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    painting of trees in Autumn

    Funeral Psalms for My Father

    Doubt and Acceptance in the Jewish Liturgy for the Dead

    By Atar Hadari

    October 29, 2020

    The last time I spoke to my father he was trying to tell me a joke. A nurse going around the hospital ward comes to a man’s bed. “You’re going home today,” she says, only she’s Australian so it sounds like: “You’re going home to die.”

    The man says, “I’m only here for an ingrown toenail!”

    My father laughed so hard he nearly wept. I heard his beard rasp against the mouthpiece as shudders shook his belly.

    I was sitting in the living room we’d left from to get married in a city hall not six months earlier, then returned to for the first time as man and wife, looking through the door of the living room at my wife in what was now our bedroom, half-undressed for bed and doing a silly walk while she waited for me.

    My wife and father had not spoken since before our wedding. They had an argument. Not long after, my father took me out to dinner and said I shouldn’t marry her.

    “Why not?”

    “I don’t think you should marry her,” he repeated, and asked me if I wanted more of the Chinese vegetables.

    The vegetables were all I was eating, since I’d started keeping kosher. I still didn’t know exactly the rules of kosher, but eating mu-shu pork seemed a no-no, however broadly you interpreted them.

    I would have grown up knowing them if my father’s religious grandmother had had her way. She had married a less-than-religious man and tried to reform him, fasting weekly. When my father was still a toddler, she stopped eating in the home of her daughter (his mother) over a can of beef that she didn’t like the look of when she peeked in the refrigerator. “Then of course she went senile,” my father would say, “and my mother fed her anything she liked, meat and milk together, because she couldn’t say a word.”

    He told that story often, and he told it again on the phone call, the one that turned out to be the last time we talked. It was only this time I realized that even the boy of eight had sensed his mother was wronging her mother, not feeding her kosher after she went senile.

    I got off the phone, promising to visit in a couple weeks, because my wife was doing that walk again. But I found myself thinking of a woman who lived in Brooklyn with a friend of mine I’d gone to see a few years before. I had turned off the interstate onto their side road and nearly been killed by a truck going the other way. I sat there for a minute outside their house, then got out of the car and went upstairs. My friend wasn’t there but she was, and she looked at me. “Do you need a drink?” she said.

    “I nearly died.”

    I hadn’t thought of this woman again until that conversation with my father took me back to sitting in their apartment, trembling and holding her hand.

    The phone rang a couple of hours after I went to bed. It was my brother; he was weeping.

    The Jewish funeral service starts with a piece of liturgy accepted in one form or another by all Jewish denominations. Called “The Justification of the Sentence over the Dead,” it is quite simply a recitation of praises for the Lord and repeated declaration of how he could not possibly have got things wrong by taking your loved one away at just this juncture. The Talmud relates this prayer to Hanina ben Tardion, a rabbi martyred by the Romans for teaching Jewish law in public in the second century. All the stories revolve around the essential commandment of acknowledging that what is done to you is just, and the text includes the requisite statement you make upon hearing of a death: “Blessed be the true judge.” I have translated here not the long text currently recited in Ashkenazi denominations but portions of a shorter text which may be earlier and first appeared in the prayer book of Amram Gaon in the ninth century.

    The rock is perfect in what he does for all his ways are just.
    The faithful God and without wrong, righteous and honest he is.
    The rock is perfect in all he does, and who shall tell him what should you do?
    The ruler below and above, he kills and brings to life, lowers to underworld and raises up.
    The rock is perfect in all he does, and who shall tell him what should you do?
    He decrees and does. It’s not for us you’ll act but by the right of one bound like a lamb
    listen and do. Righteous in all his ways, the rock is perfect, long suffering and merciful.
    Pray take pity and have mercy upon fathers and sons.
    For yours, master, are forgiveness and mercy. True judge who rules in justice and truth,
    Blessed be the true judge, for all his deeds are righteous and true.
    His first word is truth. The dead to resurrect and the living to kill.
    May his name be borne on high for he is the God of gods, true.
    Righteous and just are all his ways, kindness and truth his paths.
    There is no favoritism before him. His mercy will overflow upon us.
    For we are all his handiwork. And he is merciful and will atone
    For wrong and not destroy and oft repents his wrath and won’t stir all his rage.
    Here is the place. Here is lodging. Here is rest. And here is inheritance.
    Fortunate is every one who shall be told when he is gathered in:
    Peaceful is his coming. The angels of peace who are appointed to the gates of peace
    They go out toward him and say: Peaceful is his coming, let him come in peace
    And set himself on his resting place.
    May he come in peace and rest on his resting place, may he come in peace
    And rest in his eternal home.

