Choosing Life by Burying the Dead

A COVID burial in Israel. https://www.cfr.org/article/coronavirus-funeral-how-world-has-learned-grieve-pandemic; photo by Ronen Zvulun, originally for Reuters

This post was originally delivered as a davar Torah at Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh on September 12, 2020/23 Elul 5780.

In Bialik and Ravnitzky’s classic Sefer HaAggadah (Book of Legends), Moshe approaches death in a most American way: by trying to bargain his way out of it.  “Come on, God, haven’t I earned the chance to go into the land? Haven’t I done everything you asked of me? It’s not fair!” Several pages of compiled source material indicate that Moses was no more inclined to “go quietly” than Dylan Thomas in his poem, “Do Not Go Gentle.”

I was surprised, then, to find that my favorite commentator, Ovadia Sforno, attributes a diametrically opposite view to Moshe.

He said to them: I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, the LORD has said to me, “You shall not go across yonder Jordan.” (Devarim 31:2)

Sforno breaks this pasuk down into three key points, all of which depict a Moshe very much ready to concede his mortality:

  1. I am old. Sforno imagines that Moshe mentions his age so that people will not be sad or surprised that a man Moshe’s age is dying. It would be unnatural for him to go on living any longer – indeed, despite our litany of long-lived antediluvians and forebears, Moshe’s length of days lands right at the maximum of realistic life expectancy, an age only a handful of humans have ever exceeded (or so say the Guinness folks).
  2. Even if I lived, I am past my usefulness. Sforno presents a Moshe who is in physical decline, no longer up to the challenge of leading the multitudes across the river.
  3. Even if I were useful, God fired me. Sforno contends that Moshe recognizes that crossing the Jordan in defiance of God’s order, back in the latter half of Sefer BaMidbar, would be futile, and the people would be better off without a leader who no longer has Divine backing.

In so doing, Sforno flies in the face of much of the Torah I have learned in my life.

  1. I’m currently reading the second volume of Joseph Telushkin’s Code of Jewish Ethics. In it, Telushkin relates a story of a colleague who phones a congregant whose mother just died at the age of 95. “Well, she was 95,” says the woman in response to the rabbi’s words of condolence. “Yes,” the rabbi replied, “but she was still your mother.” At that, the woman wept. “Thank you, rabbi.  Everyone has told me all through shiva that I shouldn’t be sad because she lived such a long life. You have given me permission to be as sad as I still feel.” I will be the first to say that we should not expect to live forever. Yet a loss is a loss no matter when it occurs, no matter how expected or inevitable.
  2. “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.” (Devarim 34:7). I am barely a third Moshe’s age and my eyes are already dimmed enough that the first pair of progressive lenses that my optometrist sold me a year ago may no longer be adequate. This man of undimmed eyes and unabated vigor does not sound like the same aging leader succumbing to creaky knees and not being able to find his teeth in the morning that Sforno presents us with.
  3. Sforno has a valid point that Moshe’s attempted leadership in contravention of God’s decision not to let him enter the land would be futile. I spoke to my shul on Parashat Shelach Lecha a few months ago about the idea of an עת רצון, a favorable time to achieve something positive, when God and conditions on the ground are both in your corner. When the Israelites attempt a conquest of the land after the episode of the spies, when God has decreed that they are no longer to enter the land until the generation of the Exodus is dead, it ends in disaster. Sforno’s interpretation suggests a Moshe who has learned this lesson. Yet the Aggadah says otherwise. Moshe challenges that decree, brings chapter and verse to show God how unfair it is. He begs to be allowed to step down but live on as Joshua ascends to the leadership. He even tries to convince God to allow him to enter the land dead, like Yosef, whose bones have traveled with the people for 40 years. All to no avail. Only after all these appeals are exhausted does Moshe accept the ruling, when there is clearly no alternative. Perhaps Sforno arrived late to class that day.

Where Sforno’s Moshe is helpful is as a model, not just for death, but for all transitions. Acceptance of finality, of limitation, is a challenge for all of us, at every stage of life.

