Monday, December 14, 2009

To Stand Alone, or to not Stand Alone

The Mourner's Kaddish is the prayer that Jews are "required" to recite daily as an affirmation of their faith in the darkest times of their lives. Many people believe it is a prayer about death because of it's association with loss, funerals and mourning, but it never mentions death.

Traditionally, when Jew loses a parent, s/he would daily go into communal prayer (a minyan, a group of 10 people) and recite this piece of liturgy as a public affirmation of faith. It is a prayer recited standing .... and the debate rests in the consideration if only the people in mourning should stand, or should the entire community stand.

Some congregations ask the entire congregation to stand. Two reasons I have heard are:
  • so that no person is standing alone, and the entire congregation is in mourning with them
  • to recite Kaddish for those who have no one to say kaddish for them (i.e. Holocaust victims, orphans, etc).

In more traditional settings, only the mourners are asked to stand and some people even consider it an ayin harah (and evil eye) to stand when you aren't in mourning ... putting a dark cloud over their loved ones. Some scholars would say the mourner is the only one to stand so that the rest of the community knows who is currently in pain and needs support.

I was raised in the "everyone stand" camp, and through my Jewish journey have moved to the "only the mourners stand" position. And then it happened to me.

All during Shiva for my dad, my family observed the "everyone stand" method ... and I felt a little agitated, maybe even angry. I was screaming inside that everyone else should sit down because this was MY LOSS, it belonged to ME, and my brother and mother and my two uncles. And for some reason I didn't want to blend in - I wanted my pain to stand out in that environment.

For various reasons (see my blog on Creating Rituals - Part 1) I have not attended a daily minyan to recite kaddish, but do so each day at home. So, the other night, for the first time since Shiva, I found myself in synagogue. I was there for Shabbat and the first night of Chanukkah and was going about the celebrating during dinner, etc. Then, we moved to another room for prayer services. It was about 10 minutes in, and it hit me - I was going to have to stand and say Kaddish ... and I was in a congregation where the "stand alone" method is their minhag (custom).

Very quickly, I became shaky and distracted. I couldn't focus on the prayers that were being recited because I was already anticipating my solitary recitation. During the prayer right before the kaddish, I was having trouble breathing .... I was thinking about all those times I had sat during Kaddish because it wasn't "mine" and now it was - totally and completely mine - the loss of my dad and the obligation to stand. And I was a total wreck. The tears were uncontrollable. Even though the words roll off my tongue every day at home, this was different. I was standing alone (except for 2 others who must have also been in mourning or observing a yahrtzeit - the anniversary of a death of a loved one). And I felt totally alone in a room full of people. Totally and completely alone in sadness and grief. I could feel the eyes on me as I tried to articulate the words of affirmation ... words of peace. I just couldn't predict that it would have been that hard.

Very shortly after that, services were over and one of the rabbis approached me - to ask if I was okay, to inquire about my loss, to offer his condolences, to offer his listening ear at any point I needed it ... which was very supportive. I told him that it was my first public Kaddish and that my family observed the "everyone stands" custom during Shiva ... and that the contrast was so big. He reminded me that one of the reasons this congregation doesn't stand is so that people (like he did) can reach out to the mourners, so that they don't blend in, and that their pain isn't absorbed into the crowd of voices.

So I have spent the last few days toiling with this. Which is better? Moving forward, how do I feel about the "stand" or "sit" debate? To tell you the truth - I am not sure how I feel about it. For the next 9 months, I won't have to decide. Because I will always have to stand. But in the future, after my aveylut (the 11 months I am in mourning) is over, I will have to decide (other than on my dad's yahrtzeit) if I stand or sit during Kaddish.