On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Torah Thought: Parsha Vayigash

We just entered the Hebrew month of Tevet. On the 29th of Tevet in the year 1995, my grandmother of blessed memory passed away. Every year, around this time, I typically end up having a conversation with my father, who’s not religious, about saying mourners kaddish for her. He’ll typically do it, but most years he’ll say it at home by himself. Once every couple years, I can get him go to shul.

Several years ago, he asked me a question that I wasn’t prepared for: Why do we say kaddish for a deceased love one? I explained to him that we say kaddish as merit for the deceased. While we’re doing a mitzvah in their honor, they’re soul somehow gets elevated in the spiritual world. I was fairly impressed with my answer, when his follow up question left me without an answer: If the deceased gets elevated by doing a mitzvah, why can’t we do any mitzvah instead? Also, the text of kaddish has nothing to do with a deceased love one… or a deceased hated one for that matter. One might imagine that when say a prayer for the departed, it would contain things like “Please judge them mercifully or please let us learn from all of their positive attributes.” It’s really the opposite. The kaddish prayer is actually fairly upbeat and positive, focusing on praising G-d. If someone read the kaddish prayer for the first time, they’d probably have no idea that it has anything to do with mourning.

I think the answer can be found hidden in this week’s parsha. After the 22 year separation, Jacob and Joseph are finally reunited. The verse tells us that “Joseph… went up to meet his father… fell on his neck and wept on his neck excessively.” The Torah commentator Rashi explains to us why Jacob didn’t fall on Joseph’s neck or kiss him. He tells us that Jacob was saying the prayer, Shema (Hear O Israel, the L-rd, our G-d, the L-rd is one), at the time. Why was Jacob saying Shema then of all times? The Rabbis tell us that he was so overjoyed from seeing Joseph and he wanted to direct this love towards G-d.

To understand more about what’s happening, we should take a brief overview of the first verse of Shema. The first part is pretty straight forward: “Hear O Israel” is presumably talking about us since we’re all the nation of Israel. The next verse is a little tougher: “the L-rd, our G-d, the L-rd is one.” If we were only saying that there’s one G-d, it would seem like we wouldn’t need such a repetitive sentence. The key can be found in the names for G-d found in the verse. In Hebrew it’s Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Ehad.

The Rabbis tell us that G-d reveals himself through many different names as a way to for us to perceive how he’s acting towards us at any given moment since we can’t understand his infinity. They also tell us that the name “Hashem” conveys his attribute of kindness and the name “Elokeinu” conveys his attribute of judgment.

When we say the Shema, we’re acknowledging that G-d’s kindness and judgment are truly the same. When we see G-d doing something that we perceive to be bad, like taking a loved one away from us, we owe G-d the same praise as when he does something good like bring a new baby into our lives. This is why Jacob chose this moment to say Shema. He wanted to acknowledge that both the absence of Joseph for 22 years and his emotional reunion with him both emanated from the same G-d who is truly one. It’s this same reason why we specifically say kaddish for the departed. It’s also us acknowledging, even in our time of sorrow, that that G-d’s name be blessed forever and ever.


  1. Your answer to "Why Kaddish?" is essentially the same answer I have heard - it's an affirmation by the reader of "Baruch Dayan HaEmet". (Blessed is the true Judge.) It's said as much for the spiritual benefit of the reader as the one it's being read for.

    However, even by midrashic interpretation, the Shema prayer, even the first line, had not yet been composed for Jacob to say at the time he was reunited with Joseph. (I'm not big a midresh as you know... so you'll have to conform this, but isn't the first line of Sheman said to have been first recited by Jacob's children when they were gathered to his death bed?)

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  3. The first line of Shema was said by Jacob's deathbed, according to the Medrash. However, the Medrash doesnt tell us if that was the first time it was said or not. It's possible that Jacob could have said it first and his sons repeat it by his deathbed. On a more esoteric level, another possibility is that Jacob knew what the spiritual effect of saying Shema is and was accessing that without the same verbiage that we use.