Over the past few years I’ve become gradually more involved with the New Community Chevra Kadisha – I had participated sparsely in the past, perhaps three or four times, but since October 27th, 2018, have found myself increasingly involved in the work of preparing our friends and neighbors for burial in the Jewish tradition.  As a physician, I belong to the group in American society most guilty of treating death as optional, and indeed I’ve always had an intense fear of death, and a surprising inability to grasp its reality.  I think being in the Chevra has been a deliberate step to confront that reality in a way that is not harsh, but loving and soothing, and integrates death into the life I am living.

The liturgy of the tahara manual that we use in the NCCK celebrates the legacy of the physical life the person has lived, blessing and extolling each of their body parts for the role it has played in sheltering and protecting the soul that God placed within it for those fleeting years on Earth.  The deceased is dressed in tachrichim, linen garments deliberately analogous to those worn by the kohen gadol in Beit HaMikdash.  The body is on loan from God; even in its decay and disintegration, we must treat it as holy and return it to the lender.

The liturgy is, for the moment, all that is left to our chevra of the tahara process.  For the last 6 months all our taharoth, like the rest of our lives, have been virtual.  This, too, is a problem I addressed on Shabbat Shelach Lecha.  When will be the עת רצון to return to doing tahara in person?  There are so many questions at play:

  • What if the meit (deceased) was infected with COVID19?
  • Tahara is performed by a group of people who of necessity are together for roughly an hour in a closed room with varying degrees of ventilation. What is the risk that we pose to one another?
  • Should the funeral home get new HVAC?
  • Can we do the procedure with fewer people to lower the risk?
  • What do we need to change about our practice to make it possible?
  • What kind of PPE do we need, and are we taking the equipment to the detriment of someone caring for the living?

The most fundamental question of all, however, has been, “When will we, the individual members of the chevra, feel safe in such close quarters?”  Whatever the numbers of new cases, test positivity rates, traffic-light colored phases, or confusing news says, the fundamental question is whether the danger the virus poses to the people performing the mitzvah is high enough that, even if the group were to decide it is possible or necessary to resume, the individual members might not feel comfortable doing so.  The group cannot do the mitzvah if there are not enough hands available to wash, dry, roll and dress the meit or meitah each time we are called upon to do so.

NCCK is in an odd position.  It is a new organization, founded only in 2004, to address the concern that death and burial need not be the province only of those in our community who identify as Orthodox.  Yet the institution of a chevra is ancient, one of the bedrock institutions that the sages required every community to have.  And like most ancient institutions in a modern, liberal Jewish community, our chevra struggles to bring in people my generation and younger to engage in this very traditional form of Jewish practice.  Perhaps our American is showing; the death denial, or at least deliberate ignoring, extends even to those times when our friends, family, and neighbors reach their ends.  Whatever the reason, the absence of these new faces means that in a time when performing tahara in person has become a potential risk to life and limb, the possibility of returning to that practice is in jeopardy.

I have been moved by these virtual rituals, but never so much as times when I have washed someone clean of the signs of their final illness, tied the final knots in the avnet, the sash that goes around the waist, placed the cut tzitz (fringe, singular of tzitzit) of a tallit under the avnet, or helped lift them into the aron (coffin) and wrap them finally in the sovev, the sheet which encircles all the other garments.  The touch, and the action, connect me to the person’s life, and to their death, in a way I cannot feel while sitting at my desk with a digital copy of the manual, a cup and a bowl for handwashing, and the blue sky and trees outside.

In a way, Moshe Rabbeinu is the patron Tzadik of the Chevra Kadisha movement.  Moshe Rabeinu’s yahrzeit is ז’ אדר, and on that day our chevra gathers for our annual dinner, at which we draw strength from each other’s company, and learn together about something that enriches our understanding of the liminal space between life and Olam HaBa.  One year I was the speaker; I discussed the phrase levayat ha met, and how it could mean both “accompanying the dead,” as one who is a pallbearer at a funeral, or “accompanying the dying,” like one of our members, Dr. Ron Beck, does in his work as a palliative care doctor.  Companionship and presence bridges that gap between the land of the living and the land beyond the grave.  Last year, 2019, Rabbi Meira Illinsky joined us to accompany the still-living, and still-grieving, members of our chevra with the gift of her Tree of Life painting and a beautiful talk on Mapping the Journey, a visual work she did to allow others to see the dying and mourning process in pictures.  In times gone by, other chevrata Kadisha used to go door to door chanting the last verse of Yigdal: “God revives the dead with great chesed” – call it Moshe’s Yahrzeit caroling, if you will…

