New Practice on an Old Ritual

jewish graveSomeone once asked me what I do: Are you “religious”?

What does that word religious mean, afterall?  I do certain things in life religiously–like say “love you” at the end of phone conversations with people I love. I always live-translate Hebrew to English when I teach to make sure everyone has access to what I’m talking about.

But Jewishly religious?  I guess I am in a way–I do practice Judaism– I do observe certain mitzvot without fail. That’s religious, right? (Mitzvot like trying to tip the balance in someone’s favor, like the life-practice of “not coveting” which is hard to do in this society.)

But I think the way I am most “religious” is in trying to cultivate spiritual intensity in my life–trying to awaken myself from the numbness that arrives in daily life–awaken my heart, my mind, my soul out of the mundane. What I practice most religiously is renaissance and re-imagining of old ritual into new relevant practices. And I know I am not alone in this work…look at Ritualwell, Storahtelling, Lab/Shul, Kohenet, just to name a few.

There is a practice that I believe has become numb in Judaism for many people…with the exception of people in a period of mourning. It’s the reciting of the mourners kaddish. I was recently asked to create a “spiritual practice” for Mourners Kaddish in honor of my teacher, R. Sheila Pelz Weinberg. I share it with all of you.

Kaddish Yatom Practice

(A moment of background: The Kaddish Yatom–or translated as “orphan’s kaddish” is actually a prayer about making God’s name great or expansive and enduring and at the same time is positioned in the service with remembering loss of life. The mourner takes a moment to stand and represent the person they have lost, reciting the words to this ancient prayer. 

Yitgadal – expanding the theological specifics here for a moment – let’s think a bit more universally about what it means to make God’s name great or expansive and far-reaching – with praise/shevach, glory/paer, beauty/hadar, sacredness/kedusha – we can take a moment to connect with the actions and behaviors that a person would engage in their lifetime, in their days/b’chayeichon u’vyomeichon – to “make god’s name great – expansive”, to help unite, heal, create one-ness, hope, love and peace in the world.

So we will use this moment as a kavannah – as setting an intention for saying the mourners’ Kaddish. Tears may come. Or not. Hearts may hurt, expand, or not. The important thing to remember is to continue to breathe and let flow whatever comes up – without judgment, without editing your thoughts.)

This practice could be done standing but let’s assume that this is at the time of the service before the Mourners Kaddish where you are still sitting.

Take a few moments to either close your eyes or have a soft focus and allow yourself to notice your breath – where it is coming from, in and out, chest or belly expanding and contracting – just as with life – and our presence in it.  We expand and contract in the world.  Here we have the opportunity to allow our thoughts to turn to someone in our lives we have lost – and to allow ourselves to remember that loved one’s expansiveness in the world.

  • In what way b’chayeichon u’vyomeichon–In their lifetime, in their days–did they help to heal  themselves or others?
  • In what way b’chayeichon u’vyomeichon–In their lifetime, in their days–did they give hope to someone or themselves?
  • In what way b’chayeichon u’vyomeichon–In their lifetime, in their days–did they create a moment of peace for themselves or others?
  • In what way b’chayeichon u’vyomeichon–In their lifetime, in their days–did they help to unite or unify people?
  • In what way b’chayeichon u’vyomeichon–In their lifetime, in their days–did they give and receive love?

In all of these ways, we know that know our loved one’s expansiveness in the world created a different world for the ones they encountered – grew/gi-del god’s name, as we rise in their honor begin to say…

Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei rabbah…