Kaddish (sanctification) is the traditional Jewish prayer that is said in honor of someone who is deceased. It is said at the graveside, at the funeral, in the synagogue three times daily for eleven months, and after that, every year (according to the Hebrew calendar) on the anniversary of the death. It is, in reality, not a prayer for the dead but a prayer of trust in the absolute faithfulness of God in spite of death.
When my father passed away in 1993, I was still living in Baltimore and I went almost every morning to pray the Kaddish at the Orthodox synagogue that he had attended. The 14 years that I have lived in Israel I have gone to various synagogues on the anniversary of my father’s death (“yahrtzite”) to honor his memory.
The Letter of the Law
One year, here in Israel, the sun was beginning to go down on my father’s yahrtzite and the time for traditional evening prayers was drawing near. I was in an unfamiliar neighborhood; however, in Israel you can hardly go more than a few blocks without finding a synagogue. Sure enough, there was one close by. I entered, sat near the rear of the sanctuary and waited for others to arrive and the service to begin. There was only one person inside, an old man sitting in a corner praying alone with great intensity. It struck me as rather unusual that no one else was there.
Afternoon prayers in the synagogue can be said anytime after 12 noon and before sunset; usually they are done just before sunset (the service is only about 10 minutes long). After the sun has gone down, evening prayers are said. This arrangement makes it possible to complete the thrice-daily prayer obligations in just two trips to the synagogue instead of three.
I waited, but no one else came. Since the Kaddish is said in the context of a set service with at least ten worshippers, it was clear to me that this evening there would be no prayers. I resigned myself to it and thought that I would just spend a little time there reading psalms, praying quietly and remembering my father. The old man had finished his prayers and it was quiet and peaceful in the sanctuary. I was leaning forward in the pew with my head resting on the back of the seat in front of me. Suddenly there was a loud sharp sound, which caused me to jerk upright.
In many older synagogues each pew has a slanted back that provides a book rest for the worshipper in the row behind. These slanted backs also serve as the lid for a small cabinet where worshippers can stow prayer shawls or books. The sound that so startled me was the sound of a lid being lifted open and then dropped shut. The old man was wandering through the sanctuary, opening these little cabinets, rustling around inside of them (they all seemed to have noisy crinkly plastic bags in them), and then dropping the lids. I could hardly believe my eyes and ears. I did my best to ignore him. I closed my eyes and went back to my thoughts and prayers. For a few brief moments it got quiet in the sanctuary and I thought that he had gone. Then suddenly there were noises just in front of me and above my head. I looked up and there he was, standing on the pew in front of me changing a light bulb over my seat. I thought, “This guy is nuts,” and I got up and walked out in disgust.
It was only later that I fully understood what had happened and that the man was neither just obnoxiously rude nor simply crazy. His were indeed conscious actions with a specific motivation. A friend of mine who grew up in a religious Israeli family explained to me that it is forbidden to ask someone praying in a synagogue to leave. Since this man was ready to go, but did not want to violate the commandment, he proceeded to make it so unpleasant for me that I had to leave. He could pat himself on the back for his “righteous” solution to the problem. He had gotten rid of me without asking me to leave. This is probably one of the clearest examples of obeying the “letter of the law,” while grossly violating the spirit of it.
Nothing But The Truth
My relating this little adventure is in no way an exercise in bashing religious Jews for legalism and self-righteousness. They certainly have no corner on the market. This is prevalent among all humanity and not just among religious people of various persuasions. It is reflective of our condition as fallen and flawed beings. We know what is right and what is wrong, but the desire to serve our self-interests is very strong. Thus we employ “creative” means in order to avoid doing what we ought not to do or not doing what we should do and still appease our consciences.
Sometimes our actions are relatively harmless. Years ago I was in charge of the maintenance department at a large ministry in New York. I had an office in the basement. Often times, supply salesmen would come to the receptionist at the front desk and she would call me. Generally, I didn’t want to be bothered with them, so I asked her to count to ten and then tell them I had just stepped out. In that time I got up and walked out the back door. It was absolutely true, I had just stepped out. (Why I didn’t just have her just say that I wasn’t interested is a mystery to me today.) Although my behavior was not quite as insensitive as that of the man who drove me out of the synagogue, this illustrates how our words may be literally true while their meaning can be far from the truth.
A number of years ago an internationally known evangelist held some meetings here in Israel. He then wrote in his newsletter about all the Israelis who were attending his meetings and what an impact he was having on the nation. His report implied that multitudes of Israelis were coming to faith in Yeshua through his ministry. However, the vast numbers of attendees were already believers, some Jews, but mostly Arabs and Christians from the West. The few unbelievers who attended were curious, but could hardly be construed as the vanguard of a mass movement of salvation in Israel.
While the way in which the words were written might have been technically correct, the message conveyed was a distortion of the truth.
What Is God’s Heart?
God is calling us to walk by the Spirit of the Torah, not by hyper “t” crossing and “i” dotting observance. We are to live and to communicate the love of God in a genuine way – a walk that is not satisfied with a literal compliance that has an appearance of being outwardly correct, but at the same time overlooks the heart and intent of God. Let’s find out what the Lord wants from us and pursue it with all our hearts in sincerity and truth.
This article was originally published in the September 2008 edition of Israel’s Restoration