A Blessing at the End

Profound Service of Groups That Help With End-of-Life Rituals

thinkstock

By Leonard Fein

Published October 27, 2012, issue of November 09, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

‘Doing Jewish” is a nice little catch phrase, but it doesn’t begin to cover the stunningly diverse ways in which America’s Jews in fact go about the doing of Jewish. The words call to people’s minds, say, the activities of the Anti-Defamation League or of their own local synagogue or Jewish community center, perhaps their local federation. But the larger truth is that there are stalwarts of Jewish communal life whose activities go well beyond these more or less conventional enterprises.

I have in mind just now the activities of an organization called Kavod v’Nichum, Honor and Comfort, which provides assistance, training and resources about Jewish death and bereavement practices for synagogues and communities. Its Gamliel project includes, among other things, information on how and why traditional practices dealing with dying, death and mourning evolved: funeral, shiva [the seven-day period of mourning], shloshim [the 30-day, including shiva, transitional period of mourning], yahrtzeit [the annual commemoration of a death], Yizkor [the memorial service recited four times a year by the congregation during Jewish holiday services], unveiling, keriah [the traditional tearing of a garment by family members just before the funeral service begins]; the funeral service, its diverse components and what happens next.

It takes its name from the basic purposes of the Chevra Kadisha, the burial society that was a staple of Jewish communal life until recent decades. As the Gamliel people put it, their “mission is to restore to Jewish death and bereavement practice the traditions and values of honoring the dead (kavod hamet) and comforting the bereaved (nichum avelim).” Gamliel reports that “in some larger congregations, 50-75 people may participate as chaverim [comrades] who work directly with the bereaved and mediate between them and the funeral and burial providers, or perform the washing (tahara) ritual, or guard the body until it is buried (shmira), or provide a meal of condolence, or set up and lead shiva, or stay in touch with the bereaved for some period after death.”

Of all these, it has long seemed to me that the most touching, even moving — and in many ways the most challenging — is tahara. There is nothing more intimate than washing the body of the deceased, the more so since the traditional rules that apply, intended to preserve and protect the dignity of the one whose passing is being mourned, are meticulous in their detail.

Confronting death, be it the death of a loved one or the death of a ne’er-do-well, be the death timely or untimely, is a terrifying experience. It often arouses deeply conflicting feelings, for we are in the presence of a loss that can never be repaired, of a tear in the garment of our lives. We must somehow deal with the permanent presence of an absence.

Come the question: How do I, whose overriding passion is the pursuit of social justice — which includes the largest questions before us, the wholesale questions — view people such as those who devote themselves to such tiny retail transactions as tahara?

The answer?: With profound admiration.

Life, after all, is about finding ways to join riduf tzedek, the pursuit of justice, with g’milut chesed, deeds of loving kindness. And if, as appears to be the case, people tend to specialize in the one or the other, there are all the rest of us to repair any resulting imbalance.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.