Editor’s Thoughts: Facing the End: Personal Closure and the Universal Perspective

We have commenced! Well, some of us have anyways. The term ‘commencement’ is, at face value, counter-intuitive. To commence is to begin something new. It is the start of some fresh undertaking. In truth we have not commenced, but completed a process. One which began years ago upon admission and enrollment. We have graduated, finished. Soon student loans will accrue interest and the stressful ordeals of finals season will soften into delightful nostalgia. Our sense of accomplishment, gratitude, and relief seem to reject the term ‘commencement’. And yet, the explanation of the word choice is obvious. In graduating we are not only completing a phase of life, we are beginning a new one. The term ‘commencement’ invites us to shift our perspectives from what we have accomplished to what we will accomplish, and from what we have become to who we will be. The last moment of one’s undergraduate career is, in truth, the first moment of a boundless future filled with opportunity. What has ended pales in comparison to what has just begun!

A similar, but critically refined sentiment is expressed by halakhah in the laws of kaddish. Most are familiar with the three formulations of Kaddish routinely recited in shul.[i] There is, however, a fourth formulation called the Kaddish be-Alma de-Atid (literally ‘in the world which will in future’, taken from the text), which is recited very rarely. More precisely, it is said only at a siyyum (completion of a course of study) or at a funeral. These two events would seem to be vastly different particularly in their respective emotional scopes. The siyyum is a time of joy and celebration and the funeral is one of anguish and pain. What commonality unites these two events which the recitation of this different kaddish?[ii]

First we must consider the text of the Kaddish itself. How does it differ from other formulations? The Kaddish be-Alma begins, as all others with a declaration of God’s greatness, “may His great name be exalted and sanctified.”[iii] It then continues with the following addition:

In the world in which He will, in future, be unified, and will revive the dead, and raise them to eternal life, and build the city of Jerusalem, and found His temple within it, and uproot foreign worship from the land, and return the service of heaven to its place, and the Holy one blessed is He will reign in His majesty and splendor[iv] [v]

This insertion is as opposed to, “in the world which He created according to his will and He will establish His reign”[vi] which is found in all other formulations of kaddish. The longer Kaddish be-Alma depicts, in rich detail, a future messianic era and expresses a hope for this era’s imminent arrival. The Kaddish is apparently intended to focus one’s attention on that future time. The question then arises: what does the focus on the messianic have to do with the funeral or, perhaps more vexingly, with the siyyum?

A central theme in the thought of R. Joseph B Soloveitchik provides a model for resolving this question. In many places throughout his corpus of work, R. Soloveitchik discusses a peculiar time consciousness or awareness, different from the normal sensation of time, which is critical to many elements of the religious experience. He articulates this phenomenon in Halakhic Man:

There is a living past and there is a dead past. There is a future which has not yet been ‘‘created,’’ and there is a future already in existence. There is a past and there is a future that are connected with one another and with the present only through the law of causality- the cause found at moment a links up with the effect taking place at moment b, and so on. However, time itself as past appears only as ‘‘no more’’ and as future appears as ‘‘not yet.’’… However, there is a past that persists in its existence that does not vanish and disappear but remains firm in its place. Such a past enters into the domain of the present and links up with the future…From this perspective we neither perceive the past as ‘‘no more’’ nor the future as ‘‘not yet’’ nor the present as ‘‘a fleeting moment.’’ Rather past, present, future merge and blend together and this new three-fold time structure arises before us adorned with a splendid unity.[vii]

This alternate ‘unitive’ time experience is central to many areas of religious experience and the fulfilment of several mitsvot. Sippur yetsiat Mitsrayim, repentance, keriat ha-Torah, all utilize this special time awareness.[viii] Particulary, for our purposes, R. Soloveitchik uses this principle to explain the experience of aveilut yeshanah, the ancient mourning for the destroyed Temple which Jews are called upon yearly to re-experience. This mourning, he writes, is not intended to be a detached and theoretical one. Rather the goal is to experience moments of the past as if they were presently occurring. In eliminating the distinction between ‘past’ and ‘present’ the religious individual participates in a unique ‘memory’ experience which does not simply recall events but incorporates them as part of one’s living reality. Since unitive time does not distinguish between past and future a similar ‘memory’ experience may be conceived of in relation to future moments as well. Judaism outlines a picture of events which will occur in end times. Confirmed by biblical prophetic predictions this eschatology can constitute a kind of memory of the future. In considering these future events and understanding that they are the inexorable denouement of the historical reality which is experienced from day to day the religious individual is able to incorporate these future expectations into daily experience. This future is thus “not hidden behind a thick cloud, but reveals itself now in all its beauty and majesty…infus[ing] the past with strength and might, vigor and vitality.”[ix] With the concept of unitive time consciousness in hand we can return to the Kaddish de-Alma.

Both the mourner at the funeral and the one who has completed an extensive course of study (mesayem) stand on cusp of closure. Both must undertake to assimilate a significant chapter of life which has ended. To be sure, these undertakings involve vastly different emotional engagement. The mourner must come to terms with the life of a dear loved one that has ended. He must reflect upon the overall expanse of a life lived as well as his own unique relationship with the recently deceased. This process, excruciating and drawn out over the next twelve months and beyond, begins just after the burial as the mourner passes from the perfunctory status of onen to the long term status of avel. The mesayem too must engage with the end of a distinct and significant life period. He stands before his family, close friends, and colleagues and completes a course of study which began months, years, or decades earlier. He distances himself from the erstwhile target of intensive diligence and focused study, vowing to return to it in the future. With great joy he extolls the value and reward of Torah study, and with the confidence fuelled by his achievement he prays for assistance in beginning and completing further projects. His previous study has enriched his life and expanded his knowledge. Now he celebrates, but he must also incorporate his gains and move forward. In a word, we may say that both the mourner and the mesayem are commencing, but, as we have seen, both occasions are also marked with an unusual practice. In the pregnant moment between burial and mourning, between the completion of study and celebration, both the mourner and mesayem respectively are called upon to recite the Kaddish de-Alma.

