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Home » Death, Naso, Tragedy

Naso: Mourners Kaddish

Submitted by on June 4, 2009 – 2:31 amNo Comment | 3,146 views

Empty Shoes

One of the most poignant monuments in the Unites States Holocaust Memorial Museum is the mountainous display of empty shoes. Thousands and thousands of ownerless shoes; old people’s shoes, young people’s shoes, sturdy shoes, torn shoes, large shoes, little shoes and even infant shoes. All are empty; their bearers never to walk again.

This jarring image brings the Holocaust home with a vengeance. It doesn’t just tug at the heart; it figuratively tears it apart. Each one of these shoes was worn by a vibrant, breathing, creative human being. The souls that inhabited the shoes were cruelly driven from earth before their time; the shoe, forlorn and alone, is left to bear witness. The image is jarring precisely because the shoes remind us that we too bear witness. We are living testimony to a vibrancy that would have been.

The shoes are jarring for yet another reason; they proclaim the sanctity of this place. Where six million die there is horror. Where innocent souls are shattered there is tragedy. Where human beings are transformed into gruesome piles of bones and charred flesh there are no answers. There is no room for musing, no room for understanding; travesty numbs the mind. There can be no thought; there can be only reverence. Six Million souls demand stillness and respect; acknowledgment of G-d’s infinite vastness. The room is sacred; the memories are holy. As G-d said to Moses, “Remove your shoes you tread on hallowed ground.”

It might have been a fitting tribute for all visitors to remove their own shoes and leave them beside this display. We are not more worthy than they; our shoes no more deserving than theirs. Yet we don’t do that and for good reason. Our creed does not celebrate death; we mourn it. Our response is not to join the ranks of despair, but to commit to ever more vibrant life. We are determined to move forward; to fill our own shoes and, in the process, to fill theirs too. Their memory is hallowed, their death tragic, but we aim to sanctify it; by allowing it to energize us in life.

Priestly Shoes

When Jewish Priests ascend the Synagogue’s podium to bless the congregation they too remove their shoes. The blessing of the Jewish people is a sacred affair and the priests dare not tread on this hallowed ground with shoes. Yet the image of their shoes lined up against the wall evokes a completely different response. What is the difference between the empty shoes of blessing and the empty shoes of death? Don’t they both denote holiness?

Rabbi Pesach Krone offers the following response. (1) The shoes of the priests will soon be worn again; they will carry their bearers to yet another Mitzvah (good deed). One will carry its owner to Bible Studies, the other to visit the ill, yet another to offer charity and another to pray to G-d. These shoes are temporarily bare while their owners bless the children of Israel; the other shoes will remain empty forever. Never will they carry their owners to the performance of a good deed; never will they enable their owners to worship G-d. A life story has ended abruptly; a symphony of good deeds was silenced before it reached its crescendo.

These lives will never be reclaimed, but the music of their worship need not stop. It is up to us to continue their song; to pick up where they left off. This is perhaps the most poignant message of the empty shoes. sacred memories-innerstreamSix Million lives forever gone, twelve million shoes forever empty, but the music of these souls need not end. We can perpetuate their memories through our prayers and good deeds. We might perform a Mitzvah in their memory or pray on their behalf. We might give to charity in their honor or dedicate our spiritual growth to their inspiration. In this way their shoes will take up the walk; the rhythmic sound of their falling footsteps will echo once again. The flow of their good deeds will spring back to life.


This, suggests Rabbi Krone, is why the preeminent Jewish memorial prayer, the Kaddish, contains no mention of the deceased’s name. The mourners Kaddish is not only about remembering it is also about restoring. Every life is a tribute to the creative power of G-d. As we recognize our debt of gratitude to the Almighty we sanctify His Divine name. Our passing leaves an undesired and unintended, but very real, hole in the sanctification of the Divine. It is left to the living to fill this gap.

When our loved ones recite mourners Kaddish in our memory our soul’s sanctification of G-d continues. The mourners Kaddish does not contain the name of the deceased because it is not about the deceased; it is about G-d who was sanctified through the life of the deceased and after life through Kaddish. Furthermore, through the Kaddish the deceased continues to live, albeit on a higher and holier plane.

It is our destiny to walk in their footsteps. It is our responsibility to resume the song that was prematurely muted. It is our sacred duty to honor the empty shoes by restoring the vibrancy of their owners’ souls.

Yitagadal Veyitkadash Shmei Rabbah


  1. His
    moving essay, “Soulless Shoes,” can be found in a book called “In The
    Spirit of the Maggid.”

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