Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Shoftim: The Eternal is the Inheritance

0 Comments 22 August 2017

In her commentary to Parashat Shoftim, Rabbi Dr. Dalia Marx explores the ways in which the Jewish people find peace and comfort in the inheritance of our language and traditions.

Map of the Holyland by Abraham Ortellius. 1570

Map of the Holyland by Abraham Ortellius. 1570

By Rabbi Dr. Dalia Marx

The Levites do not receive a portion of the land in the manner of the other tribes, rather “The Eternal’s fire offerings and His inheritance they shall eat” (Deuteronomy 18:1). The Levite shall dwell in the Temple and be supported by it, thus “The Eternal is his inheritance” (18:2). The Torah does not state that the Levite shall dwell with God or in His house, but rather that God Himself is the Levite’s inheritance. In other words, the Levite, who lack a geographic inheritance of their own, dwell, so to speak, within the divine.

The unusual expressiveness of the phrase “The Eternal is his inheritance” and its comforting tenderness seem to have prompted its choice as the expression of the hopes harbored by the living for the dead, so that it found its way into the prayer El Male Rahamim (“God, full of Compassion”). In the next few paragraphs, I shall consider some of the phrases that appear in El Male Rahamim, and show how prayer draws from the Torah, while poetry draws from prayer.

From Torah to Prayer

Text of El Malei Rachamim at tombstone at Powązki Jewish cemetery in Warsaw Photo by Mzungu - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Text of El Malei Rachamim at tombstone at Powązki Jewish cemetery in Warsaw Photo by Mzungu – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Ashkenazi memorial prayer, El Malei Rahamim, was composed in the aftermath of the deadly pogroms carried out against the Jews in the Ukraine in the years 1648-9.

Here is the prayer (in the male gender). The phrases to be discussed appear in bolded:


God full of compassion, who dwells on high
Grant complete rest on [or: under] the wings of the Divine Presence [1],
Among the holy and the pure, who shine like the brightness of the sky [2],
To the soul of _______ who has passed on to his eternal habitation […].
May his repose be in the Garden of Eden.
Therefore, the Master of Compassion shall hide him away in the secret place of His wings for eternity [3].
And bundle up his soul in the bundle of life [4].
The Eternal is his inheritance [5], he shall rest peacefully where he lies. And let us say, ‘Amen.’

[1] Since the composition of El Malei Rahamim was quite late and gained popularity throughout various Jewish communities before its formulation became fixed, it appears in several variants. The best known variation occurs in its opening lines: “God full of compassion, who dwells on high/ Grant rightful repose on [variant: under] the wings of the Divine Presence.” Even though this is a simple switch of prepositions, the two readings present quite different pictures. Are we asking that the departed be carried upon the wings of the Divine Presence (see: Rashi on Deuteronomy 32:11), or is our hope that the departed will find warmth and protection under the sheltering wings of the Divine Presence? This expression is borrowed from a midrash describing Abraham’s activity among the gentiles: “Abraham would convert them and enter them under the wings of the Divine Presence (Midrash Tana’im on Deuteronomy 6:5). Both the verse and the midrash speak of God’s preserving life, without any special connection to death or mourning.

[2] The phrase “who shine like the brightness of the sky” is borrowed from the Book of Daniel: “And many who sleep in the dust of the earth will awaken —these for eternal life, and those for disgrace, for eternal abhorrence. And the wise will shine like the brightness of the sky” (12:2-3). This is perhaps the only direct scriptural reference to what will be later referred to as “the resurrection of the dead.” The prayer’s anonymous author saw fit to include the verse in a prayer requesting mercy for the deceased.

[3] Hope that God will protect the deceased finds vivid expression in the phrase “shall hide him away in the secret place of His wings for eternity,” taken from the Psalm: “I will dwell in Your Tent forever; I will take refuge in the covert of Your wings. Selah” (61:5). Here again the literal text discusses protection in this world, but Rashi understood the word olamim – literally “worlds,” translated as eternity – as referring to this world and the next, which made it suitable to enter this prayer.