    This vision of the afterlife struggles with God’s implacable wrath and the arbitrariness of death, but affirms over and over that he is just, and closes with a comforting suggestion of the departed being seen to their own little bed in a hospital ward of sorts, finally home.

    The Psalms express some greater difficulty with this whole state of affairs.

    My father had been scheduled for a bypass, nothing unusual. My mother shouted at my brother that afternoon, and he brought his children, took my father for a meal. My father told him that joke about the nurse with her funny accent. Then he’d gone off to bed, as usual, sat down suddenly. “Hard to breathe,” he said. My mother called the ambulance, and by the time it arrived he was unconscious.

    My brother called from the hospital twenty minutes later. He was still weeping.

    Next morning I walked into the living room and found my wife sitting on the floor, packing.

    “I’m sorry about your father,” she said. “We’ve been happy in this flat, the little time we’re been here. I don’t think we’re going to spend any more time here.”

    painting of a river flowing through a valley in Autumn

    Isaac Levitan, Valley of the River. Autumn. (Public domain)

    The sources testifying to the saying of Psalm 49 at a Jewish funeral date back to Maavar Yabok, a book written in 1626 for the Mantua burial society and influential to this day. The custom would therefore appear to have started in Italy, but Rabbi Yisaschar Jacobson’s survey of Jewish liturgical custom traces it forward through the Netherlands, Hungary, Austria, Germany, and Russia over the next two centuries, concluding that “the custom is a very late one.”

    I would remark in passing that 1626, when this Psalm was first recorded in Jewish custom, was not a quiet time in Judaism. In 1625, Pope Urban VII decreed that all Jews should be buried in unmarked graves and pre-existing tombstones should be removed or destroyed.

    Psalm 49
    Hear this all of the nations – attend all who dwell in the world of rust,
    Both sons of common men and sons of renown, both rich and low born:
    My mouth will speak aphorisms and my heart’s thoughts will be true.
    I’ll bend my ear to the muse and solve riddles with my lute:
    Why should I fear the days of trouble when sins ensnare my heels
    Those who trust in their retinue and sing of all their wealth
    Yet no man will ransom even one of them
    If God won’t give the price on his head:
    And their life’s bounty will soar and be out of reach for all days –
    Will he live on forever and never see the underworld?
    For he sees wise men die along with fools and ignoramuses, go to oblivion
    And leave to others all their retinue.
    Deep down they think their halls last for all time,
    their habitations from generation to generation
    Still to be called after their name by those who live upon the earth
    But a man in honor shall not lie, likened to a beast that’s fallen silent.
    This is their way and their folly they wear their afterlives out with their mouths Selah.
    Like sheep to the underworld they amble – death will herd them
    And honest angels will beat them each morning, their form in the wastes of hell will fester
    But God will ransom my life from hell, for he will take me up Selah.
    Do not fear that a man grows rich – if the dignity of his house be vast
    For he shall not at this death take it all – his glory will not after him go down
    For he should bless his life while he lives and they’ll praise you for doing well by yourself,
    When his soul comes to the generation of his fathers who will not see light for all days.
    A man is in honor but does not comprehend – likened to a beast that’s fallen silent.

