It was Nicky who noticed it.
We were at the Fairy Lochs in the far north of Scotland. A small wind caused little waves to lift the leaves of the water lilies in the small lochan and gently let them fall. All around, on the rocks and grass, protruding from the water, was the wreckage of the USAAF aircraft which had crashed in heavy mist as it sought to bring the crew and passengers home to their families in America after the end of World War II. A plaque listed their names and requested all visitors to respect this, the site of their memorial, remote in the Highland mountains.
Nicky pointed to a rough stone on the ground below. On it was written: ‘The family of John Hallissey was here 7.26.18.’ Sergeant John Halissey had been a passenger on the ill-fated flight; he was just 27 when he died.
What drew his family to climb the muddy, scarcely way-marked tracks to this remote outcrop, seventy-one years later? Had we come here days earlier, we might have met them. Perhaps they were his children. Now no longer young themselves, maybe they wanted to see while they still had strength and time this place where their father had died, whom in life they had scarcely known. Maybe they wanted to show their grandchildren: ‘Your grandfather was a hero…’
Every year before Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur we hold a memorial service at the cemetery where many of the dead of our community lie buried, following the practice in the Shulchan Aruch that ‘there are places where it is the custom to visit the graves and give charity generously’.
When I go out among the stones, I feel I am not just there personally, but as a representative of our congregation. Over time I know an increasing number of the people; I have more and more friends out there. It’s what happens as one gets older.
I wander round the graves and remember with affection. I try to listen, and I’m afraid I do talk back:
D: I miss the open-armed hug of your friendship; the way you loved the soup. Where is your voice now, you who would have spoken out so frankly, fairly, fearlessly in honour of Jewish history, in defence of our people?
E: Your boys are growing up beautifully; you’d be so proud of them
X: Your son has the same depth, the same loving-kindness, that you had. But, of course, you already knew that…
I never hear the dead say a bad word. ‘Honour life,’ they say, ‘love life’, like the words on my father-in-law’s stone: ‘Enjoy life for it is the gift of God’. Then they add, as we, the now- living, turn back to our bewildering day and amnesia-inducing iPhones, ‘Use life; it’s the loving-kindness, the faithfulness, that matters’. And then they add further, ‘Don’t be afraid’.
On Kol Nidrei night, at the start of the great Day of Judgment, when all Israel stands before our God, I do not think of us solely as the transitory generations, abandoned to time, alone in our swiftly passing years.
Those who gave us life are among us still, unseen. We carry them in our hearts; the hearts which their love, devotion, hopes, foibles, failings and affection nourished. And in their hearts are the hearts of our shared ancestors, backwards through time, century by century. They all sing with us and the melodies are rich with the resonance of their voices.
We sing together beyond, outside of, time, before the Eternal God, testimony to ancient, enduring and defiant wonder, hope and longing.