Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah
Book of Genesis
November 25, 2016
This portion of Torah is entitled Chayei Sarah, or “The Life of Sarah.” The expression “The Life of Sarah” is the Torah’s way of reporting her death. Death compels a community to take stock of the person’s life!
Before Abraham can even begin the process of mourning his beloved Sarah, he must first arrange for her burial. The Jewish tradition took note of the undo suffering Abraham must have experienced by being tasked to negotiate a burial place for his wife at the very moment he sought comfort for the enormity of his loss. For this reason, a healthy Jewish community steps forward to lift the burden of burial from the shoulders of the bereaved, allowing them to begin a process of spiritual healing.
When a member of Beth Tikvah Congregation passes away, a simple phone call sets the process in motion. Among the most important mitzvot (Jewish obligations) is assisting in the burial of our dead. The group of individuals responsible for preparing the deceased for burial is called the Chevra Kadisha (literally, “holy society”). These are men and women who ritually cleanse, dress, and place the body in the coffin and sit with the deceased until the burial. They are not paid professionals, rather members who wish to represent the congregation in performing an act of selfless kindness at a family’s most vulnerable moment. The first lesson taught to one wishing to serve on the Chevra Kadisha is you will not be receiving any recognition for your participation. They are told, “This mitzvah is not about you, it is about the one who died.” And still they do it!
Whenever my faith in human kind wanes, I think of these unnamed members of the Chevra Kadisha who perform Gemilut Hasadim/Acts of Lovingkindness, not because they expect something in return, but because it is the human (menschlich) thing to do.
An anonymous individual who serves on a Chevra Kadisha, writes the following:
“The experience of participating [with the Chevra Kadisha], my first of a kind, was shocking but also a bit exhilarating. I felt initiated into the clandestine Holy Society. In the middle of the night, fueled by humility, ritual and profound respect for others; an other I did not know, an other who could never repay us.”
“To look death in the face without belittling it, with out denying it, to see in it the deep respect and caring owed to one made in the image of God, this is the work of the Chevra Kadisha.”
On behalf of a grateful congregation, God Bless You. . .you know who you are!
Rabbi Howard Siegel