Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Willow Tree and Kaddish

The willow tree had a trunk spanning nearly six feet in diameter and towering what must have been 50 feet above our heads. The flowing branches and leaves hung down just above us, whispering their brushing swish-swish gently as they danced in the breeze.  Much of the base of the tree was covered with thick ivy clinging to the peaks and valleys of the rippled bark, and over time, climbing the trunk’s lofty heights. 

Under this immense tree is where I first saw them that late-Spring evening.  Usually, when I arrive at a home to lead a shivah minyan (a gathering of ten or more people in prayer enabling mourners to say Kaddish), I find the mourners and their visitors huddled around in the kitchen or crowded in a living room, but not this time.  This time, nearly all of them stood outside in the family backyard, on a lovely evening that teetered between crisp and comfortable, under a clear blue-lavender sky and lightly swaying, wispy willow tendrils.

The man who had died was beloved by his family and his community.  He was not young but not old, and his death came all too quickly. One of his children noted that the tree under which we stood had witnessed so much over the years, hosting countless family gatherings including the Brit Milah ceremonies of grandsons and even a wedding under the shelter of its foliage-reach - it had blossomed alongside the blossoming of the generations of their family.  And now, the tree beckoned us to stay under its protecting canopy again, so we clustered together for Kaddish.

“The Kaddish” is a little bit of a misnomer, because there isn’t just one of them – there are many.  Kaddish Yatom – the Mourner’s Kaddish is traditionally reserved for marking key moments as time distances the mourner from the death of a loved one.  Chatzi Kaddish is recited as a means of marking the end of one section of a service and the start of another one – it is the “semi-colon” of any service.  Kaddish Shaleim serves to mark the conclusion of a service and re-entry into the outside world.  There is a special Kaddish to recite after someone is buried – sometimes called Kaddish haGadol.  There is Kaddish de Rabbanan, the oldest form of Kaddish, to mark the conclusion of a course of study.

At the heart of all is the idea that we mark moments of transition by inviting holiness in.  After all, Kaddish – which literally means sanctification – comes from the Hebrew root meaning holy.    And we don’t discriminate either.  Moments of immense significance side by side with commonplace changeovers hold equal potential for a profound and imbued sanctity from the Jewish perspective.  And Kaddish is never about endings alone – it is always about endings and beginnings.  Kaddish is always bigger than we are, even when it marks a simple transition from one prayer to another, and as such, proves most significant in its rich, timeless and deeply rooted wisdom. 

And so, that evening at the end of one season and the start of another, we stood together to mourn, to pray, to give thanks, to laugh, to weep, to mark the end of a life and be charged to carry forth that life’s legacy in the lives of those who would go on living.  And the tree stood with us; it mourned and wept too.  Just as it had rejoiced alongside those who had sought its shelter before, as then and now, its branches swayed and shoots blossomed.  And the roots of that tree grew deeper and anchored it more firmly that day.  And just as the words of our faith called to us to praise the Source of All Being in all the shifts and changes throughout our own lives, that night, so too did the tree. 


  1. This is so beautifully written- thanks so much for sharing it.

  2. While reading ~ I was under that tree~ we had a willow tree in the backyard of our first home~ till a hurricane came to vsit~ My grandparents had a willow tree- and all eight of us cousins loved to play underneath it.. Thanks for bringing up my memories....

  3. Savtipatti - thank you for sharing that -- lovely!


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