I just finished reciting my last Kaddish on behalf of my revered father Shaul Gershon ben Chaim Shmuel v’Ita Chaya, Dr. Saul G. Agus, z”l. In theory, this day should be somewhat celebratory. Tradition teaches us that wicked people are judged for 12 months. We recite Kaddish for 11 months because we are confident that our loved ones are not wicked and that our prayers have helped to elevate their neshamot to Gan Eden at the very least, and hopefully to the highest of levels within Gan Eden (I am convinced my father did not need my prayers as he had a first-class ticket, direct flight 11 months ago, but who am I to break the tradition?). One might think there is another reason to celebrate, as I will no longer be compelled to rush to shul in the morning after dropping off my 10- and 7-year-old sons at school, to rush out of the house on Friday afternoon to get to shul in time for Mincha, or to stay awake during most of my flight back home to Israel to make sure I catch minyan in the back of the plane to say Kaddish. Contrary to this perception, I have come to appreciate the beauty of saying Kaddish this past year, for many reasons.
The Kaddish prayer itself has added meaning to my tefillah. Kaddish does not moan our loss but helps us focus and reaffirm our life’s mission: “Amen, Yehei shmei rabah mevarach, le’alam ule’almay almaya”: May Hashem’s Great Name be forever blessed. When uttering these words, I think about how I can conduct my life to help Hashem’s name become even greater. I recognize that I am a mere messenger and every action I take has the potential to uplift. I pray that through saying this phrase, the soul of my father and the souls of others whose relatives are saying Kaddish on their behalf will be elevated. Some of these souls speak to me directly—Hadar Cohen, Dafna Meir, Ezra Schwartz, Yaacov Don, Reuven Aviram, Omri Levy, Aharon Bennet, Eitam Henkin, Naama Henkin, Malachi Rosenfeld and Danny Gonen, a”h, individuals who sacrificed their lives al Kiddush Hashem in Israel this past year, whose families I had the zechut of visiting during shiva or at their funerals. What an amazing response to tragedy. We mourn. We are sad. We cry. But we do not despair. Every action we take has the potential to uplift and to ultimately help bring shalom—“oseh shalom bimromav...aleinu v’al kol Yisrael.” This daily reminder during the three prayers of the day has in some ways helped inspire me to be try to be a better person, in the name of my father.
Kaddish has also reminded me about the unity of our people. There are many different nuances within Kaddish. My minhag is not to recite “ve’yatzmach purkaneh vekarev mishichei” or, at the end of Kaddish, “chayim vesova veyeshuah venechama...verevach vehatzala,” both of which are phrases which in some measure speak to our desire for the Mashiach to come. While I don’t formally recite these phrases, I try to live up to their purpose by pausing my Kaddish to respect others’ ability to recite these phrases and for all the mourners to continue in unison. In general, I try to time my Kaddish to the speed of the other mourners, sometimes not realizing that there might be a woman saying Kaddish whom I cannot see and ultimately mistiming the recital of the prayer. However, there is always another prayer and an ability to recite it better. Once, I missed Kaddish on Shabbat mincha because I was daydreaming in shul (I like to think I was thinking about my Dad). Two times I missed Kaddish on an El Al airplane because I could not get a minyan (note: don’t take the late-night Thursday night flight). And two times I missed Kaddish when I was told I would have a minyan but not enough people showed up. But my siblings covered for me and I covered for them if needed. We live in different time zones but we have each other’s backs, a mark of unity. My father would have liked that. As a shliach tzibur with a mellifluous voice, he was a big believer in not flaunting it and not being a tircha detzibura, in respecting the congregation and not over-burdening them. In these difficult times facing our people (security, religious disharmony, poverty, etc.), unity is very much needed. Indeed, Kaddish is one of the few prayers which cannot be recited unless there is a minyan. Each of us is counted, much like the half-shekel, to help make a quorum. Kaddish is a prayer that requires unity. It does not matter if you are well off or not (h’ashir lo arbeh vehadal lo yam’it). All the mourners recite Kaddish together. There is some comfort in unity.
An elementary school friend asked me recently where the strangest place I recited Kaddish was. I didn’t have a great answer. I thought about saying Kaddish amidst the Southern accents in South Carolina, in the SAR elementary school for a last-minute mincha sandwiched between a property tour and a flight home, or on the beautiful mountain tops of Utah and Colorado, but those experiences were not really strange to me. Then I thought of the reverse question. Where was I most comfortable saying Kaddish these past 11 months (note: this question is probably most relevant for women reciting Kaddish)? When I recited Kaddish in my father’s shul in Englewood, New Jersey (both Ahavath Torah and East Hill Synagogue), I felt very comfortable and comforted. Many fond memories of my childhood and years prior to making Aliyah emerged. Reciting Kaddish in Kehillath Kesher just prior to the dedication of the new building in the room dedicated in memory of my father-in-law and adjacent to the room dedicated in memory of my father was comforting as well. Reciting Kaddish after shiurim in Beit Knesset Ohel Ari and Kehilat Netivot in Raanana where I live was comforting too. And saying Kaddish in the shadow of one of today’s gedolim, HaRav Avigdor Neventzal, at his home during shiva facing the Kotel and overlooking Har Hazeitim, the place where many righteous people are buried over the course of a few thousand years, was meaningful as well. When the Mashiach comes, maybe my father will be the choice doctor for many of these great people.
Perhaps the place where I felt the most comfortable reciting Kaddish was the place where my father could be found the most—in the hospital. Dad was a doctor par excellence—dedicated and caring beyond what anyone could imagine. After his passing, patient and doctor letters streamed in. (We set up an email account specifically to preserve these beautiful memories. I am looking forward to re-reading these emails as they will always provide me with comfort.) I was most comfortable reciting Kaddish in Shaarei Tzedek, Hadassah, Tel Hashomer and Ichilov Hospitals after visiting injured soldiers or terror victims there. Standing there I knew I was part of a bigger picture. Moments prior, I felt my father standing in shamayim, overseeing how I visited the injured. Did I walk in with a smile? Was I being patient with people? Was I conducting my life with the proper level of moderation that is required according to the Rambam? In the shuls of these hospitals, I prayed for my father’s neshama, I prayed for all the victims of terror who had been killed this past year and I prayed for the sick people in the hospital and elsewhere. And I felt that I was in my father’s house, in the hospital…visiting sick people, just as he did for over 40 years as the most dedicated physician I know.
I am indebted to OneFamily for asking me to volunteer on their behalf in the Sharon region since late 2015 to visit victims of terror and their families in the hospital; with Hashem’s help, we shouldn’t have a need for such services in the future). From my limited experience, I have found OneFamily to be an incredible resource to victims’ families
I feel accomplished having, baruch Hashem, completed the 11-month cycle. But part of me feels like I am going to miss the opportunity to try to elevate Hashem’s name and the name of my father. I am hopeful that I can try to conduct my life going forward in a way that would have made my father proud. I am hopeful that my continuing to bli neder attend minyan three times a day will not be a burden upon my family but a source of blessing. I am hopeful that I can continue to find meaning in my tefillot and in my day-to-day activities. And I am hopeful that I can contribute to the unity of our people.
By M. Elizur Agus