I learned El Maleh Rahamim the day before my sister-in-law's funeral, and was astonished to discover it was only a minute and a half long. Like a transient, acute pain, it seemed to last forever whenever I heard it. Perhaps, between funerals, unveilings, and Yizkors, I've heard it two dozen times over my lifetime. But the melody felt like it was seared with a brand into my brain, familiar even after years away from services. We learn the entire Torah in the womb, goes the story, but once we're born an angel comes and erases it, leaving the indentation over our lips as a reminder. I think the angel forgot to take away this prayer, the saddest melody ever written.
I had never before sung at a funeral, let alone one for a member of my family. I walked up front not sure for whom I was about to try to offer comfort--myself, the people facing me? I began the prayer, and after a moment had a sense that all our arms, mine as well as everyone else's, were open and trying to draw each other in, a palpable warmth that spread across the room and up to the bima. The people in the pews weren't singing along, but I could hear them just the same.
A few weeks ago at Friday night services the rabbi quoted Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, who taught that everyone has a niggun, a melody belonging to their own soul. The job of the shaliah tzibur, the service leader, is to listen carefully for the niggunim of everyone in the room and gather them into a song. This is what I felt as I sang El Maleh Rahamin: all our melodies entwining like an embrace, reaching out to each other, reaching up.