It all began last Sunday when I received a call from a friend. He said to me, “Rabbi, my brother just passed away in Goa, India and wanted to be cremated. Can you help?”
I realised straight away that this was going to be a complicated issue. A Jew living in Goa! Wants to be cremated! Where do I even begin?
I thought of the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov, that when a Jew hears of another Jew’s distress it is because G-d believes you can help.
I decided this would become my top priority and that I would do all that was possible.
I asked my friend if he thought we should give his brother a Jewish burial. He was torn, but at the same time adamant. If his brother Jack’s wish was to be cremated, then how could we disobey.
I told my friend of the importance of a Jewish burial. This is inferred in Genesis when G-d created Man. He says, “For Earth you are, And to Earth you shall return.”
I explained that for thousands of years Jews throughout the world have held Jewish burial as sacrosanct. It would be a way of reuniting his estranged brother with his community and family.
I argued that Jack’s true wish now was to be reconnected as a Jew with his people. With his soul.
All to no avail. My friend was moved but would not change his mind. I understood and respected his decision. At the same time I was not going to give up.
I told my friend that we should delay the cremation for a day, perhaps we would see a sign from above!
I then called Dror (Chabad Rabbi of Dharmashala) who told me that his colleague Roei (Chabad Rabbi of Goa) had recently returned to Goa after being out of the country due to COVID-19.
I called Roei, who told me that he was based in Patnam, which happened to be the same town where Jack had lived, and that the closest Jewish cemetery was in Mumbai.
I then spoke to Yisrael (Chabad Rabbi of Mumbai) who offered to help in any way he could.
I thought that all I could do was prepare all options, and pray for some signs which would inspire my friend to do the right thing.
Five minutes after I had put down the phone to Yisrael, he called. “You’re not going to believe this” he said. “I just received an invite via WhatsApp to a live webinar organised by Chabad of Thailand. The subject was “Bury or Burn – A Jewish View On Cremation”.
No doubt this was a ‘sign’ from above. I quickly sent this to my friend. He was beginning to waver, but still no change.
Time was running out. What else could I do? I had asked many of our mutual friends to speak to him, but all to no avail.
With advice from my father, I called my friend and told him that perhaps we could bury Jack in the same cemetery in Mumbai as the illustrious Sassoon family. It would be most difficult to arrange for a variety of reasons, but that I would do my best.
He said to me that his brother Jack had known members of the Sassoon family and that if we could arrange this, he would reconsider.
Yisrael had given me a number of someone in London called Dov, who might be able to help organize the burial in Mumbai.
I called Dov on Tuesday morning, not knowing who he was. He said to me, “did you pray at Chabad of West Hampstead yesterday?” to which I replied “Yes”. He then told me, “I was sitting next to you”.
I felt the tide was changing. The momentum was beginning to improve in a good way.
A few hours later, Dov calls back. “I have some very good news”, he said. “I have spoken to the right people and all was arranged”.
Not only that, but insisted to pay for the substantial expenses involved in the transportation of the body from Goa and the burial costs.
I called back my friend. I told him that we had secured permission for the burial in the Sassoon Jewish cemetery in Mumbai and that all costs were being sponsored.
He said “Rabbi, let’s do it!” He told me that the burden of responsibility had been huge. However, after thinking long and hard, coupled with clear ‘signs’ from above, he now believed that this was “Jack’s wish”.
Later that afternoon I received a WhatsApp message from my friend. It was a picture of a bed of flowers in Regents Park where my friend was taking a stroll. There was a plaque on a stick, wedged in the earth with the words inscribed “Jack’s Wish”.
I looked a little closer and noticed the number forty two. It is the number of journeys that the Jewish people took from Egypt to the Promised Land, which we read in that week’s Torah portion.
There were many other twists and turns, primarily in getting the body transported from Goa to Mumbai during a national lockdown and the monsoon season.
Finally, yesterday afternoon Jack was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Mumbai, watched via zoom by all his friends and family around the world.
Like many Jews, Jack might have been estranged, but in the end he came back.
As I reflect on this episode, three lessons come to mind.
One: Sometimes in life we don’t see the route that takes us directly from the ‘problem’ to the ‘solution’. Remember, we must never lose heart, for life is a game of inches. Fight for each and every inch and eventually you will succeed.
Two: When the interests and ambitions of a team are aligned, all obstacles can be overcome. In mystical terms, when individuals unite unconditionally to achieve one purpose, one creates peace and harmony in G-d, allowing for a free flow of uninhibited divine energy to permeate us.
Three: In the casino business, when the house loses, they say, “Don’t worry, they all come back”. The same is true even more so with the Jewish people. In the end they will all come back. Some Jews might have strayed from the path, sometimes by no fault of their own. In those cases G-d causes their paths to cross our own so that we can bring them back home. All that is needed from us, is to keep our eyes open.