Either due to the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II last week, or the period of soul-searching that always accompanies the Jewish New Year which starts on Sunday night, my mind keeps going to a quote that is pinned on my office wall.
The advice by Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827) states: “Every person should always carry two slips of paper – one in the right pocket and one in the left. On one piece of paper should be written ‘The entire world was created just for me.’ On the other should be written ‘I am but dust and ashes.”
“Every person should always carry two slips of paper – one in the right pocket and one in the left. On one piece of paper should be written ‘The entire world was created just for me.’ On the other should be written ‘I am but dust and ashes.”Rabbi Simcha Bunim
It rivals King Solomon’s “This too shall pass” in its simplicity and wisdom.
I tacked it under a photo of me shaking the hand of Jordan’s King Hussein. I met the Jordanian monarch on several occasions, leading me to learn by heart the traditional blessing on seeing royalty: “Blessed are Thou, Lord our God, King of the universe, Who has given of His glory to flesh and blood.”
The passing of the British queen at the ripe old age of 96, after a 70-year reign, marks the end of an era for us all. As someone who grew up in England until the age of 18, the death of the queen took me back in time to synagogue services where every week the community would say the Prayer for the Royal Family.
Following news of her death, I looked on my bookshelves for my oldest prayerbook, a Yom Kippur mahzor that had belonged to my late grandmother. It was so old that the blessing was for “our Sovereign Lord, King George, our gracious Queen Mary, Edward Prince of Wales, and all the Royal Family,” now five monarchs ago. British Jewry – and the entire free world – can feel blessed that it was spared the rule of the Nazi-sympathizing Edward VIII thanks to his abdication to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
Holding the book was a tangible link to my long deceased grandmother, and through her to my late father. As a writer, it was a reminder that the printed word will always have a power that the digital world lacks.
Unlike some friends and family members, I didn’t feel compelled to watch the entire long funeral procession and services, catching up on highlights in the evening news. I’m very much an Israeli although I define myself as a member of the Edah Habritit, the British community.
Friends commemorated the late queen in different ways, some heading to a special event at Jerusalem’s small Kumkum Tea House which specializes in tea and scones.
What I caught on television showed the United Kingdom at its best: The Great in Great Britain. Israeli journalists marveled at the length of the orderly queue by ordinary people (and David Beckham OBE who didn’t pull protekzia to queue-jump.) There was even a line to get into the miles-long line to pay 30 seconds last respects to Her Majesty.
Why did they do it, wondered pundit after pundit, most coming to the same conclusions: The queen was much loved, representing the best in traditional values of courage, fortitude and a sense of duty. No less important, people wanted to feel a part of history. My father liked to recall how he and some friends had slept overnight on the pavement to catch a glimpse of the young Elizabeth on her Coronation Day.
There is an emotional pull to participating in an event of the magnitude that you can tell your children and grandchildren that you were there.
Among the strongest images from the queen’s funeral, shared by numerous animal-loving friends – we’re Brits, after all – were the pictures of her two perplexed-looking corgis, Sandy and Muick, waiting expectantly at Windsor. Even the royal dogs have to do their duty, the price for enjoying a certain pampered lifestyle.
Let me share some more wisdom gained painfully over the years: It comes, of all places, from a book dedicated to dealing with pet death, published by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). Among the pop psychology that I couldn’t relate to and quickly forgot, was the valuable insight that every pet bereavement marks not only the loss of the animal itself but also a link to a certain period in life (childhood, college, being single, having kids at home, etc.) We mourn also the loss of that link.
Perhaps this was a similar factor at play in the emotional outpouring for the queen.
President Isaac Herzog, who recalled the meetings his late father and mother had with Her Majesty as the country’s sixth president and first lady, tweeted: “On behalf of the State of Israel, its citizens, and the Jewish People, I paid respects to HM Queen Elizabeth II at her Lying-in-State. The Queen was a true ‘woman of valour,’ as we say in the Jewish tradition, a beacon of stability and a historic figure.”
The president also eulogized her in a video message as “truly a leader that transcends time, inter-generational. She saw where the world was 70 years ago and how it is today. Her reign was truly majestic and she truly personified the word majesty,” he said. “In fact, she showed stability, strength and wisdom which was radiated throughout the world.”
Speaking at Lancaster House, Herzog noted that both his great grandfathers had been rabbis in Britain and had eulogized Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, her son.
Wishing King Charles III “a long reign of peace, justice, stability and dignity,” Herzog cited Proverbs 29:4, “The king by justice establishes the land.”
“The king by justice establishes the land.”Proverbs 29:4
He also noted that the scenes outside of people waiting to pay their respects were “impressive” and “unforgettable.”
Ancient burials in Israel
WHILE THE whole world, it seemed, was watching the funeral pomp and pageantry that the Brits do so well, unexpected reminders of ancient burials were grabbing headlines in Israel. An ongoing discussion on the burial practices was launched when members of Kibbutz Yavne, a religious kibbutz, announced they were preparing to return to the ancient practice of gathering the bones of families together. During the Second Temple period and even earlier, it was common to inter bodies in caves for short periods and later rebury the bones in niches in tunnel walls. The idea being proposed today is partly to save space, given that graves take up a lot of room in an increasingly crowded country and Jewish law does not permit construction over the graves. Another reason cited, is that reviving the ancient system will help families pay their respects to their ancestors who will all be buried in one site.
That, at least, is the bare bones of the plan, which appeals to me. Already many cities, including Jerusalem, use multi-tiered burial walls. A bone of contention with the Kibbutz Yavne initiative was raised by those who fear that other countries will use it as an excuse to dig up old Jewish cemeteries.
The second blast from the past was even more dramatic: Declaring that it felt like entering an Indiana Jones movie set, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists discovered, by chance, an ancient burial cave in the Palmahim National Park, on the Mediterranean coast. It dated from the time of Pharaoh Ramses II – the antagonist of the biblical Exodus story. The images of pottery and bronze artifacts arranged in the cave in the same way they were set out to accompany its wealthy occupant into the afterlife in a burial ceremony some 3,300 years ago, was sobering.
I recalled the last lines of the poem “Ozymandias of Egypt” by Percy Bysshe Shelley, learned by British schoolchildren throughout the years:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
It is another reminder that we are all, after all, mortals, “but dust and ashes.”
May Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth rest in peace and may readers be inscribed by the King of Kings in the Book of Life.