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ELI Talk by Michael Slater - transcript
Eli Day 1 Dr. Slater Transcription
I want to make a bold and possibly uncomfortable assertion. Living Jewishly means dying Jewishly, too. Uh oh, you might be thinking. He is talking about death. Can't we talk about something more pleasant? Or even, I don't get it. When a Jew dies, don't they automatically die Jewishly? Or even, I still don't get it. When gramma died, we called a Jewish funeral home. A mentor of mine, Rabbi Stu Kelman, tells the following story. He heard about the death of a friend of his, he then called his circle of friends and colleagues, Rabbi's and Jewish educators all to share the sad news with them.
Their responses to hearing from him were one of the two common Jewish responses. Either, oh shit, or, Jesus Christ. Not the traditional Hebrew phrase, Baruch dayan ha-emet. Blessed is the judge of truth. Our first witness story about death in the Hebrew bible is the death of innocence. Adam and Eve eat fruit from the tree of knowledge, they realize they're naked, and they hide. God comes into the garden and says, Ayekha, where are you? Now the Rabis of the midrash ask how is it possible that God doesn't know where they are? The answer is this wasn't a physical question, but a spiritual one. Adam answers simply and courageously. Hineni, I am here.
At any point in time, any of us could be asked, Ayekha, where are you? Our answer should be the same one that Adam gives. I am here. Present. Living in the reality of this moment. Let me push that question a little bit. Who here has been physically present when someone died. Okay no doctors and other health care professionals put your hands down. Everybody else, keep your hands up. Okay. As much as we don't want to think about it, we know that living includes the certainty that we will all die at some point. And we fight against death. Diseases which were once fatal are now curable. We have real technological power to fuel our desire to rage against the dying of the light to the point that most Americans spend huge amounts of money on health care in the final months before dying, and most die in hospitals.
We also live in a highly mobile society where children move away from parents, parents move away to a retirement community, and it's rare for anyone to die remotely close to where they were born, let alone, in the company of family. If you listen to how we talk about death, it's almost as if we don't die anymore. People pass, as if they're taking an exam. We lose people. Now think about that one for a second. When a child dies, do her parents lose her, as if she wandered away from them at the mall? Take in together all of these things, drive us away from thinking about death as an integral part of life. While modern society pushes away from confronting death, Jewish tradition offers a different path. Ways of living and dying Jewishly that change us and our communities for the better.
It took a while for me to even experience how Jewish tradition might help me experience death despite an early encounter with it. My sister, Debbie, committed suicide when I was 7 and she was 19. Her funeral and shiva taught me a few things. But it was the 1970s and talking openly with children about death was not commonplace. Nobody could help model for me how to be present for that terrible reality. When I was 19 when my father died. When I was 19 my father died. As we were leaving his grave sight, I looked back and saw one of my older brothers kneeling down to talk with his young sons about what was happening. Seeing my older brother with my nephews was an important lesson in learning about the reality of death even when the disturbed earth of the grave and pain of grief are still fresh.
During his shiva I was stunned to see people who had been my counselors at a Jewish summer camp years before walking through the door to pay a shiva call. Their unexpected appearance said something very important about being present in the moment, even when the moment is a difficult one. Their present then along with help from other good friends comforts me still, almost 30 years later. You could also trace my interest in Jewish communal responses to death and dying to beer. Now let me explain that one. It's a long standing tradition for Jewish communities to have groups called chevra kadisha or Holy Fellowships. Groups of people who take on important tasks.
Visiting and helping the sick, arranging funerals, when someone dies they sit vigil, keep vigil so that - or sitting sh'mira so that a person is not let alone between death and burial. The chevra kadisha performs the ritual preparation for burial known as tahara. And importantly, also, to comfort the mourners. It's also a long standing tradition chevra kadisha to gather once a year to reflect on the holy and difficult work that they do to study and at the end of the day to enjoy a good meal and raise a glass to each other. Chevra kadisha in Europe would have often beautifully decorated beer and wine glasses for their annual feasts. I remember being a young teenager seeing one of these beer glasses in the Jewish Museum in NY and being both creeped out and fascinated by the thought of handling washing dressing dead bodies. Any discomfort I might have had with handling dead bodies was driven out of me in medical school dissecting cadavers.
I had an interesting flash back one day in the gross anatomy lab where we were told to wash our cadavers down with an antiseptic solution after every dissection session. Dead bodies, washing, huh. I could handle doing this. And maybe I really should find a way to do this service for my Jewish community, the only questions were when and how I might be able to. Judaism like every other culture, every other religion, has established traditions around death and burial and these practices have their roots in two overarching mitzvoth. K'vod ha met, honoring the dead and nichum aveilim comforting the bereaved. In ancient times, kavod ha met honoring the dead, was so important when someone died an entire town was supposed to stop in its tracks, stop all regular work, and attend to the burial.