    This is one of the hardest Psalms in the entire book to understand, including some lines that no Jewish commentators gloss with any confidence, such as the beating from honest angels. It is of interest here as a prayer Jews recite that is not addressed to Jews but to all who live on the earth, its metaphysical struggles applying to anyone who worships or even does not worship – as much as anything it is a prayer addressed to those who worship mammon and wonder at the injustice of the wicked rich around them. Or as Rabbi David Kimchi, the medieval Hebrew grammarian and author of the first full commentary on Psalms, wrote, “This song is about the business of this world and the world to come, therefore it says – ‘all the nations and all who dwell in the world,’ all who want the good way, from whatever nation they may be.”

    Rabbi Ibn Ezra, the great twelfth-century Bible critic, summarizes the message as: “There is no real good or bad in the world, since there is a limit and set time for all that is done under the sun and no existence for the entire universe, and death will efface everything, but the hope of the righteous and loss of the wicked is in the world to come, after the soul parts from the body, then the good will take pleasure and the bad take pain. There each man will eat his own fruit, and as his own hands have earned will have done to him.”

    This Psalm is wisdom literature and not strictly prayer, and it is instructive that it entered the liturgy in a time of turmoil when the Jews of Italy were under attack, especially in their burial space; though that particular pope also showed Galileo the instruments of torture to get him to recant his views on astronomy, so perhaps having only your gravestone removed was getting off lightly in that intellectual climate.

    I don’t remember the trip down to London, only at the end of it my mother and brother submerged entirely already in a welter of detail. The coroner, will, executors, a myriad of way stations. At the end of a corridor I finally went in the room where they laid out my father. I had not believed, I realized, had not believed my father was dead. Because here he suddenly was, with a bare chest, laid out under a blanket with a candle at his head, and I was punched in the solar plexus realizing that something appalling, something real had happened. He would not be telling me that joke anymore. I don’t know who I expected. Presumably the man who sat in his white armchair and talked to me, guiltily, about his grandmother, much as I had sat, guiltily, in my own armchair on the phone and said I would come visit him soon. I went along with the rope my wife was pulling and he let go, at the other end. Only I hadn’t realized how much he had let go. There was no longer anyone there to hold anything.

    When they buried him, at the long, green grounds in North London, I do not remember the Psalms being said. Perhaps they were said, quietly, by the rabbi. Or the men doing the burying. I asked if I could carry the coffin and they said, “No, you aren’t insured.” I do remember my friends helping me to throw the dirt in the grave, and my best friend since the age of eleven encouraging me to throw another spade full of dirt, and another spade. “Go on,” he said, “it’s good. Throw more dirt in.”

    Aside from him saying that, what comforted me was not the rabbi saying Psalms but his reference to the Torah reading of that week, which was Aaron and his sons driving back the plague. How did they drive back the plague? They brought incense in their censers and they walked out into the carnage with it. And their prayers stopped death. I found that story very comforting. The Psalms not so much.

    Psalm 16
    An inscription of David.
    Keep me God for I have taken shelter in you:
    You said to the Lord you are my master, my good is only from you:
    As for the sanctities there are in the land and monuments that all desire
    May the statues increase for those that betrothed another
    Without me offering their libations of blood
    And without me raising their names on my mouth:
    The Lord is my lot and cup      you grasp my destiny:
    My allotments have been pleasant, even my estate has been sweet to me:
    I’ll bless the Lord that he counseled me, even at night my spleen tormented me:
    I’ve kept the Lord before me always      so I do not fall away from my right:
    Therefore my heart rejoiced and my inside was glad      and all my flesh stayed safe
    For you will not leave my life to the underworld      you will not let your follower see the pit
    You’ll inform me      the rising path to life
    The satisfaction of celebrations is in your presence,
    pleasures are in your right hand for all eternity.

    The funeral recitation of this Psalm, first recorded by a congregation near Hamburg in 1857, has since spread to most Jewish congregations. It says that all pleasure is in God’s hand. Do not look for it in this life. That too is a message that applies to all nations. You will not find comfort for your dead in the synagogue, or any other place of worship, before you see his face. The Psalms are there to help you cope with that, after the Justification of the Sentence makes the bold claim that you can accept it.

    Contributed By AtarHadari Atar Hadari

    Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems of Hanoch Levin, winner of a PEN Translates award, is out now from Arc Publications.

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