During my Kaddish journey these past 11 months, I have come to a new awareness of the power of memory and how the four different understandings of the Name of God speak to me. As a 17-year-old who buried his 42-year-old father, I said Kaddish with fear and anger and out of a sense of obligation. As a 52-year-old, when my brother died at 55 after a 30-year battle with M.S., I said Kaddish with sadness. This year, as a 71-year-old saying the very same Kaddish in memory of my 93- year-old mother, this ritual became a vehicle through which I was able to truly express my gratitude to God for the gift of my mother’s life, and in the process give thanks for the great gifts of the lives of my brother and father.
The Hebrew name for the Book of Exodus is Sefer Sh’mot: The Book of Names. It begins with the listing of the names of the tribes that went down to Egypt, prospered there, and ultimately were enslaved. By the end of the chapter our attention has been focused upon one child of one family of one tribe, a person named Moses. However, before the abridged version of 430 years of history brings us to him, we are told in Exodus 1:8 that after the death of Joseph and his brothers, “V’yakom melech chadash she lo yada et Yosef,” “There arose a new king that did not know Joseph.” The consequences for both the Jewish people and for the Egyptians who enslaved them were transformative.
Parshat Sh’mot also includes a narrative that gives us the origin of the Holiest Name of God. In Exodus 3:13-15, at the end of the story of the burning bush, we hear Moses asking God: When they, the children of Israel, ask me what is God’s Name, what shall I say to them?” God answers Moses: “Eheyeh Asher Eheyeh.” This three-word proclamation can be translated into English in four ways: I am that what I am; I am that what I will be; I will be that what I am; I will be that what I will be. This statement became the basis for the four-letter Name of God, which never is pronounced. In prayer we replace it with Adonai, the Hebrew term for my Master; in non-worship settings, Jews traditionally refer to this Name as HaShem.The Name.
The narrative of Parshat Sh’mot is a perfect pretext to speak about the two ever-present challenges to Jewish survival and continuity — anti-Semitism and assimilation. The events of 2019 certainly would warrant such a d’var Torah this week — but I am choosing to address a more personal topic and share with you my thoughts on the power and the purpose of memory. What is the blessing of remembering a name? Why does the Kaddish we say in memory of loved ones not mention the people we mourn? In other places in our liturgy, the Kaddish is a mark of division and transition from one section of worship to another. The Mourner’s Kaddish is a bridge that links us across the ultimate divide between life and death.
Too often, we now focus our attention on the curse of losing our memory to disease, or upon the consequences of the intentional choice of forgetting the past. This week, I have a personal need to take the opposite action of Pharaoh in verse 1:8 and to stand up and recite Kaddish as a sign of remembering those whose life and love brought me to this moment. This year, Shabbat Sh’mot falls on the 21st of Tevet, which is the 54th anniversary of the death of my father, Jerry Borovitz, and the 19th anniversary of the death of my brother Stuart Borovitz. Next week, on the 26th of Tevet, I will conclude the 11 months of Kaddish for my mother, Mildred Borovitz.
As a Reform Jew, committed to the principle of personal options when it comes to ritual observance, I believe that every Jew has the right to choose from our Jewish tradition how they ritually mourn a loved one, including how often and for how long they recite Kaddish. For me, personally, saying Kaddish daily for my father, my brother, and now my mother have been transformative and powerful experiences, though each journey has been different.
As I reflect upon the first understanding of the riddle through which Exodus tells us that God revealed His Name to Moses in Exodus 3, “I am that I am,” the loss of my father, in the middle of my senior year of high school, was, for me as well as for my mother and three siblings, the most transformative event in life. In the later months of that year of Kaddish (which in Jewish tradition is only 11 Hebrew months), as a freshman in college, my sense of obligation to honor my father led me to establish a relationship with the professor of Jewish studies and Hillel rabbi at Vanderbilt University, Rabbi Lou Silberman. It was Rabbi Lou who lobbied the Vanderbilt Administration to allow me to spend my junior year (1968-69) at Hebrew University with full credit. That year in Israel began the path that led me to the rabbinate.
The second two possible understandings of Eheyeh asher Eheyeh, I am what I will be and I will be what I am, have led me to an amazing time of reflection during this past 11 months of saying Kaddish, in gratitude to God, for my mother’s life. In truth, these seemingly contradictory statements are complementary. For me, they are a reminder that each human being, including you and me, has the capability to change and grow, yet there is an essential self that remains constant. The fourth understanding of the four-letter Name of God, I will be what I will be, is for me a reminder that every one of us has a limited free will to determine our personal destiny, as well as the power to make a difference in the world.
Unlike my brother Mark, my son Jeremy, and me, my mom, my dad, and Stuart were not ordained as rabbis. Yet in their actions in life they were true teachers of Torah, who taught me by example the plea of Micah: “Act justly, be merciful, and walk humbly with God.”
In death, their lives remain living examples of the teaching of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot 2:15 -16: “Our time is short; the task of redeeming the world is great; we may not live to see its completion, but we must do our part to repair the world.”
As the calendar turns to 2020, my memories of my father, my mother, and my brother continue to challenge me in the spirit of Hillel our sage to “Go forth and learn!” Learn how I can follow their examples of passion and compassion, of humility and honesty, and of self awareness and selflessness. On this Sabbath called Sh’mot, Names, I urge all of you to remember the names of those who loved you and whom you love, and to tell their stories. “L’dor v’dor: from generation to generation.”