Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have recently completed the year of mourning and Kaddish for my father, and am left with a profound feeling of emptiness now that it’s finished. I know I can no longer say Kaddish, but is there anything more that I can do or is that it?
I know exactly how you feel from experience; saying Kaddish for a loved one keeps a feeling of ongoing connection, and when it ends there’s an overwhelming feeling of disconnect, like the emptiness which you expressed. On one hand we, as Jews, believe that mourning should not go on forever. We have a year to mourn but we accept G-d’s will and move onward with our lives. On the other hand, we yearn to remain connected in some way. For many, the once-a-year connection of the yahrzeit doesn’t seem enough and we desire a more ongoing bond than that.
One special way to maintain that tie is through the study of Mishnah. For millennia Jews have remembered their loved ones through learning Mishnah, especially within the first 30 days of the loss and throughout the first year. The letters which spell Mishnah in Hebrew, mem shin nun hey, are the same letters, in different order, which spell the word neshamah, or soul. This is because the Mishnah has a very special connection to the soul, and greatly elevates the soul of both the learner and the one in whose memory it is learned.
By studying the Mishnah every day in your father’s memory you can maintain a very special and meaningful connection. Before the learning you can say, “This study should serve as an ‘iluy nishmat’ (or to elevate the soul of) my father” (using his Hebrew name, son of his father’s Hebrew name). This can be done forever.
To understand a bit deeper, the Talmud says “bra kara d’avuhun,” or the son (or daughter) is a “leg of the father.” This statement has certain legal ramifications, but for our purposes we can focus on the terminology of a “leg” of the father. The reason the rabbis used this term is to hint that the father, or mother, continues to “walk” in this world, even after they have left it, through the mitzvot performed by the children and grandchildren they left behind.
This concept is punctuated by an emotional story told at a seminar in Israel. Leah and her husband, secular Israelis, were sent with their young family to New York to serve at the Israeli consulate. When on a trip to upstate New York, due to a downpour their car slid off the road and down the mountain, landing on a large rock. Leah, thrown from the car next to her husband, was awoken by screams of “Ima!” from her three children still in the car, precariously teetering on the rock. The older two were able to climb out the broken window, but the baby was belted in on the far side of the car; she was afraid to reach in lest the car fall off the rock. Leah closed her eyes and cried “Dear G-d, please give me my baby,” and when she opened her eyes, somehow the baby was miraculously in her hands. She got down and again fainted.
Leah woke up in a hospital, hearing that her husband didn’t make it. She kept going over and over again in her mind how the baby got into her hands, and all she could come up with was that it was a miracle. Leah resolved at that moment to return to Israel and enroll her children in a religious school to thank G-d for that miracle.
The younger children had no problem adapting to the new school. The older boy Itzik, however, was a different story. His fourth-grade class was far along in the study of Mishnah, something he had never done before. A big test was coming and every day, as the test got closer, he made more trouble about going to school. Leah’s saying that “the rabbi understands, you’re new at it,” didn’t help; after all, he was a kid and embarrassed. The day of the test finally arrived, and Leah dreaded that fight. Itzik came out of his room with a smile and said, “Bye Ima!” She asked, “Where are you going?” He said, “To school!” “But today’s the big test!” “I know, I’m going to do great!” “But how do you suddenly know it?” Itzik replied, “Last night while I was sleeping I was walking down a long road, and I saw Aba. He hugged me and I told him I’m in a new school where they study Mishnah. He said ‘I know, the day we went into that school they put me into the Garden of Eden, and the Mishnah you’re learning is what they teach me there.’ I said, ‘Aba, if you know it, could you teach me?’ He said ‘Sure,’ and we sat down next to the road and he taught me.” Leah, teary-eyed, ended the story by saying, “My Itzik got 100 on the test!”
Studying Mishnah, or any part of Torah, will certainly bring your father nachat in the spiritual world where he is living and give you the feeling of connection for which you yearn.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Rabbi Fried,