May 23, 2013
Reflections on the first mourner’s daddish in honor of Memorial Day
Kaddish - The origins of this most famous Jewish prayer are shrouded in history. Most agree that it began with the central words, “Y’hei Sh’mei Rabbah Mevorach L’Olam u’l’Almei Almaya,” or “May God’s Name be praised now and forever.” One source suggests that the Kaddish was originally recited at the conclusion of a learning session in the study halls of ancient Israel. After engaging in the sacred task of study, these words were recited to show honor and reverence for the learning and to pay respect to the teacher.
One legend originates the Kaddish as a memorial prayer when the great teacher of his generation died and his students carried him from the Beit Midrash to the grave. There they recited the words, “Y’hei Sh’mei Rabbah Mevorach L’Olam u’l’Almei Almaya,” to express their profound sadness and gratitude. It is to say that the greatness of God’s Name is borne out of a teacher’s influence. Anytime we recite the Mourner’s Kaddish; the words are manifest not only in sadness, but in appreciation for a shared wisdom.
In honor of Memorial Day, I’d like to introduce you to my newest teacher, US Army Veteran SSGT Stephen E. Sherman. At 92 years old, Stephen is one of the few living African American serviceman. He now dedicates his time helping homeless veterans. We met waiting in a line one morning, and in the midst of light conversation, he drew closer, looked me deeply in the eyes and shared, “I have seen what your people went through when I was in the war. I was there when they liberated a camp in western Germany. I will never forget the look on those people’s faces when we told them they were free.” It was a powerful and brief moment that honestly took me aback. We shared an understanding from an intensely significant time in his life of the burden and responsibility of memory. Searching for a response, I returned with words of gratitude for him and his service to our country. Our chance encounter changed the outlook of my day, and now, even several weeks later, my appreciation for the power memory holds in binding the living together.
This man, who so proudly served his country in World War II, is spending the twilight years of his life serving those who survive. For that he is an inspiration. But he became my teacher when he reminded me that when we are carriers of memory and respect between us; we too lived out these words, “Y’hei Sh’mei Rabbah Mevorach L’Olam u’l’Almei Almaya,” God’s great Name is praised when we recognized the collective responsibility to remember.
On Memorial Day we will take moments to activate the memory for those who fought to preserve and protect our ideals. On Memorial Day, we are reminded just how important it is to remember the bravery and heroism of those who gave their lives to defend our freedom as Americans and as Jews. And more than words of honor and reverence, on Memorial Day the Mourner’s Kaddish should be recited for them too. Kaddish breathes meaning into the words we wish to express in gratitude for a lesson learned.
For me, SSGT Sherman gave life and being to the countless men and women who died in service this country. Our shared moment opened up worlds of meaning to connect the Memorial Day of this country with the memorial days of the Jewish lifecycle and calendar. It is precisely those worlds of meaning that make God’s Name great now and forever.