In the Talmud and tractate moed katan we read the following story. Rav Hamnuna came to a town; he heard the sound of a shofar announcing the news of a death. He saw towns people still engaged in their day-to-day work. He said to them may you be excommunicated. Isn't there somebody who died who needs to be buried? They said to him, in town we have a group, a chevra, responsible for the burial. For millennia we have had structures in our communities like the chevra kadisha take care of us when we die. The roots of nichum ayeilim comforting the bereaved, come in the same tractate of talmud but with an interesting twist. If you know anything about Jewish practices around death and burial, you may have heard of the practice of burying people dressed in plain white garments called tachrichim and in the proverbial plain pine box. If you have ever planned any life cycle event in North America, you know that our consumer culture pushes us to spend money on things that are fancy and shiny, even if it stretches our resources to do so.
This is not a new phenomenon. 2000 years ago, rich people were buried on decorated bedlike pallets dressed in fine clothes and their well-to-do families were served meals of consolation on platters of gold and silver with wine poured into the finest glasses. The poor were unable to afford the fancy regalia and fine place settings. and the poor were ashamed. The Rabbis of the talmud saw that the families were abandoning bodies by the side of the road thinking it better not to have a funeral at all than to have everyone see the funeral they couldn't afford. The expense of the burial had become more painful than the death itself. The Sanhedrin enacted rules out of respect for the poor said that all should be buried simply, and funerals and meals of consolation should be carried out with simple honor.
The preeminent religious and political leader of his day, Rabban Gamliel, in a dramatic show of leader ship said that even he should be buried on a plain wooden pallet in the simplest of white linen shrouds. This is living and dying Jewishly. K'vod ha-met. All who die should be treated with the same simple honor. And nichum aveilim, all who are bereaved should have their communities comfort them in ways that respect human dignity. So, how did I finally end up getting involved in a chevra kadisha? The final nail in the coffin as it were, came after the death of a beloved member of my small community. Marian Miller was in her 80s. She had no children of her own. When she got sick, our small independent minyan came to her aid.
Two days before she died, a group of us gathered around her bedside to sing to her. Marian loved music and we saw her relax as we sang. Two days later, we were back in her apartment again, this time for the meal of consolation following her funeral. We looked at each other wondering where we had been in the intervening two days. We were a community that supported each other through all sorts of events: births, bnai mitzvah, illnesses, weddings, and yes, even the occasional funeral. Couldn't we find a way to be present between death and the funeral as well? Eventually we joined with other communities to form a chevra kadisha. When called on we go to the funeral home typically and engage in work that transforms everyone involved. The transformation of the person who died is fairly obvious. We carefully wash the person's body, perform a ritual purification, we then gently dry the body and then place the person into simple white garments.
This is done in a way that is oddly reminiscent of bathing and dressing a new born infant. The change for the members of the chevra kadisha is less apparent, but no less significant. Stepping out of the world of the living for an hour to join with other people with holy intention with kavana. Confronting death directly. Taking care of somebody you know will never be able to pay you back is at the same time discomforting and grounding. As transformative as this work is, for the members of the chevra and for the person who died, this work also changes communities. People who would never sit through synagogue services feel called to do this work in ways that they don't feel called to do other rituals.
By virtue of coming together in a difficult task, members of the chevra develop deep bonds with each other. Families and friends of the people who died speak openly about how comforted they feel knowing that their community is there to care for them. When death tears us apart, the work of the chevra kadisha helps the healing process. Isn't this what we want for ourselves, for our families, for our communities? I had one of the most significant experiences of my life on one of the most difficult nights of my life. A friend died suddenly one morning and our small community was thrown into crisis. Who could get in touch with his kid who were away at college? How were we going to support his wife who had come unmored. How were we going to get along without someone we loved who died far too young?
The night before Jeff's funeral I spent a few hours keeping vigil sitting sh'mira. Driving back from the funeral home I was struck by how sad I felt. And at the same time by how much I felt there was nowhere else I could have been and nothing else I should have been doing at that moment. I had been asked Ayekha. And I knew where I was. Hineni. Cultivating a mindful response even in the face of death is not easy but it's not difficult. It's not impossible. When you hear about a death you stop for a minute and say Baruk deyon blessed is the judge of truth greater than my understanding even if you curse a little bit also.
Confronting death consciously and in the richness of Jewish tradition changes our communities. It makes our communities stronger and more caring. This work makes painful moments less painful. I live my life as a Jew more fully knowing that I help other live and die Jewishly and that my chevra kadisha will do the same for me when I die. Thank you.