It’s a strange expression we use in the memorial prayer when we say of the dead that they have gone l’olamam. I don’t know how to translate that last word. In the Bible olam is always an expression of time, as for example in the phrase l’olam va’ed, ‘for ever’. Only in rabbinic Hebrew does olam also come to signify as a noun meaning ‘world’, such as olam haba, ‘the world to come’. In some cases it can be impossible to know the true meaning; thus, does Adon olam mean ‘Lord of the world’ or ‘Eternal Lord’, or maybe both?
Maybe both is the way to understand the term in that memorial prayer. The dead have gone l’olamam, somewhere different in both time and place. Where are they? I am not going to address here the metaphysical question of where they may be in God’s greater universe, the ‘undiscovered country / From whose bourn no traveller returns’. I’m simply puzzling, as tonight is the fifth Yahrzeit for my father, over where he is in my life, over where our beloved dead are in our hearts and thoughts.
They have gone ‘le’olamam’, into a different kind of time. They no longer age with the years, the chivvying hours no longer chase them and they are not subject to the tyranny of the clock. Here is my father, pulling me home on my tricycle from Hoyes, the sweetshop, on the busy Milngavie Road. Here is my father on Mossy’s bar Mitzvah, almost exactly a year before he died, and I can hear Ronnie Cohen, who was leading the service, say to me quietly, ‘Jonathan, your father is here’, and I was still in the middle of the silent Amidah, fortunately standing already. And the two memories nourish me side by side, alongside that absence because my father will never now sit at our table so that our family can see him again.
Thus the dead have gone too into a different kind of space, le’loamam, to a world which is everywhere they ever were. My father is growing up in Breslau, part of a strong rabbinic family. I imagine him there: ‘At midnight on Shavuot we would have a feast’. Then I think of him in Palestine with his ever-unlucky friend Baruch, who took in a well-fed dog off the streets in the hope of a reward, because who but the very rich had an animal like that when people had so little to eat? However, the dog ate his friend Baruch’s wife’s only dress during the night, and no reward was ever forthcoming. Then I see him in Glasgow telling me quietly to put my favourite toys in a pile; yes, I was allowed to take as many as I wanted and we would travel down to London that very night. He didn’t tell me then, but his wife, my mother, had died that day and was on the train with us. But, and I think maybe it was during that same evening before we left, I felt a presence rushing towards me and rushing again swiftly away, and in my mind I say it was her, saying goodbye. Then I see him, with Isca, smiling down at Mossy, who, ten months old, beams back as if bound by a magic ray. And Nicky says to me quietly, ‘Look!’ And none of these things is yesterday only, none of them far away.
For what does one light a candle, say Kaddish, give charity and learn Torah on the Yahrzeit? The ancient answers is ‘for the soul’s journey’, but in what worlds? The spirit ascends and travels within God, and maybe we can still touch it there, for blessing.
But we say the words too for the dead who are within us. They will not hold our hand, or place theirs on our head to bless us. But they have the freedom of our heart’s space and there they talk to us as if fifty years were just a moment gone, as if we could grasp it, now. We say the words for the love which bound us together, and because of the sorrow, and because the inseparable mixture of them both humbles us and makes us atone.