Joel Alter

A Covid Yizkor

Yizkor Candle Credit: Joel Alter

A Yizkor Prayer on the One-Year Covid Anniversary

א-ל מלא רחמים Compassionate God, when the virus came, we stepped inside. We closed our windows and our doors.

Against infection, DISTANCE.

Against contagion, SEPARATION.

Against outbreak, QUARANTINE.

Counting seconds as we scrubbed our hands.

Counting paces apart.

Decals and arrows on floors and on walls, to stand here, to walk there. To be SAFE. Safer. Because the world was dangerous.

“I’m not sick,” we said. “But you might be infected. You could get sick. You could infect others.”

So back up, back up, further, further. There.

Stumbling anxiously, we unlearned every gesture of intimacy, every habit of caring, every routine of companionship. And with forced smiles, we replaced them with virtual substitutes. An elbow for a handshake, a wave for an embrace, a nod for a kiss.

From behind a mask, from within a screen.

Unmute, unmute! Unmute? I’d like to scream!

Disoriented, frustrated, impatient, turning inward, but we can do this. We’re all in this together. We can wait out this pandemic. It’ll only be a few months. No, more. A year. More. Waiting for life to return after Covid.

But life doesn’t always return. Life doesn’t stop for a pandemic. Nor illness, either. Life goes on. And life goes out. From cancers. From dementias. From everyday infections. From old age.

To die in this year of Covid, God, too often meant to die alone. How did we come to this? Calling to our loves on Zoom. Singing to our loves through our phones. Conveying farewell to our loves through a nurse. But never holding hands. Never offering a squeeze of encouragement. Of presence. Just to say, “It’s ok if you go. You’re my heart, but I’ll be ok.” Even that, God? Even that was not safe this year?

But life goes on and life goes out. And this year, as in any year, some were gone from us. And this year we could not be with them on their way out.

Their funerals in this year of Covid, God… Covid denied them, denied us the dignity of a quiet assembly of friends and family in a funeral home’s muffled interior. Instead, we just held runt gatherings on muddy ground alongside an open grave.

In this year of Covid, God – even a shovel, that tool of loving burial, the חסד של אמת, took on a threatening aspect. Dare we pass a shovel from hand to hand?

To mourn in this year of Covid, God, too often meant to mourn alone. Has a shiva house ever been so lonely? That choking dryness of a hard-boiled egg. This is what mourning tastes like without a proper shiva.

Kaddish on Zoom, God. The strange digital interference of overlapping audio. Yitgadal v’yitkadash, mute. Unmute. Sh’mei rabbah. Mute. Unmute. V’imeru Amen. Mute.

א-ל מלא רחמים שוכן במרומים – Compassionate God, You dwell so far away, yet we feel Your presence close at hand. This past year we’ve dwelled far away, too. Covid made it so. At this hour of Yizkor, God, we need to know that our dear ones felt our presence close at hand even as we sheltered in our homes, inside our walls, behind our doors, inside our screens. We need to know they forgave us our distance as they prepared to leave this life. Now that they’re gone, God, we need to release ourselves, we need to be released, from this pandemic’s heavy burden of distance. It was all in the name of life, God, of protecting the vulnerable, of securing the future. We did what we had to do.

So, shelter them, God, under the wings of your Shechina. Embrace them, God, with Your overwhelming love, receive them for all eternity, even after this year when we could not. When we extended our arms to embrace those who needed the comfort of our touch, but in our isolation our arms found no one. And, frustrated, we embraced our own selves, reaching across our lonely chests and quietly held ourselves tight.

This was comfort, this was mourning, this was loss, in the Year of Covid.

About the Author
A Conservative rabbi, solo parent, and gay man, Rabbi Joel Alter has served Milwaukee's Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid since 2018.
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