An expectant hush had fallen over London, as it prepared for its last farewell to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Despite the early hour and the multitude of security personnel that lined the street; policemen, stewards, heavily armed snipers and soldiers, as well as the long line of mourners lining up on Westminster Bridge, there was only a respectful murmur to be heard, quite different from the usual babble one encounters before a funeral.
Representing Reform Judaism in the presence of 500 Heads of State and foreign Monarchs as well as His Majesty the King and the Royal Family all 7 former Prime Ministers and the newest one – people who were or had been at the fulcrum of history is a humbling experience. And yet, more so to be in the presence of the Queen’s coffin.
I must admit, I had had my misgivings about the protracted mourning period preceding the funeral, the frequent handling of the coffin (even though it was done in the most beautifully and respectful manner) and the lying in state, all of which is so different from our own tradition of a swift burial.
As the Queen’s coffin entered the Abbey a powerful silence descended on the assembled congregation; how forceful it is when 2000 people are all hushed together! The thunderous quiet of a multitude, pregnant with anticipation as the congregation waited with bated breath akin to the moment on Rosh Hashana before the first shofar blast.
Her Majesty the Queen was present in more ways than by her standard, crown, orb, and scepter decking her coffin. Her presence permeated the service itself, from the choice of Psalm 23, which was an apparent favourite of the Queen, sung also at her wedding, to the readings and liturgy. The Queen was a woman of faith; not just perfunctory, in her role as ‘Fidei Defensor’ or ‘Defender of the Faith’, but as a deeply religious individual.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, did highlight her leadership in service, and her inspiration of trust and faith in God, in his sermon quoting her own closing words in one of her latest addresses to the nation during the Covid Pandemic ‘We will meet again’.
It highlighted that the Queen’s greatness was found in her humility, and even with all the glorious music, ceremony, and pageantry, at heart of it all was the life of a woman, who after 70 years of unstinting service had departed this world. There was no starker reminder to us all, not just ‘hoi polloi’ like me, but also those who hold the balance of power in the world, or who with the flourish of a pen can squander the wealth of a nation, that they too are just people, and in the end nothing matters more in life than humility, faith, and a shem tov – a good name.
As a person of faith, the Queen had been a lifelong supporter of other faiths and sought to establish good interfaith relationships. A cause, we know, King Charles will also seek to maintain. It was encouraging to see that we representatives of the different faiths had been given a prominent place in the service, and to be part of an interfaith delegation in the congregation. As a group of faith leaders, we were all keen to continue the work started by the Queen by maintaining the friendly, open, and respectful relations within that group.
Grief brings people together. The patience, tolerance, and good-natured togetherness which the nation had shown over these days of mourning, culminating in the funeral on Monday – were a comforting in these times of stressful uncertainty. If only, we could hold on to these experiences and maintain this unifying kindness demonstrated by so many over these days, the world would be a much better place.
As we find ourselves in the month of Elul, the month of soul searching in preparation for Rosh Hashanah we are reminded of the three themes of Malchuyot (Sovereignty) Zichronot (Remembrance) and Shofarot (Shofar blasts). Of course, we were there to remember, and similarly we were called to attention by trumpet blasts, however more than anything, being in the presence of sovereignty, reinforced the powerful language of our Prayerbooks. It provided a glimpse of what we actually mean when we address God as ‘Sovereign of Sovereigns’, for even in death the Queen commanded a multitude; 500 world leaders, 2000 strong congregation, thousands of spectators and military personnel on the street, and millions on TV, and she still commanded silence, respect, and devotion.
Above all else, it reminded me of Pirkei Avot (Sayings of the Fathers 2:16): ‘It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.” Amidst all the splendor, power, pomp and circumstance, in the end, all of us at the Abbey, as well as the people out on the street, we were no more than cogs in the greater mechanism of history, all of us were part of a defining, extraordinary moment; and yet we all had a role to play in it, be it great or small and we all must rise to the occasion.
Rabbi Kathleen Middleton, co-Chair of the Assembly of Reform Rabbis and Cantors, represented The Movement for Reform Judaism at the funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, at Westminster Abbey on 19th September 2022.