“How Are the Mighty [Innocent] Fallen?”

By :  Samuel Barth Posted On Jul 4, 2014 / 5774 | Service of the Heart: Exploring Prayer

In the elegy of David for Saul and his beloved Jonathan, the Hebrew words “Eikh naflu gibborim” (2 Sam. 1:17) carry a wordless cry and howl of anguish not rendered by the translation “How are the mighty fallen?” Professor Francis Landy of the University of Alberta notes1 that the first word, Eikh, most of all, is onomatopoeic. Eikh is a primal groan, howl, or keening; it is giving sound to inner pain and desolation, a sound of agony that comes in the immediacy of loss, ripped from the heart and soul. It is a sound that comes before the poem of lament, the words that try to give form and focus to raw emotion and pain.

The hope for the safe rescue of Naftali Fraenkel (z”l), Gilad Shaar (z”l), and Eyal Yifrach (z”l) was crushed by the discovery of their murdered bodies, and the pain of their loss has been experienced so widely by the Jewish people that we all wonder where to turn, what to say, what to do, and how to respond. Let us recall the wise guidance of halakhah. In the time between a death and the burial, the mourners are in a state called aninut—they have no obligations other than to see to burial.2 They need not (some say may not) say the traditional prayers, put on tefillin, or even be counted in a minyan. Words of comfort are not offered while a person’s dead are “before them.”

Yesterday, on Tuesday, millions around the world watched the live streaming of the boys’ funeral, and now we turn to ancient and modern sources for comfort and consolation. As always, for some, the comfort will be found in private reflection and prayer, while for others the public gatherings and traditional words will support the heart and soul; for most of us, some point of balance will be found. The role of liturgy is to provide a formal defined structure in which each of us can find at least some phrase, some melody, some act that touches us directly. Following the insight of Buber, we might see the structure and texts of the liturgical system as an “I­It” phenomenon; if the system works, it invites and transports each of us to an “I­Thou” encounter with God and the soul of our people.

Rabbi Gerald Weiss wrote a beautiful poem in Hebrew that preserves the opening cry of David’s eternal lament; but here, he inserts the word temimim (innocent, perfect ones) in place of gibborim (mighty warriors) to mark that the victims are so young.

Eikh naflu temimim
Hane‘ehavim vehan’imim behayeihem
Bemotam lo nifradu . . .
Oh . . . Aaach! How have the innocent fallen!
Beloved and filled with pleasantness and melody in their lives
They are not parted in death
Alas how the pure have fallen
Those who have barely even lived . . .
How the innocent have fallen at the hands of those who wield terror
From where will consolation come . . .
They who had yet to taste the full sweetness of living
May Gan Eden be their resting place
Until the time of the return of life to all.
(Passages translated by Rabbi Samuel Barth)

Read the full poem, “Lament,” here.

May we all find comfort in the company of friends and community and in the words of sages, both ancient and of our times. The Psalms are a shared resource for comfort, and the series traditionally recited on Shabbat afternoons (Psalms 120–134) are especially fitting for these times. In Psalm 120, we find “I am (a person) of peace; but when I speak—they are for war.” And we close with the words of Psalm 122:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, may those who love you prosper.
May there be peace in all your walls
Tranquility in all your homes.
For the sake of my companions and friends
I ask only shalom, peace for you all. (vv. 6–8)

We hear these words sung by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (z”l).

And some may find inspiration in this version of the memorial prayer (El Malei) chanted at a ceremony at Mount Herzl on Yom Hazikkaron (State of Israel Memorial Day) in 2011 by Hazzan Shai Abranson, chief cantor of the Israel Defense Forces.


[1]“Irony and Catharsis in Biblical Poetry: David’s Lament over Saul and Jonathan (2 Sam. 1.19-27),” Francis Landy, European Judaism, vol. 15, no. 1, 3–12.

[2]Isaac Klein, Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, 274.