Loss, Compassion, and Rememberance

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“Holy One, full of compassion, grant perfect rest under the wings of the Shechinah, the Divine Presence...”

These beautiful words begin El Malei Rachamim, the prayer we recite at burials and memorials. Some versions use the phrase “upon the wings of the Shechinah,” an image of liberation, the soul being carried aloft. But I first learned and still prefer “under the wings”, evoking a sense of safety and nurturance.
We read at MyJewishLearning.com (a wonderful site): “In some Ashkenazi synagogues, El Malei Rachamim is also a part of the Yizkor memorial service on Yom Kippur and on the last days of the three pilgrimage festivals (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot). The prayer originated in the Jewish communities of Western and Eastern Europe, where it was recited for the martyrs of the Crusades and of the Chmielnicki massacres.”
As we mark the loss of half a million Americans to Covid-19, we meditate on the fragility and brevity of life. Blessedly, the Temple Beth El community has lost only one member to the pandemic, our dear nonagenarian Bob Berman, who died last spring. We will remember him at upcoming Yizkor services (April 4 and May 18) and on his first yartzeit, 25th of Iyar, May 6-7.

The great Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai gave us a wry, challenging reworking of this beautiful prayer:

God-Full-of-Mercy, the prayer for the dead.
If God was not full of mercy,
mercy would have been in the world,
not just in Him.
I, who plucked flowers in the hills
and looked down into all the valleys,
I, who brought corpses down from the hills,
can tell you that the world is empty of mercy
I, who was King of Salt at the seashore,
who stood without a decision at my window,
who counted the steps of angels,
whose heart lifted weights of anguish
in the horrible contests.
I, who use only a small part of the words in the dictionary.
I, who must decipher riddles
I don't want to decipher,
know that if not for the God-full-of-mercy
there would be mercy in the world,
not just in Him.

Literary critic and author Robert Alter observes that Yehuda Amichai “is the most widely translated Hebrew poet since King David” and The New Yorker dubbed Amichai, “the secular psalmist.” A veteran of World War ll and the war of 1948, Amichai can speak with authority when he declares, “I, who brought corpses down from the hills / can tell you that the world is empty of mercy.” I do not dare argue with Amichai, but I hear his words as a call to bring compassion into our troubled world. Just imagine: if for every time someone in the world has said the word “God” they followed it with, “full of compassion,” how much closer to redemption would we be! Or perhaps it might be best to dispense with “God” altogether and say only, “compassion.”
Against the backdrop of the pandemic losses, we also lost dear members of the Congregation, musician Les Scher in the fall, and more recently Pearl Oliner, a former president of the Congregation and longtime professor at HSU. Additionally, in late November we lost Jolie Elan at the young age of fifty-one. A botanist and herbalist, Jolie was a member of Temple Beth El before moving to Ashland some years ago. When I heard of Jolie’s sudden death, I was moved to compose a poem. I sat at my writing desk for an entire day, absorbed in the images. With expert guidance from poet Jerry Martien, I polished the piece for many weeks and recently the North Coast Journal published my Elegy for Jolie:

MyJewishLearning.com tells us, “Eulogizing the deceased is an important ancient Jewish custom, dating all the way back to the patriarch Abraham, who eulogized his wife Sarah, ‘Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry for her’ (Genesis 23:2). From this verse, Jewish tradition has understood two goals of the eulogy:

  1. Eulogize (Hesped): Praise for the worthy qualities and achievements of the deceased. 
  2. Lament (Bekhi): Arouse the emotions, and a sense of grief and loss, in the listeners.”

As we grapple with the enormity of our national loss, there is much to be learned from our tradition. We do not dismiss death. We pay attention to where a loss takes us, how it shapes our reality. We grieve, we memorialize, we remember. The hope is that in doing so each of us grows in love, connecting more deeply with one another, finding ourselves wiser, more generous, with our hearts be-coming malei rachamim, full of compassion.

Rabbi Naomi