When last I wrote, I had recently returned from Israel and visiting my very sick mother. Since then- just a little over two weeks ago- she died. I flew back to Israel for the burial, sat shiva with my sister for a few days, and then returned here to complete my shivah in my own community in Forest Hills. The day after I got up from shiva was the eve of Shavuot… It’s been a very long, and very exhausting few weeks.
I just re-read my last post, in which I talked about the things that were helpful to me and those that were not when my mother was ill. It still very much rings true. Through my mother’s illness and her subsequent death, burial and mourning period, I have, like every mourner does, encountered the multitude of things that people say and do with the best of intentions to make a grieving person feel better. Some help, many don’t. I also found that, as a rabbi, receiving comfort from others who were using the same words that I so often have was more often than not extremely disconcerting, as if I were talking to myself. Their well-intentioned words and gestures were not penetrating my outer, professional self. I’d said them too often, and knew the drill too well.
Perhaps this is ironic, perhaps not, but at my mother’s funeral service in Israel, the person who brought me the greatest comfort was a Haredi rabbi who worked for the Chevrah Kaddisha in Rechovot, where my mother lived and died.
You might well ask why this might be ironic, since I am, after all, a rabbi, and the work of a Chevrah Kaddisha and its palliative power is well known to me. The answer lies in the fact that the rabbi looked like a Jew that, under ordinary circumstances, I would have nothing in common with and would never be talking to. He looked every bit the part, and since people who look like him rarely think kindly of Conservative rabbis like me, I was ready- all too ready- to conduct myself accordingly.
Shame on me. What a gentle spirit he was! As the member of my family who was asked to identify my mother’s body, he took me to where she was lying and so tenderly undid her shroud, speaking softly to me and encouraging me to see her as being at peace. At the service itself, he didn’t bat an eyelash when my sister was among the speakers- almost unheard of in Jerusalem funerals. In Israel the Chevrah Kaddisha controls the service, unlike here in America, where the rabbi does. In America most mourners rarely if ever see the Chevrah, except maybe for the shomer who stays with the body until the funeral begins. But in Israel, where it is completely different, this particular rabbi completely stepped aside to allow my sister and me and two others to speak, and did so graciously.
When it was time to place my mother’s body in her grave, rather than just tilting the stretcher that her covered body was on and allowing it to slide into the grave (in Israel almost all are buried without coffins…. not enough wood), he climbed into the grave and gently lowered her in a dignified and gracious way- the very embodiment of what the ancient rabbis referred to as chessed shel emet, genuinely altruistic acts of lovingkindness. He spoke slowly and movingly, and never made my sister or me feel excluded from what he was doing in any way.
It goes without saying that at a parent’s funeral, one is rarely at his best, and I surely was not. But the more I reflect on that day, the more I am obliged to contemplate the terrible price we all pay (we in the Jewish community), myself so very much included, for broadly and generically typecasting those Jews with whom we differ. I would never have chosen a Haredi rabbi to be the one to help me through such a painful experience. But he did help me, more than I could ever have imagined.
I guess it was the last lesson my mother taught me.