Sunday, July 20, 2014

God, Peace and Life: The Mourners Kaddish And Icarus

On this day seven years ago my husband Tzvi died. In previous years, on the anniversary of his death,  I used to go up to his grave  with one of his devoted students. As is the custom in Jewish religion, he read  the Mourners  Kaddish  for my husband . It was a lovely gesture.
The Kaddish is a prayer in Aramaic, it  praises God and expresses a yearning for the establishment of His kingdom on earth. The prayer is recited by a man, usually a family member, at funerals and memorial services.
I am used to the music of the Kaddish, and could almost chant it by heart. Still  since I know only few words in this ancient  language,  I have never really contemplated the meaning of  the words, until yesterday when I looked for the English translation of the prayer for the purpose of writing this post..
 The Mourners Kaddish
May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Amen.) in the world that He created as He willed.
 May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon. Now respond: Amen.
(Cong Amen. May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.)
May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, Blessed is He
(Cong. Blessed is He) beyond any blessing and song,
praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. Now respond: Amen.
May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life
upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen.
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,
upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen.
 The Kaddish is mostly about the greatness of God. It mentions the fact that He created the world the way He willed. But what I find most interesting is that this significant prayer ends with a wish that peace will descend from heaven and enable life on earth. If we consider that this is a mourner prayer, it is curious that death is not mentioned only God, peace and life.
 A mourner’s prayer with no dead person could be compared to a painting about the Fall of Icarus with no Icarus or his wings, as can be seen in the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel. In that painting a ploughman is working the land, concentrating on his work, and only some smoke in the background faintly suggests that a tragedy takes place elsewhere. This painting was also the inspiration to W. H. Auden’s  poem Musee des Beaux Arts.
 Musee des Beaux Arts
W. H. Auden
 About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Like the absent death in the Mourners Kaddish, Auden points out that in Bruegel's painting everything turns away from Icarus' fall:  In both cases we would rather turn our attention away from death and other tragedies as life goes on.  
 The Mourner Kaddish ends with the familiar words: "He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,upon us and upon all Israel. Now respond: Amen." The bond between peace and life is especially meaningful  in time of war. This year I choose to say the Mourners Kaddish myself , and when I get to the last two lines I shall say the the words with special intention hoping that finally God and man would  listen and bring Peace to our area, Amen.


  1. A beautiful post, Orna. I'll think of this for a long time. Thank you. B

    1. Thank you so much for reading and for your kindness, dear Barbara

  2. A memorable post. My 7-year anniversary is in ten days -- two families touched by grief at almost the same time. We have different traditions but the same desires for peace. May it finally happen. When my wife died a dear friend (almost a daughter) from Ukraine sang a Ukrainian death hymn at the bedside. Very moving as is the Kaddish.

    1. Dear Ken, thank you for reading and writing. I feel that we share many experiences, and both of us are determined to find new meanings and significance in life.

  3. Orna,

    I visited Israel, which my family always referred to as"The Holy Land," six months after the six-day war. I was 13 years old. I remember the soldiers with guns and the piles of burning rubble.

    My daughter visited many years later, with Birthright. She and her friend intertwined fingers before an expanse of water, their arms forming an arch. The joy on their faces made me weep tears of joy, and hope.

    I'm saying prayers for peace.


    1. Thank you for writing dear Jane, I join your daughter and her friend in saying prayer for peace. Thank you so much for your support and kind words.

  4. I also wholeheartedly wish for peace and the ending of this stupid war in the area.

  5. Thanks for sharing the beautiful Mourners Kaddish with us and your observations. Like the others who made comments, I too pray for God's abundant peace for Israel. And for all of us.

    1. Thank you dear Sue for your kind words and for your prayers.