Thursday, June 29, 2006

“Like the sun setting in the afternoon”

I just got back from the funeral for Eliyahu Pinchas Asheri, the 18-year-old “mechina” student from the settlement of Itamar, who was kidnapped and shot this week by a Palestinian group called the Popular Resistance Committee.

I’ve never been to a funeral in Israel before, and this was kind of on impulse. I saw in the newspaper that Asheri’s funeral procession would start in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria neighborhood at 2:30, and thought “hey, I could go there!” So I called up a friend who also works from home, and has a car, and we went together. As Rabbi Kosman always says, "Never underestimate the power of your presence."

There were so many thoughts whirling through my head on the way there, and during the funeral itself. Too much to explain, so I’ll just describe the funeral to you.

We got there early (YES! Sarah got somewhere EARLY!) and I saw that the funeral “parlor” is really a large, bare auditorium with a podium on one side, and lots of standing room (no chairs). The auditorium was already full of people when I got there at 2:10, but I was early enough that my friend and I could get a place to stand in a corner between two open doors, so we caught a nice breeze. Inside, it was men in front and women in the back, but as time went on and an overflow crowd formed outside, I saw that outside it was more of a mishmash, genderwise. Almost everyone there was some flavor of religious – lots of dati leumi “national religious” types, who from their style of dress seemed to be settlers, and also lots of chareidim “ultra-Orthodox,” probably who live in Sanhedria.

At 2:40 they started reciting psalms over the loudspeaker. A rabbi would recite each verse, and the crowd would recite after him. Luckily I’d brought my prayer book or I’d have been completely lost.

After about half an hour, my friend needed more air-- it was very hot-- so we wove our way outside. I’d estimated that there were probably around 800 people inside the hall – and outside there were about another 800-1000, that I saw. We found a shady spot and continued following the psalms.

Then the family must have gone into the auditorium, because the microphone picked up the sounds of sobbing and continuous wailing. In Israel, they do not put the body in a coffin. It is wrapped in a linen shroud, so as to speed up its turning to dust. I did not see the family, and didn’t want to. Didn’t want to see the parents and brothers and sisters standing around the corpse of their dead son and brother.

Then came the speeches. There was less discussion about politics or revenge than I’d thought there might be. I heard the phrase “God will avenge you” only twice in an hour of speeches. The only overtly political statement I heard was that “our army is a wonderful army, a good army, who tried to protect Eliyahu and did everything they could. But we have a government who does not understand what is important, or who the enemy really is.” There was also a prayer by one of the rabbis that God should “protect the people of Itamar, both from their enemies and also from their brothers.”

When the speakers mentioned the circumstances of Eliyahu’s death, it was mostly in the context of “how sad that these barbarians people cut short such a beautiful life. When these murderers took Eliyahu from us, they took a special person.”


What interested me most were the speeches about what Eliyahu had been like. Every single speaker referred to him as a modest, spiritual, non-materialistic person, someone simple and kind who never liked to attract attention. Apparently, his prayers were inspiring; watching him pray was “watching someone with incredible closeness to God, a pure faith. Eliyahu’s prayers were a fiery torch.” The rabbi of Itamar said that when everyone else would exit the synagogue after services, Eliyahu was always still there, still praying. The head of his school said that it will be hard for him to look at the front right seat in the study hall, where Eliyahu always sat.

“The sun sets every night,” said a rabbi from Bnei Akiva. “It has done so every day since the beginning of the world, and we accept it as the way of things. But who has heard of the sun setting in the afternoon? Eliyahu was a sun. He was on his way to become a teacher of Torah, but was interrupted. The sun has set before its time.”

Unbelievably, Eliyahu’s mother found the strength to speak. She didn’t cry while she was talking – all the rabbis had been sobbing through their speeches – but quietly spoke to her son, with incredible simplicity and dignity.

“Eliyahu,” she said. “You always came to other people’s defense. In our home, when we judged others harshly, you always said not to judge, never to see someone based on their outward appearance. So gently and sweetly you came to the defense of others.”

“Now, Eliyahu, come to our defense. Use your extraordinary power of prayer, the prayer that we all admired, to act as our defense in Heaven. Ask God not to judge us harshly. Pray to Him to protect us, and pray to Him to help all of us to know him, for all of the Children of Israel to recognize Him, for He is our father.”

After the speeches, my friend and I opted not to escort the body to the Mt. of Olives, but to go home. As we wound our way out of the funeral building’s grounds, I saw that there were ANOTHER several hundred people on the street - I think the total attendance was around 2,500-3,000. For those who wanted to go to the burial, there were buses for the crowds.

I only saw two television cameras at the funeral, so I don’t know how much international press this will get.


Nothing else to say. I feel like I should wrap up this post with some meaningful thought, but there’s just nothing to say.

Please don’t use the comments section of my blog to spout politics. I’m sick of it.

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