Adonai Ho Nachalatam: El Maleh Rachamim
By Rabbi Susan Laemmle, Yom Kippur Yizkor, October 5, 2022
El Maleh Rachamim — in a few minutes, this beautiful Hebrew phrase, carried on its haunting traditional melody, will introduce a central prayer in the Yizkor service. Like the Hebrew, the English rendition — “God, full of compassion” — is soothing. Being soothed is most welcome, for losing someone we love bruises and diminishes us, rendering us less assured about ourselves and the world. Even remembering back to such a loss after a span of time can shake us to our core.
The three key components of the Yizkor Service are Mourner’s Kaddish, the particular Yizkor Prayers, and El Maleh Rachamim. Mourner’s Kaddish comes to reassure us that the God we struggle to understand is still there; things seem to be falling apart, but the Center holds. The particular Yizkor prayers are there to lift the deceased person’s name and memory aloft within the earthly world they no longer inhabit, like a Torah scroll lifted by the Hagbah. El Maleh Rachamim wraps the dead, and us, in an embrace that sweeps beyond time and space to hook onto Life’s enduring ground. Of course it matters whether our beloved person died last month — or one, five, twenty, fifty years ago.
And mourning those who perished in the Holocaust or within the Temple Beth Am community affects us less directly, less viscerally. But still, on Yom Kippur we recite Yizkor prayers and the Kaddish for all of them; and El Maleh widens its scope while retaining its intimacy.
Some years ago, I suddenly noticed that one sentence in this prayer comes directly from Torah. There this sentence specifies that the Levites’ priestly duties prevent their being allocated a tribal share in the Promised Land and so they are promised compensation that Numbers 18:20 formulates as ani chelkecha v’nachalatcha: “I am your portion and your share”; which appears in Deuteronomy 18:2 as Adonai hu nachalato: “Adonai is their (literally “his”) inheritance.” Commentary sticks close to the pshat, as in the 13th century French commentator Hizkuni’s amplification of Targum Onkolos’s 2nd century translation of the Torah into Aramaic, which reads: “the gifts I have given you are your share and your inheritance; thus you will need no other income and will be free to serve me.” It makes sense that the priests and Levites would receive Israelite tithes while also gaining a special relationship with Adonai.
But how did this decisive statement make its way from the original elite, narrowly focused Levitical context to the memorial prayer El Maleh Rachamim, where it applies to any Jew who dies?
The custom of praying for the dead’s repose goes back to the 6th century, and martyrologies were formulated for victims of the Crusades. El Maleh Rachamim’s date of composition is not known, but it seems to have arrived at its prevailing form during the Cosack-led Khmelnytsky Massacres of 1648-54. There are different versions in various Ashkenazi European communities, and also El Maleh shares many phrases with the Sephardic Hashcavah or Ashkavta Prayer — including Adonai Ho Nachalto.
It is impossible to know who placed that particular Torah-anchored statement on nachalah near the conclusion of the prayer. But what we can know is how we feel upon being told that we will gain direct access to God even as we give up our animated physical presence on earth. And so too regarding the beloved person whose death removes them from the three-dimensionality of our lives and world. Just as the Levites are not dispossessed but instead possess differently so the dead person’s neshamah gains possession of God.
Back when that bold assertion in the El Maleh prayer jumped out at me, I felt immediately strengthened. At age 69, I was moving toward retirement, but in good health and full of possibilities. I was definitely aging but not yet old; aware of death but not yet like The Tempest’s Prosporo, who will “retire me to my Milan, where every third thought shall be my grave.” Several years earlier, the premature death of a younger study-partner colleague had shaken me toward focused thinking about mortality, which crystallized as something like this: The aspect of myself I most treasure is my inner life — the running discussion within my head and sense of being myself that reaches out to others and enjoys its own company. Surely this consciousness is bound up with my brain, which is part of my body, and so it could hardly transcend death.
From there, I reasoned that any existence beyond death must be im-personal, simply as part of the great web of life. Such speculative reasoning left room for a diffused connection to God, but it seemed very abstract and not very Jewish. Somewhat later, when beginning to do meditation, I strove to direct my ruach-breath toward the overall breath of life; to link my neshama-spirit with the Great Spirit. This often failed but the striving was still meaningful. The idea that Adonai will somehow be my inheritance when my time comes has helped me along, even when my sense of God wavers. I have emerged convinced, not rationally but intuitively, that if God exists, then we who are somehow made in God’s image must have an enduring existence beyond the grave.
When our family experienced death during the past year, I took great comfort in the final verse of Adon Olam, especially its opening line: B’yado afkeed ruchi: “In God’s hand I place my soul,” as well as in the idea that the departed would be “bound up in the bond of everlasting life.” But more than any other liturgical touchstone, El Maleh Rachamim helped me by proclaiming, loud and clear, that Adonai’s enduring presence comes to the dead person as a kind of delayed birthright, an inheritance that will endure into eternity.
As the year 2022 has continued, with Covid still a force and time moving relentlessly on even as our sense of time distorts, I have continued to reflect on mortality. I have come to believe that something like a soul exists within myself and others,
that these souls survive death of the body and its brain, and that souls released from physical boundaries may encounter one another beyond earth. I envision a baby emerging from the womb as containing soulful raw material that earthly living shapes into a personalized soul. The best expression of this idea that I know is in one of John Keats’ letters, where he writes: “Call the world if you please ‘the vale of Soul-making’.”
I pause now to articulate a question that may already have occurred to some of you: On this holiest day of the Jewish year, when we gather to confess and be renewed as a community within the Jewish People, why does Susan Laemmle present a largely anecdotal account of her personal spiritual development? Not merely to express myself I hope, but to speak out about how the death of people we love connects to our own eventual death — and how thinking through our views of mortality and immortality can provide both comfort and reassurance.
Of course, love and memory also matter. We remember the dead and hope to be remembered after we pass away. We hold onto the experience of loving someone even after their passing; it endures within us and influences us towards good. We give charity and do righteous acts with the dead person in mind. But loving memory is not everything. And for me at least, it is not enough. I need, and thankfully I have managed to find, a silken cord to hold onto — a cord woven from texts and inner experience and sources beyond explanation. I believe that such a cord is there for each of us, but we must weave it ourselves.
My library contains a good many books about these topics. It’s worth knowing how Jewish views of an afterlife have evolved and diversified over the decades and centuries; worth reading how saying Mourner’s Kaddish has been deeply meaningful for even unobservant Jews; worth learning how others have coped with loss through strengthened communal ties or Torah study or acts of Lovingkindness. I find such material interesting and sometimes helpful. But mostly in addition to Jewish primary sources, it’s poems that really help, especially in the dark hours. The best of them buffer loss with beauty, reassuring us in a way different from the Kaddish and yet fundamentally the same.
Let me end, then, with a poem. A very short poem whose nuanced slant on death and life doesn’t quite line up with
this Dvar Torah, but whose near-perfection nonetheless makes it a fitting companion piece to El Maleh Rachaimim.
Here is Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment”:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah, Shanah Tovah ooh’metukah.