That Moshe, the one we link with our work in the chevra, is Sforno Moshe.  He helps explain why, in the tahara room at D’Alessandro’s Funeral Home in Lawrenceville, I felt such sadness at the loss of a nonagenarian whom I had known quite well in their later years, for whom I had once bought a copy of Robert Heinlein’s book Time Enough for Love – ironically, a book about the wearisome nature of being immortal.  Sforno Moshe reminds me that while we are still doing a chesed over Zoom, it feels a little like saying, “well, she was 95.”

Sforno Moshe also stands alongside the Moshe of Devarim 34:7 and says, “Yes, my eyes are undimmed.  Yes, my vigor is unabated.  There is much I can still do.  Yet there are things that were once easy that are now beyond me.”  I think of Hall of Fame athletes at the end of long careers, like Ichiro Suzuki, Peyton Manning, or the recently deceased Kobe Bryant.  The brilliance that made them stars, and leaders, is still visible – but the greatness they now have is in the ability to hand the baton to the next generation, the up-and-coming leaders and stars, the way Moshe did with Yehoshua – or the way Shmuel did with Shaul when it became clear that prophetic, or shofetic, leadership was no longer enough for Israel.  Neither Moshe nor Shmuel was happy about the change, but neither could deny its necessity any longer.

It is time for us to find the Shauls and the Yehoshuas to help us carry on our work in this scary new world we live in.  Already there are new faces.  Jordana Rosenfeld, a recent addition to our women’s chevra, has been not only a participant but a passionate advocate, penning beautiful pieces in Jewish Currents about her experience with tahara both hands-on and virtual.

But we did ninety-seven taharoth last year, each requiring the assistance of at least three volunteers.  In the six months since our last in-person tahara we are already over sixty virtual taharoth performed.  Any  macher knows how hard it is to carry the burden of leadership when it is the same few handling everything – now imagine that “everything” being one death, one loss, after another, and a small cadre bearing the weight of all of them.  We need more hands, more hearts, to do this holy work.  In Unetaneh Tokef we will read, “who by fire, who by water… who by hunger and who by plague.”  What we will not read is, “who will be accompanied to the grave and who will be alone.”  Even the grim Rabbi Amnon of Mainz took as a given that no Jew would go to their grave alone.  Let’s make certain that continues to be the case.

Lest we end on such a somber note, I want to share a positive, uplifting reason for doing this work.  Why, after all, do Jews mark a yahrzeit?  Why don’t we celebrate Moshe’s birthday?  After all, in the US we don’t observe MLK day on April 4th, the date of his assassination, but on or near January 15th, the date of his birth.  But in Judaism the birthday is inconsequential – when you’re born, you’ve accomplished nothing.  By the time of the day of your death, you have learned Torah, brought children into the world, formed relationships with people – or like both Moshe and Martin (as King alluded to in his final speech), led a people to the edge of the Promised Land.  When we stand in the tahara room and read an obituary, or join hands outside the room for a final prayer, we speak words of comfort and remembrance about someone who has completed a life, an epic story, that we are privileged to join as the final chapter closes.  In a way, it is like hearing the last exhortation to “choose life and live” from a man who is about to die.

If you are interested in joining the New Community Chevra Kadisha, click here.  If you are outside the Pittsburgh area and interested in getting involved in chevra Kadisha work near you, please contact Kavod v’Nichum, the national organization bringing together groups like the NCCK, to find a group near you or to access a wealth of resources about the traditions and modern considerations surrounding this ritual.

About the Author
Jonathan Weinkle MD, FAAP, FACP is a primary care-physician in a community health center in Pittsburgh. He is not a rabbi, though he has often been accused of being one. He is an amateur singer-songwriter, teaches at both Chatham University and the University of Pittsburgh, and is the author of the book Healing People, Not Patients.
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