To Love What Death Can Touch: Poem for 2.25.16


To Love What Death Can Touch

‘Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.To Love What Death Can Touch
A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –
to be,
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
to love.
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
‘Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.

by Yehuda HaLevi (1075 – 1141)

16 thoughts on “To Love What Death Can Touch: Poem for 2.25.16”

  1. Dear Larry,

    Yehuda’s thoughts are a personal favorite of mine. The bereaved mothers in my group “Mothers Finding Meaning Again” have read these beautiful and true sentiments several times and posted them on our FB page.

    Be well and thank you for your devotion to the broken-hearted.

    Mary Jane

  2. Hello Larry,

    This is one of my favorite poems as well. The Yehudah Halevi attribution that is all over the internet, though, is wrong. This is a modern poem, written in English, by Rabbi Chaim Stern, a great Reform Jewish liturgist who died in 2001. Just trying to spread the word, since the Halevi attribution is nearly ubiquitous!

    Irwin Keller

      1. I don’t know how the mis-attribution began or how it caught on. Perhaps we want these beautiful, tender thoughts to feel like they come from a more ancient source than a contemporary.

        Composer Garth Baxter has created a beautiful piano and vocal setting of this poem (with words properly credited to Rabbi Stern). Listen here:

        To Kenneth Gutwein who comments below: I don’t know if this poem is included in either Gates of Prayer or Mishkan Tefilah. Rabbi Stern was central in both of those projects, but I don’t have copies of either, so I can’t hunt to see. You might check Gates of Prayer for a House of Mourning.

        As for evidence, we have Rabbi Stern’s colleagues and students speaking to it. I suspect he did publish it somewhere, although I don’t know where. Also, if it were Yehudah Halevi, this would be a translation from Hebrew; so we would actually have the Hebrew poem (and the name of a translator). But we don’t have either – I hunted through Yehudah Halevi poems in Hebrew looking for this before I knew it was Chaim Stern and written in English.

        Anyway, if anyone finds out more about where Rabbi Stern might’ve published this, do add to this thread!

    1. Irwin:
      As you mentioned, this spurious attribution is all over the Internet, especially as it was recently read on the Netflix “Godless” series and attributed to Yehuda HaLevi. However if it indeed was original to Rabbi Chaim Stern, why hasn’t the correction been made? An example of “fake attribution”?
      Can it be found under Stern’s name in the Mishkan T’filah for Gatherings? Inquiring minds would like to know.

      Kenneth Gutwein
      Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Literature
      SUNY Old Westbury


        Page 4…

        “My late colleague, Rabbi Chaim Stern, who hired me from Rabbinic
        school to be his Assistant and then Associate almost 29 years ago, wrote a
        most beautiful, but pained poem about mourning:
        It is a fearful thing to love
        What death can touch.
        A fearful thing to love, hope, dream: to be—
        To be, and oh, to lose.
        A thing for fools this, and
        A holy thing,
        A holy thing to love.
        For your life has lived in me,
        Your laugh once lifted me,
        Your word was gift to me.
        To remember this brings a painful joy.
        ‘Tis a human thing, love,
        A holy thing,
        To love what death has touched.
        He wrote this bittersweet lament in recognition of the complexity of
        our human emotions, our human psyche, and our heroic but vain longing to
        fully comprehend that which is beyond us. In the end, we are left with the
        ongoing love: to love what death has touched.”

      2. Greetings: I have included the link to a blog which has a comment from Philip Stern, Rabbi Chaim Stern’s son, who confirms that this is his father’s poem -
        Philip Stern writes: “The poem was written by my father, Rabbi Chaim Stern, not by Yehuda Ha-Levi or anyone else. I know this for a fact; I first read the poem at a service put on by my father;s cantor, Dana Anesi, which contained writings of my father. This was one of them.”
        Sincerely, Jill Grief

  3. Valerie Gartrell

    What a beautiful poem. I just heard it read on NETFLIX at the end of a program called Godless. It was so beautiful that I felt the need to research it, and find it’s origin. Thank you for your message I just wrote it in my journal for safe keeping. Just simply “Beautiful”.


    1. Same thing for me …just finished “Godless” (Excellent btw) Was struck by this Poem Recited by the New Preacher & tracked it back to here where it seems to reside in some Authorial Dispute?…Somebody mentioned the Power of Ancient Sources etc…could be, I was taken aback when 1075-1141…was the life of the writer of poem?? “Beautiful”…Poignant/Powerful/Heartfelt Poem…new favorite of mine @69…sooner or later to be shared!!

  4. This poem appeared on The Compassionate Friends Facebook page. Having lost my son just 3 months ago, it really spoke to me, whenever it was written. Losing a child, in my case my 34 year old son, is the hardest thing I have ever experienced, this poem captures some of the feeling of it. Your child was part of you , you miss their laugh, their voice, their being. It is always a risk to have a child, but you have hope for the future which may not turn out the way you wished it to be.

  5. I pay tribute to Rabbi Chaim Stern on writing this painful yet touching and uplifting lament on the twists and turns of life’s journey. It spoke volumes to me having lost many relatives from a large Irish family and friends from the uncertain yet predictable ravages of illness and time. The sense of touch and common bond with our fellow humans and in the end the emptiness of uncertainty. We live in hope shaped by the human experience.

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