This is something about which I might have sought my mother’s advice. But then I realized that would not work, not under these circumstances.
This past Tuesday we marked my mother’s third yahrzeit, and because of the situation out there in the world, I could not say Kaddish with a minyan. I thought I would be able to, and the reality is that there was nothing standing in my way other than my reluctance to upset the communal balance and commitment not to gather in groups and to strictly adhere to the call for social distancing as a way of breaking the back of this scourge.
One of my brothers who resides in Brooklyn told me the other day that a rav he consulted told him to recite Kaddish at home just as he would have with a minyan in shul. I asked some people I consult with on these types of matters and the common response was that you’re not supposed to say Kaddish without a minyan.
So let’s sort that out here for a moment. We are living through an unprecedented time and are unfortunately forced to break ground in a new direction. I am at home typing these words, not rushing out to a meeting or to my office for a change, keeping an eye on the nonstop news conferences and trying, more carefully than usual, to craft these words.
I honor the yahrzeit for my mom today, Tuesday, the day that I am writing this. Yesterday, as a prelude to the yahrzeit, I was speaking to friends and contacts in Israel and asking how they were dealing with this crisis.
I spoke with Baruch Gordon (no relation to me), who lives in the community of Bet El in Israel. Baruch runs the American Friends of Bet El and visits the U.S., and especially New York, very often. It was Monday afternoon in New York and I asked him if he was locked down in Israel.
Baruch said that most everyone who could was working from home but that most of the non-essential businesses were closed, doing their part to allow this thing to peak and then hopefully drop off. I asked him about minyanim in Bet El and he said that the shul was closed but that there were outdoor minyanim of groups of no more than ten people appropriately distanced from one another. He also added that police were patrolling different communities to make sure that the distancing from one another met the criteria.
So these were not unsanctioned or so-called renegade minyanim but actually the policy of the community at this point.
That is when I asked him if there was someone there I could designate as a shliach — a representative of myself — to say Kaddish for my mom at Ma’ariv on Monday night with a minyan. At that point it was about an hour before Minchah in Israel and Baruch asked me to hold on.
About two minutes later, Baruch wrote back to me, “Done.” He added to his text message, “The administrator of the Bet El Yeshiva, Rabbi Hanoch HaCohen, will say Kaddish for your mother. The minyan starts in an hour, and it will be broadcast online on our site that has all-day shiurim. I’ll stand near the rabbi so you can see who he is.” He sent me the link and we watched Kaddish being recited for our mom about five hours before it got dark here in New York.
By the way, I also adapted the opinion that my brother solicited and quietly recited Kaddish here at home. It was quiet, unusual, and even surreal. I lit a yahrzeit lamp on Monday night, then davened Ma’ariv as I would have in shul. It was a solitary and most private few moments. But unlike in shul, and especially if I had been davening for the amud, I felt a connection to Hashem, and, on a different level, very much linked to my mom.
In a sense, I knew that she knew that for this yahrzeit, the task and obligation was to be at home, to quietly mark this special day with some private thoughts and introspection.
I don’t believe there is a precedent for this in our modern times. With the exception of the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I don’t recall there ever being a time when we may have preferred not to leave our homes. Though this is still much different than that, as I’m sure you will agree.
When this situation passes — hopefully soon — I believe that life will be redefined in a number of ways. I mean, who is going to be the first to have their children get married on their front lawn or in the backyard with neighbors and friends in attendance after the local wedding halls are open for business?
What about this not-at-all-optional involvement in remote or online education? Missing a day of school for whatever reason may be a thing of the past. Schools or yeshivas with the best reputation may now have an infinite amount of space for students. The president of Yeshiva University wrote to students this week that YU’s 1,700 classes are continuing almost uninterrupted online, and that is a great thing.
As far as our customs and traditions are concerned, it is true that davening at home for a few weeks is something that you can adjust to. That is, I believe, except for those who are saying Kaddish or, like me, observed a yahrzeit this week. For those of us in that category this was a bit more traumatic.
On the other hand, I think the lack of Kaddish of those in their first year of mourning or observing a yahrzeit may be the most powerful item stirring and shaking things up in the heavens.
I was sitting in my home office staring at my computer screen on Tuesday, contemplating what my mother was thinking about all this going on down here. I imagined her dialoguing with G-d Himself, to whatever extent that is possible, and asking Him, “Hashem, Hashem, what happened to my Kaddish? Where is my Kaddish?”
Many others might have been asking the same thing, “Where is our Kaddish?” and saying to Him respectfully but forcefully, “Hashem we raised our children to recite Kaddish for us when the time comes; it is our source of comfort and connection to our dear children. What happened to our Kaddish? Please, we need our Kaddish and they do as well.”
No, we did not let down those we are memorializing and remembering by not davening with a minyan. If anything, we restrained ourselves, we did the unnatural thing, we listened to sagacious advice, and as a result we lifted our loved ones up.