As a secular Israeli child, my training in prayer was none. I had no reason to step into a synagogue and less so to pray. Loyal to the political and ideological indoctrination of my youth, I had consciously attempted to keep myself “untainted“ by exposure to Jewish classical text and most especially to liturgy. Therefore, when I chose to explore my Jewish religious roots in adulthood I assumed that I was coming to it with a liturgical blank slate.
But to my surprise I found that there was one prayer that had infiltrated my subconscious and had firmly imbedded itself therein. El Maleh Rakhamim, the dramatic and deeply heart-stirring prayer I had heard so often on television broadcasts of military or state funerals. I found that upon recall, the melody would ring loud and clear, the words would avail themselves, and the existential sorrow would rise up to become palpable. El Maleh Rakhamim was my early link to our people’s shared tragedy as well as liturgy.
The melody and words seemed to comfort and offer a repose for grief and reflection. However, one phrase in the liturgy repeatedly left me bewildered. I often tried to make sense of the concept and image described in the prayer as Tzror Hakhayyim, “the bundle of life”. “God, (please) bind up the soul of the deceased in the bundle of life, and may he/she rest in peace at their resting place“, says the prayer. “What kind of bundle; how can a soul be bundled; where is the bundle of life; what does this all mean?”, I wondered.