[4] The phrase “may He bundle up his soul in the bundle of life” speaks explicitly of the world of the living. Abigail used it when she managed in her wisdom to convince King David not to destroy her and her family: “But my Eternal’s soul shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Eternal your God, while the soul of your enemies, the Eternal will sling it with the hollow of the sling” (I Samuel 25:29). Rabbi Eliezer uses it to support the notion that “the souls of the righteous are hidden away under the Throne of Glory” (Shabbat 152b), since then the phrase “bundle of life” [“tzror hahayyim”] has been used in this sense [2].

[5] The phrase “The Eternal is his inheritance,” which appears in our parasha is concerned with life in this world and the well-being of the Levites, but also describes the condition of the deceased. Now that s/he has no inheritance in this world, the Eternal is her/his inheritance. The picture of a God full of compassion [3] who protects and shows compassion, who serves as a home for the deceased, is a theologically powerful and challenging image.

Jewish prayers do not usually concern themselves with questions regarding the afterlife, the World to Come, the Garden of Eden, and that which is hidden “behind the curtain.” Our prayers deal with life in this world. El Malei Rahamim is unusual on this account. It seems that the need to console mourners (even very partially) led its creators to deal with post-mortem existence. The phrase “The Eternal is his inheritance” evolved from being a description of the Levite’s portion in this world to describing the hoped-for portion of the deceased in the World to Come.

From Prayer to Poetry

Just as the biblical expression “The Eternal is his portion” remained intact while its meaning changed as it moved into a liturgical context, a similar change has occurred in recent generations when liturgical expressions are transplanted and embedded in modern poetical contexts. Let us examine two instances in which expressions originating in the prayer El Malei Rahamim (or which owe their familiarity to their presence in that prayer) are used in modern Hebrew poetry in a manner that changes their meaning while preserving their vitality.

First, Chaim Nahman Bialik’s well known poem which he wrote in Odessa in the year 5665 and which begins with the words:

Gather me in under your wings
And be for me a mother and sister
And let your lap be my head’s refuge
Nest of my distant prayers.

These beautiful lines have invited many interpretations; I understand them as speaking of love’s hopelessness and despair: he cannot aspire to having the addressee become his lover in the full sense of the word— at best she can be his “mother and sister.” He asks for her shelter, “Gather me in under your wings” (as per our prayer’s formulation) but cannot hope for reciprocal relations. In addition, this love can only be fulfilled in death, since only then does one enter under the wings of the Divine Presence.

Yehuda Amichai used a phrase from the burial prayer to make a complaint against God. Here is the first part of his poem:

God full of compassion
If God were not full of compassion
There would be compassion in the world, and not only in Him.
I, who picked flowers on the mountain,
And gazed upon all the valleys,
I, who brought corpses from the hills,
Know to say that the world is empty of compassion.

In Amichai’s song the liturgical phrase becomes an indictment of God, Who is “full of compassion,” i.e., holds back His compassion within Himself and does not reveal it in His world. Amichai’s poem describes a very Israeli experience, that of a soldier telling of the outcome of a deadly battle in which he participated.

Mount Herzl. By Deror avi - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Mount Herzl. By Deror avi – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

It simultaneously reflects separation and closeness, both alienation from tradition and a longing for it. Above all it demonstrates that when an Israelite wishes to express anger and perhaps lack of faith, he remains in need of language internal to Judaism.

We have been blessed to live in a generation in which our ancestral language is our inheritance. Without the living relationship with Hebrew, Bialik and Amichai and so many other contemporary poets would not have been able to write their poems. The fact that Hebrew is alive and kicking requires us Hebrew speakers to face special challenges when approaching our people’s heritage, challenges spared (or denied) previous generations for whom Hebrew was not their vernacular, natural language.

May the words of Torah and prayer that are in or mouths be sweet; may they be fertile and multiply and bear good and worthy fruits!

Dalia MarxRabbi Dalia Marx (PhD) is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights and an Associate professor of liturgy and midrash at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-JIR, and teaches in various academic institutions in Israel and Europe. Marx, tenth generation in Jerusalem, earned her doctorate at the Hebrew University and her rabbinic ordination at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem and Cincinnati. She is involved in various research projects and is active in promoting liberal Judaism in Israel. Marx writes for academic and popular journals and publications.

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