“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” – Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy
“Who is honored? The one who honors others (creatures), as it says, ‘For those who honor Me, I will honor.” – Mishna Avot 4:1
The tachrichim, white linen burial shrouds, lie flat against the green linoleum floor in the prison chapel. I’m seated in a circle around these shrouds with 20 incarcerated men who run the prison hospice program at the Solano County Prison, 60 miles northeast of San Francisco. Next to me is Susan Barnes, who helped us build the chevrah kadisha, burial society, at my former synagogue. These incarcerated men (two of whom are Jewish, and a disproportionate number of whom are men of color) invited us to teach them about Jewish rituals around death and mourning.
I look around the room, and I’m aware that I don’t know any of these men’s stories. I don’t know why they’re here or for how long. I don’t know the pain that they’ve caused their victims and their families, let alone their own families or themselves. I do know that these prison hospice workers are engaged in what Jewish tradition considers to be the most venerated work: Midrash teaches us that “the highest act of gemilut hasidim is that which is done for the dead.” (Tanchuma Vayechi 107a)
We are told to honor all of life’s creation, kavod ha-briyot, so I draw on Rav Abraham Isaac Kook’s teaching to recognize that “the precious nature of [a] person’s worth is more essential to him than the lower characteristics that have developed through his circumstances.” (Middot HaRa’ayah, Ahavah 9) In this room, many men feel as though society has given up on them. But I see that this holy hospice work not only honors the dying in their final days but has also restored a sense of honor and purpose to the men doing the work. These rituals around death have ushered in so much life.
As we reflect on the vidui, the death-bed prayer, the men share painful stories from their lives. It becomes clear that this hospice work has empowered them to take serious inventory of their journeys and has summoned many of them to a path of teshuvah (soul repair).
When we’re done, they take us on a tour of the prison’s hospice wing. My rabbi, Les Bronstein, once described the hospice workers who cared for his beloved father as Angels of Death who lovingly and compassionately tended to every need of a dying man who could no longer take care of himself. As I look around the room in this prison hospice, I don’t see inmates or criminals. I see able-bodied angels spoon-feeding and giving sponge baths to dying inmates. I can’t help but think that this is one of many desperately needed models for how we might honor God’s creation and in so doing heal prisoners and reform prisons in America. Here, in this tiny corner of what is our nation’s vast and seldomly rehabilitative prison complex, these men have carved out a sacred healing space where they not only bring dignity to the dying but have also claimed a sense of honor and respect for themselves and an enviable insight as to what really matters in life.
Michael Lezak is the rabbi at GLIDE, a radically inclusive, just, and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization. He is board co-chair of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He and his wife, Rabbi Noa Kushner, are parents to three daughters and live in San Francisco.