The Kaddish de-Alma depicts the eschatological future. A world in which God’s reign is clearly apparent, and in which the historical longings of the Jewish people are fulfilled. In the moment before embarking upon a path of personal closure halakhah demands of both the mourner and mesayem to recognize that a universal perspective is necessary in the consideration of any period of life. The Kaddish de-Alma reinforces this understanding and in so doing colors the personal experiences of its reciter in the light of an all-encompassing historical perspective. In this way the recitation of the Kaddish de-Alma engenders an instance of unitive time consciousness which is apparently of critical necessity to both the mourner and the mesayem.

The lesson of Kaddish de-alma provides a distinct refinement to the notion of commencement. It is true that at this time of achieving a great milestone we can and must look forward to the future. But the Jew cannot say, ultimately, that what that future holds is utterly mysterious. We are confident that history moves along a certain track. Furthermore we are obligated not to keep this belief at an intellectual ‘arm’s length’. Rather it must play a role in the way we see the world around us and the episodes of our own lives. This awareness, valuable in its own right, leads, if not necessarily then naturally, to an ethical calling as well. The recognition of God’s will guiding the historical process invites us to align ourselves with that will.[x] One’s awareness can act as a compass pointing out a path through the difficult decisions that arise in building a family, career, and legacy. This too is a refinement of the term commencement. We have not simply ‘begun’ in a general sense. Rather we are charged with a distinctive mission, accomplished by each individual in a unique way, to align the miniscule historical import of our own lives with the grand universal scheme.

These thoughts reverberate in my mind as I consider my three years of involvement at Kol Hamevaser. In these moments of siyyum I recall all the wonderfully enriching and educating experiences I’ve had writing for, and editing this publication, and for all the inspiring and enthusiastic people I’ve met. I am very grateful. Thanks go out as well to all of those who have worked tirelessly to bring this publication to light throughout the year. In this final online edition we consider the topic of privacy as it appears on the halakhic, hashkafic, and biblical scenes. As always we hope to stimulate, not dictate. Thank you for reading. Have a wonderful summer.

[i] Namely the Kaddish Yatom, Kaddish Derabanan, and Kaddish Shalem (mourner’s kaddish, rabbi’s kaddish, and full kaddish respectively).

[ii]  In truth one may argue that the recitation of the Kaddish be-Alma at these two events is not because of an inherent similarity between them, but because of a textual anomaly. Masekhet Sofrim (19:12) mentions the kaddish in the context of the mourner. However two versions of the text exist. One reads that one does not recite Kaddish be-aAma except “al talmid darshan” (on a [rabbinic] disciple who is an accomplished exegete). This version is cited by Ramban in his Torat ha-Adam (See the Mossad ha-Rav Kook edition in Kitvei Rabeinu Moshe ben Nachman vol. 2 p 155).  The other version, found in contemporary printings, reads “al ha-talmud ve-al ha-drash” (on [the] studying and exegesis [of Torah]). The first version maintains the Kaddish be-Alma within the context of mourning, limiting only upon who’s burial it is recited. Subsequently common practice became to recite it for everyone (as noted by Ramban, ibid.). This became the basis for contemporary practice as codified by Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, 375:4. The second version of the text indicates that the kaddish is not to be recited by mourners at all, and is intended exclusively for instances of Torah learning. This version seems to be the basis for the contemporary practice of reciting the kaddish at a siyyum. It would appear then that our practice has embraced both versions of the text and, therefore, that the connection between mourning and the siyyum is accidental, not inherent. Nevertheless each version of the text indicates that its respective event is suited to the recitation of the kaddish. This does not force us, per se, to assume that this means that Masekhet Sofrim is identifying the same characteristic in each event (because perhaps this too varies by version). However I will take the interest of minimizing textual variance as well as confidence in the consistency of our practice as sufficient basis for assuming that a shared characteristic warrants the recitation of the kaddish be-alma in both cases.

[iii] All translations are mine unless otherwise noted.

[iv] Siddur Yitshak Yair ha-Shalem (Brooklyn, NY: Mesorah pub., 2003), 422.

[v] A differently worded though thematically consistent version appears in Sephardic siddurim. See for example Siddur Birkhat Refael ha-Shalem (Jerusalem : Rabbi Shlomo Zabihi, 2011), 969.

[vi] Siddur Yitshak Yair, p 22.

[vii] R Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Halakhic Man (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), 114.

[viii] See Jeffrey Woolf, “Time Awareness as a Source of Spirituality in the Thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik,” Modern Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Ideas & Experience Vol 32, Issue 1 (2012), 54 for an overview of the uses of this time concept over course of R Soloveitchik’s work.

[ix] Soloveitchik, ibid.

[x] This presumption forms the basis of R Avaraham Yitshak Kook’s understanding of repentance. See his Orot ha-Teshuvah, 2.