The rhythm of the duel

Much of life is about rhythm – finding a rhythm, getting into a rhythm, enjoying the rhythm.

And one of the hardest things about losing a loved one, like I did when my father passed away two months ago, is that it disrupts, interrupts, and changes that rhythm. Suddenly, a dominating punch that was always part of that beat just fades away.

The Jewish laws of mourning understand this and are structured in such a way as to help the mourner regain a rhythm after the loss of a close relative. But it is a slow and gradual process that begins with the seven days of shiva, followed by the 30 days of shloshim and culminates with the first yahrzeit which marks the end of the 12-month period of mourning.

The goal is to get back to the usual rhythm of life. Not all at once, but gradually. It’s about rhythm.

The obligation to say Kaddish three times a day for 11 months, which requires praying in a minyan, creates a definite rhythm for the day.

The sufferer’s own kaddish, recited numerous times in the three daily prayer services, is itself very rhythmic.

“By the constant and hypnotic repetition, morning and night, of the words chayim (life) and yamim (days) and olam (world),” wrote Maurice Lamm in The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, the kaddish is “dramatic in its rhythms and music of words “.

Kaddish (credit: courtesy)

IT HAS BEEN 37 years since I was last forced to say Kaddish, after my mother died. When she passed away, I was a single student in the American Midwest, studying journalism at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.

That year, my mother died at the beginning of the academic year, she was more dedicated to making sure I have a daily minian than to my studies. Although there were 30,000 students in the school, it was not always easy to find 10 Jewish men willing to meet three times a day to pray.

The three Jewish fraternities on campus volunteered to help, sending two or three boys for each service. Then there were the handful of regulars at Hillel. But often that was not enough.

I remember a couple of times I crossed the street to a smoky cafe called “Daily Grind”, channeling my inner Chabadnik, scanning the tables for a Jewish-looking man, walking up to him, asking him if he really was Jewish and … If so, if it would help to complete a minian. In what always left me with a great sense of Jewish solidarity, the answer was always “yes.”

This time, as I say kaddish to my dad, it’s completely different. I’m in Israel, not central Illinois, and finding a minian is never a chore, without any hassle, one of the unrecognized benefits of living in the Jewish state.

IN ADDITION to having a tremendous psychological sense, the constant recitation of kaddish, as well as the custom among Ashkenazim that the mourner conducts prayer services on weekdays, serves as a reminder three times a day that I am in mourning.

While that reminder can be depressing and tiresome, it’s also wise. One may want to get back to the rhythm of life immediately, but this is to say, “not so fast, slowly, be aware and aware of what just happened.”
The obligation to lead the daily prayers falls on the mourner while saying kaddish, and it also falls on anyone who commemorates a yahrtzeit (anniversary of a death). In the hierarchy of who leads the prayer, someone with a yahrtzeit triumphs over a habitual mourner.

This means that if someone in the synagogue has a yahrtzeit, they have the right of way to lead the prayers instead of me. On the one hand, this excites me, because I have a day free from the pressure of running services, without having to worry about clumsy words or going too fast or too slow. But on the other hand, it makes me feel bad about myself: what kind of person is happy when someone else has a yahrtzeit?

What kind of person? A person for whom to lead the services is a stressful task. The death of my father left me in mourning, it did not make me a singer. I do it though, both because I’m supposed to, and because this also creates a certain rhythm, as well as the feeling that I’m somehow helping my dad.

Another part of the Jewish laws of mourning that provide comfort is not going to large holiday celebrations during the year of mourning, such as weddings, bar mitzvahs, or any other type of holiday. This eliminates any internal fighting over whether it is appropriate to celebrate so soon after the death of a loved one. Halacha says just don’t go.
If we are honest, we will admit that while weddings are joyous affairs, we are not always that excited to go to all those we are invited to. If I know the bride or groom and I am friends with one of their parents, that is one thing. But if it is a superficial invitation because the person feels compelled to invite me, then any excuse to leave it is welcome.

The duel is an indisputable excuse.

And they are not just weddings. The son of a close friend recently had a baby, and the grandparents, my friends, were throwing an introduction party for the little boy, a shalom zachor, on Friday night.

This is a case where I really would have enjoyed going, although I’m generally not crazy about going out after dinner on Friday night, but, due to my year of mourning, I was forced to turn it down.

My friend, aware of the halachot and the possibility of creating a subterfuge whereby mourners can attend if they have work to do at the event, said that he would let me serve his guests and then wash the dishes. That way he would be more of a worker than a celebrant.

I thought about it for half a second and replied, “As tempting as it may seem to go out on Shabbat night to serve your guests and wash their dishes, I think I’ll pass.”

The laws of mourning are designed to bring you slowly back into the rhythm of life, I explained. Don’t make me the housekeeper.

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