect Jewish beauty.
As we sit there at the shiva, I want to tell her mother what I am thinking, but I seem to have lost all my words. Nothing comes out, expect tears and a silent wailing, and I realize that these rituals are not just for the family, but also just as much for us.
It is hard to be close to pain, as humans we have an instinct to fear the things we cannot change and avoid a hurt we cannot diminish, and just as the mourner has an instinct to hide and stay away we who love them are paralyzed with all the things we cannot do to ease their pain.
So we are forced to sit in the unimaginable, stay in that pain and we finish each other’s sentences just to show that we are there. We cry together and we are silent together, we remember and we talk and we refuse to give way to the loneliness and darkness that threatens with its presence, just outside that door. Seeing what I saw and feeling what I felt yesterday I now think that this is one of the ultimate strengths of our Jewish existence – how we show up for each other and stay there, despite and through the hurt, and that the darkest parts of life are neither skirted nor ignored.
We say that the memory of a loved one should be a blessing, but with Sara it is so much more than that. I envied the confidence with which she walked through life and the beauty and largeness with which she lived it, inch by glorious inch, and I know that this is true for everyone who came into her life. Her entire being was a bracha, not just the memory of what she was, and having lost her far too soon I owe it to myself and to her to live bigger and truer and fuller – just as Sara would have if she got the chance.
When we as Jews enter the Temple Mount we turn right and walk counter-clockwise, except for when we have suffered a heartbreak or loss. When we hurt we turn left and walk clockwise, so that we bump into other people, directly facing them, open to their questions and comfort. Our traditions teach us not be alone, but to be radically brave and emotionally confrontational.
We are the chosen people but also a people who make choices, and we choose to come together as the world does its best to rip our hearts apart. For this I am thankful now, in midst of pain and anger; I am thankful to be Jewish and with that to never truly be alone.
Sara. I know you never got to see your name in lights but you will see your life live on through all of us who now owe your memory a blessing. I promise you that I will do my best to care for those you love the way you did, with compassion and humility, and dare to use red lipstick even when I’m feeling down.
You are loved, and you are remembered, from here to all eternity.