Everlasting is their Heritage: A Jewish Prayer for the Dead

Everlasting is their Heritage: A Jewish Prayer for the Dead October 27, 2018

I was on my way into Pittsburgh today, and had stopped for coffee, when my friend texted me to tell me that there was a mass shooting at a synagogue in Squirrel Hill. Instead of driving on to U Pitt to look at some event rooms, as I had planned, I went instead directly to my friend’s house.

It was a dismal wet day, and as I drove there I listened to radio news updates on the shooting.

One disturbing effect of the recent uptick in incidents of mass gun violence is that we have become so accustomed to them. “Another shooting,” we say. We get the usual thoughts and prayers ready, and carry on with the same arguments.

This time, though, I listened to the news without the customary desensitization. It wasn’t only because I was driving into Pittsburgh, passing a few miles away from where the tragic massacre happened; it was also because I am ethnically Jewish, and still practice many of the traditions and rituals from the ancient faith of my mothers. The science of genetics shows that we carry in our own DNA the marks of our ancestors’ experiences. I believe we may sometimes even experience this as a kind of bodily ESP, a sense of shared joy or pain with those with whom we are connected. For the Jewish people, and for others who have been subjected repeatedly to massive systemic violence, carrying the memories of our ancestors means carrying a hidden remembrance of suffering.

As I drove I glanced back at my two children in the back seat, nine and six. They have the blond hair and fair skin of my husband and my father, but Jewish descent is matrilineal, so my children are Jewish. When I think of anti-semitic attacks, I think of how many such children were brutally slaughtered in the past.

That today’s shooting took place in a synagogue, in the middle of a ceremony celebrating new life, made it all the more tragic to contemplate. And I didn’t have to wait to have it confirmed that this was not just a random incident, but rather, an anti-semitic hate crime.  I’ve seen too much anti-semitism, myself, to pretend that it’s simply one of the horrors of our past to be regarded with distaste in history books.

I’ve seen it in the comments section of this column.

I’ve seen it from Catholics.

I’ve seen it from the same mobs who dehumanize immigrants and Muslims.

And now for the members of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh the terrible reverberations of this evil hatred must become a part of their history. This was believed to be the worst attack on a community of Jews in the history of our nation, and they will never not remember what happened today. There are some wounds that can never be healed in this life.

And every one of us who ever repeated the words “never again” after reading about the horrors of the Holocaust dishonor those dead if we repeat the words meaninglessly, if we fail to counter this new rising tide of anti-semitism. Never again: say it, and mean it. 

For those of us who are religious, we can also pray for the healing of those who have survived, for some comfort to be given them in a time of unimaginable loss. And join them in honoring the dead with this traditional Jewish prayer, a prayer which speaks to the resilience which we carry, along with the pain.

“El Malei Rachamim”

G-d full of mercy, Who dwells above, give rest on the wings of the Divine Presence among the holy, pure, and glorious who shine like the sky, to the souls of your people, for whom charity was offered in the memory of their souls. Therefore, the Merciful One will protect their souls forever, and will merge their souls with eternal life. The Everlasting is their heritage, and they shall rest peacefully at their lying place, and let us say: Amen.

image credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Yom_Hashoah_candle.jpg


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