Ilui Neshama: Elevation of the Soul

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On Rosh Hashanah, I saw holiness in the sanctuary. It was a most beautiful moment in its rawness, its honesty, its sincerity. As we waited as a kehillah, a collective, to hear the final shofar blasts, we paused for the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. The individual voices of those amongst us who had felt the realness in the words of U’netaneh Tokef….

“בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן. כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן, מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת, מִי בְקִצּוֹ, וּמִי לֹא בְּקִצּוֹ”

“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death.”

… interrupted our communal prayer and allowed us to listen to their unique prayer of loss and love.

I watched a woman stand on her fourth day as a mourner and shakily make her way through the foreign words that asked her to praise the God that had just taken her loved one away. The words were not easy; especially after a day spent pondering the fate of the year to come and reflecting on the year that passed.

What I saw next left me in tears. While this mourner stood, tears betraying the rawness of her loss, another woman — also a mourner — walked to the row in front of her and turned back to take this new mourner’s hand as they recited the Kaddish together. And then another woman, who had lost a parent of her own, turned around as well, to stand in front of this woman in pain. And then I watched as a third woman — with her own history of harsh loss no mother should know — turn and take the other arm of this new mourner.

And in the row behind them, stood two other women. Neither of whom had experience reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish. But they knew enough and each of them, with heads bowed, reached up to place a hand on the shoulder of this new mourner. As if they would be there to be sure she would not fall.

And in a moment of quiet solidarity, I heard the strong male voice that had become so familiar all year. The man mourning his father for the past so many months. His strong voice that leads the group of mourners — he paused. He waited for this new member of his small, bereaved group to catch her breath. To find her voice. To continue the prayer to honor her loved one.

This little glimpse into the hearts in my community, our kehillah. The heart that is in a moment of vulnerability. The hearts that know that pain and turn back to say, “I am here to hold your hand and show you the way through.” The hearts that say, “I see your pain and stand back in awe of its magnitude while I stand behind you to make sure you know you will have someone to catch you when your strength gives out.” The heart that creates space and respect and understanding for each individual’s pace through their pain.

I have always looked at Yom Kippur as a selfish day. A day of self. A day to look inward. A day to try to be alone with my thoughts, with my prayers. But I realize now how much I am missing.

So I will file into my row next to all of you on Tuesday night – those beside me in body and others in spirit. I will try my best to stand with eyes forward this year and encourage myself to reach for the hands that have walked my path before me. I will ask you to lead me through. And I will be there to catch those that need me to stand strong behind them. I will take comfort in knowing that there are others behind me, ready to bolster me should I not find my own strength and begin to falter. I will hear the voices of those beside me, sharing their prayers of hope and struggle. I will pause to create space for your prayer to be heard, and ask you to pause for mine.

I do believe that our prayers are heard on High. I do not know that we are always satisfied with the answer we receive. But I would like to do better this year – and just listen.

May this be a year of prayers answered to our satisfaction. G’mar v’chatimah tovah. Save me a seat next to you in shul.

Ariele Mortkowitz was the founding director of the Agam Center in Washington DC, a community center for women’s spirituality and wellness which included the Ohev Sholom Mikvah Chaim. Through her work, she saw how the mikvah ritual could augment an individual’s spiritual journey and create a space for meaningful connections. She is passionate about the ways women interact with their faith and their community and has dedicated her work to the pursuit of fulfilling female Jewish spiritual and communal experiences.