Kaddish for unCreation

When she was murdered, Lori Gilbert Kaye (z’l) was at Chabad of Poway to say Mourners Kaddish for her mother. Now, Lori’s daughter, a UCLA student, has the impossible task of saying Mourners Kaddish for her. For this family, the wheel of time spun off its tracks, far faster than it ever should have, a mother saying kaddish for her own mother, with her daughter’s sobbing kaddish echoing close behind it. This act of destruction is on us.

People often point out that Kaddish says nothing about death or grief. It’s seen as an affirmation of faith in the face of loss. But we get a different story when we look at the words in their original context. The first four words of Kaddish, “May God’s name be great and holy,” “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mai raba,” are a reference to Ezekiel 38:23: “I will manifest My greatness and My holiness, and I will make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am God.”

The context for this line is a description about the literal End of the World, and it’s a terrifying passage:

“On that day,” says God, “My raging anger shall flare up. I have decreed in My indignation and in My blazing wrath: On that day, a terrible earthquake shall befall the land of Israel. The fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the beasts of the field, all creeping things that move on the ground, and every human being on earth shall quake before Me. Mountains shall be overthrown, cliffs shall topple, and every wall shall crumble to the ground.”

All it takes is an earthquake. Note the list of animals – fish, birds, beasts, creeping things, and people. It’s an act of un-Creation, a Wheel going in reverse, the opposite of B’reishit Bara Elohim, “In the Beginning, God Created.”

“I will then summon the sword against him throughout My mountains,” says God, “every man’s sword shall be turned against his brother.” Sounds like Cain and Abel to me.

“I will punish him with pestilence and with bloodshed, and I will pour torrential rain, hailstones, and fire upon him and his hordes and the many peoples with him.” Another reversal: This time, the plagues of Exodus (pestilence, hail), will spare no one. And this time, none of us will be free.

And then: “V’hit’gadalti V’hit’kadashti, I will manifest My greatness and My holiness and make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am God.”

Yitgadal v’Yitkadash, the opening words of Kaddish, come straight from this verse, evoking existential terror at the End of the World. This is powerful for a few reasons: First, when we confront our grief, we also confront our own mortality. Standing beside the coffin of someone who has died, we can’t help but imagine the day when we will be the ones inside. It’s only human, and so are we. Our lives are limited, and the existential fear we feel about our own deaths reverberates in this passage about the End that ends it all. And if you have experienced grief, you know that it truly does feel as if everything has reversed itself. The death is an unCreation of the world you knew, the world in which your loved one was alive. It’s an earthquake that crumbles the foundations of your own reality. According to Mishnah Sanhedrin, “Whoever destroys a life, it is as if they have destroyed a whole world.” It may not be the actual End of the entire World, but for someone, the world has shattered. When we say Yitgadal v’yitkadash, and we reference Ezekiel 38:23, we are talking about the destruction of both.

But what can we learn from the rest of that statement in Ezekiel? “V’hit’gadalti V’hit’kadashti, I will manifest My greatness and My holiness and make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am God.” We will know that God is God because of God’s power to unCreate everything that God created. As humans, unlike the fish, the birds, or even the mountains, we are created in God’s image. And we, too, have the ability to destroy what God has built, to strike existential fear into the hearts of one another, and to shatter worlds with our own “raging anger” and “blazing wrath.”

On a communal level, we grieve another unCreation every time there’s another shooting. But this time the “raging anger” and the “blazing wrath” are not God’s; they’re our own. A shooting is not an earthquake, even though each one shakes us to our core. And we are facing that existential fear – how many of us have asked, when will it be our school, our synagogue, our movie theater? Each shooting is unCreation of the world we believed in, a world where we thought we were safe. And as we grow numb to the news cycle, the reversal continues. Mass shootings are unsurprising, our stories unraveling faster than we can weave them together.

Yitgadal v’yitkadash: When Lori Gilbert Kaye entered Chabad of Poway to pray for her mother, she had no idea that her daughter would soon be praying for her, and that her name would soon be added to the list we cannot erase. As we say Kaddish for her, with the words from Ezekiel on our lips, and with Charlotte, Poway, Pittsburgh, Parkland, Thousand Oaks, Pulse, Las Vegas, Santa Fe, Sandy Hook, and so many others in our hearts, my true prayer is that we may reverse this unraveling.

The earthquake has shaken the foundation of every reality we’ve ever known. It may not be the actual End of the World, but we are perpetrating an unCreation. When God destroys the world, God says “V’hit’gadalti V’hit’kadashti, I will manifest My greatness and My holiness and make Myself known in the sight of many nations. And they shall know that I am God.” This act of destruction is on us. If we have the power to destroy each other, then we, who are created in God’s image, also have the power to create.

In the week to come, I encourage you to consider this power. It’s so easy to feel hopeless in these moments, to feel overwhelmed by the daunting task before us. How will you participate, with your attitude and in your actions, with your vision and your voice? How will you manifest your own greatness and holiness? God’s work can only be undone by God, but it really is us, and our world is in our hands. We only have to decide how we might rebuild from here.