Nizkor - We Will Remember
As the pain of loss of a person we have loved recedes – the initial outpouring of grief, the funeral itself, shiva, sheloshim (the first month afterwards) and a year of saying Kaddish comes to an end – we take stock of the loss that we still, quite naturally, feel.
Yet we are aware that although the body is indeed mortal, the soul, the essence of our loved one, remains eternal. The connection between us lives on, even if on another plane. It lives on in who we are and how we choose to relate to the world around us. Our lives, and those of our families, have been inspired by them and we carry the lessons of their life forward.
We wish to ensure the memory of them lives on and to memorialise them. We can do this in a very physical manner, but we can equally do so in a more long-lasting and wide-ranging fashion.
MATZEIVAH – STONE SETTING
The earliest mention of the word matzeivah in the Torah occurs after Yaakov (Jacob) awakes from a dream in which he has seen a ladder firmly rooted on the ground with its top reaching heavenwards, angels ascending and descending upon it. At this point he has his first close encounter with G-d, Who stands next to him and reassures him for the future. Upon waking, he gathers the stones of the place and erects one as a matzeivah – a memorial – to his Divine encounter. He sanctifies the stone by pouring olive oil over it.
The next reference occurs on his return to Israel, when G-d reappears to him and reiterates the blessings given to him previously. After this experience, Yaakov establishes a ‘stone matzeivah’ and anoints it.
Only a short while later, on the death of his wife Rachel on the road to Bethlehem, Yaakov buries her there and sets up a matzeivah over her grave and this, the Torah concludes, has remained Rachel’s Tomb to this very day.
Three times Yaakov dedicates a stone to act as a memorial of a momentous occasion; twice when he has a deep communion with the Almighty and once when he is overcome with grief for his beloved wife. Each event marks an experience of human frailty and reliance on G-d. In our prayers we often refer to G-d as tzur – a rock – on Whom we lean in times of distress. A rock or a stone is immovable, weathers all storms and is enduring. In times of great joy or ecstasy as well as great grief or pain G-d remains our everlasting support.
As we have seen, erecting a gravestone is one of the very ancient traditions in Jewish practice. The monument serves three purposes:
- To indicate the place of burial so that Kohanim can avoid becoming defiled by prohibited contact with the dead.
- To mark the grave appropriately so that family and friends will be able to locate it in future.
- As a mark of honour for the deceased lying beneath it.
While the form of the monument is of little religious significance, what is vital is that there be a clear, visible marking of the gravesite. Choice of stone and the wording of inscriptions should be guided by a sense of good taste, quiet dignity and lack of ostentation.
Although halacha (Jewish law) allows the placement of a memorial any time after the shiva, practice in this country where we prefer to allow the soil time to settle, is for the stone setting to take place months later but before the first yahrzeit (anniversary of the death).
HAKOMAS MATZEIVAH – STONE SETTING
Typically, the stone setting service will consist of the recitation of a number of relevant Psalms followed by an appropriate eulogy given by the officiating rabbi or family member, at the rabbi’s discretion. After the eulogy, Kaddish is said. The gathering then moves to the graveside where the stone is formally dedicated by the reading of the inscription followed by the ‘Keil Molei Rachamim’ memorial prayer and the final repetition of Kaddish. This marks the conclusion of the service.
There is an ancient and widely-preserved custom of placing a pebble on the grave after visiting. A number of reasons are given for this tradition.
In ancient times, the practice was to construct a cairn of boulders over the grave. Over time some would inevitably dislodge naturally or be removed by vandals and the custom arose for any passer-by who noticed the loss to pick up the stone and replace it so that the mound remained. Placing a stone on the grave serves as a sign to others that the occupant is not forgotten and is visited.
As mentioned earlier, a rock is used as a symbol of the enduring nature of G-d and of the human soul. As we come face-to-face with that reality, we mark our recognition by placing a stone on the grave as a connection between our mortal existence and the immortality of the soul of the departed and the Almighty.
OUT OF SIGHT OUT OF MIND? NEVER!
The idea that, as time passes, we are able to forget our loved ones is simply not true. Nor should it be true. In what is a strange paradox, we may often feel closer to our loved ones after their passing than we did while they were still alive, when we may have taken their existence for granted. There are so many ways in which we can keep their memory alive.
Traditionally, this has been through the enhanced performance of mitzvos. Every uttered prayer, every Kaddish said, every piece of Torah learning, every charitable act we do and every candle that we light in their merit raises their spirit and keeps their memory aflame. When we perform a mitzvah as an act commanded by G-d and we do so in the merit of our loved one, it creates a triangular relationship, connecting together G-d, the departed and ourselves. If we can resolve to take on just one additional observance it will add immeasurable merit to our loved one’s soul.
KADDISH – THE JEWISH PRAYER FOR THE DEAD?
There is a popular misconception that Kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Nowhere in the text is death so much as mentioned. If anything, Kaddish may be called the prayer for the living. It affirms our belief and loyalty to G-d and declares our manifold praise of Him under all circumstances. We anticipate the establishment of His kingdom “in your lifetime and during your days and during the lifetime of the whole House of Israel”; we clearly state the importance of your lifetime and your connection with the whole Jewish People. Kaddish addresses the living and the future. There are certain times during communal prayer where Kaddish is handed over to mourners to say in order to affirm Jewish practice as a faith of the living, not as a death cult. It is precisely for mourners, who otherwise will naturally be feeling grief and despondency, to lead the community in declaring that, despite their own personal situation, we as individuals and as a community declare our unshakable belief and optimism for the future. In the face of death, Kaddish teaches us to affirm the future, not dwell on loss and the past. It also encourages and teaches us to find this renewed confidence in the midst of community in the service of G-d.
Kaddish is not something reserved for the funeral and occasional special days. Saying Kaddish should lead to a commitment to participate in communal prayer three times a day, every day, for eleven months after the funeral. As we lose a relative so we regain a much-needed connection to community and, in that connection, find comfort and solace.