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Posts Tagged ‘tahara’

Prologue

Each of us has faced death at some point in our lives or we will face death over the course of our lives.  Death is a part of life.  Yet with each passing death I have to reach inside my heart and remember that although the person is gone from my physical world, they are with me – always with me.

After my mother died, I needed to fill the void somehow.  At the time of her funeral I was pissed at how her sisters chose to manage her burial.  My mother lived a very tragic life and caused me substantial pain nearly every moment that she was in my life and long after she was gone too.  Yet I felt drawn to Jewish rituals as a structure to manage the period of time directly following my mother’s death;  unfortunately that was not what would come to pass.

My road to healing from my mother’s death came only when I embraced the Jewish Laws of Death and Dying by doing my part to help others navigate this process.

Part 1: Tahara 

Eleven months after my mother’s death I took on doing tahara, a ritual washing and care of a body before burial.  Over time, that one mitzvah or commandment became profoundly meaningful to me.  It was a way I could give without expectation of anything in return.  Spiritually, I felt connected to each and every person that was part of the tahara experience.  The feeling of working with a beautiful group of souls that were doing the tahara with me had a lasting effect.  By doing tahara, I also healed my soul from a tragic and painful loss.  Working with each and every chevra kaddisha, also known as the Jewish Sacred Society,  is a powerful experience because each person on the chevra kadisha gives with an exceptional amount of warmth and kavod (honor) for the deceased.  Even when I worked with chevra kadishas that do things differently than I do, the respect of the body and the warmth of our mission superseded our egos.

After I left the Orthodox Jewish world, I have faced periods of deep sadness because progressive Jews don’t seem to value or even know of the laws of burial.  And while they might not be bound by the laws of burial, the tradition is always profound and has grown to be a meaningful part of life and death for me.

Over the past few weeks, my son Aryeh has expressed how he would like to join me in my love for tahara.  While we would never “work” together because as I woman I always do taharas (taharot is actually the correct reference word for more than one tahara) for women/girls, and Aryeh would always do taharas for men/boys.  At 19 years old, he is touched at the ‘idea’ of caring for a mate, a dead person.  He has seen both of his parents do what they can for others in life and in death; how beautiful is it that he wants to follow in our footsteps.

My hope and prayer is that as time progresses and progressive Jews seek more spiritual practices, that more folks will decide to have taharas for themselves and those they love.

"Gan

Part 2: Burial Plots

A few years ago, I had the honor of going to a Chevra Kadisha conference where I was able to connect with others that worked with Chevra Kadishas all over this country and Canada.  At one point, I learned about a cemetery in Northern California that created a cemetery for all denominations within Judaism.  They described how people that were buried in their cemetery would be buried in the most traditional of ways.

  1. with Tahara
  2. with tachrichim (shrouds)
  3. in a canvas sack
  4. in a cemetery that would include only indigenous plants that did not need watering.
  5. the grave stones would be indigenous and taken from the area of the cemetery.
  6. no vaults would be used in the ground, people would be buried in the soil in a respectful way.

After the presentation, I found myself crying silently to myself.  One of my new found friends and conference participant came over to ask if everything was ok or if I wanted to share something.  With that I had to dry my tears and share my thoughts.  Initially, I had to tell her that I had no plans of dying at that point in time nor was I facing loss of a loved one.  But I was profoundly touched that burial could be so beautiful.  In Maryland where I had lived for many years, each and every person was buried in a vault.  That meant that their bodies could not decompose in the best of all ways.  It felt surreal for me to hear that there was an option that resonated with me.  My lasting thoughts since hearing this presentation is that I want to be buried in Marin County, California.

Of course the decision is complicated by the fact that I always consider my carbon footprint and I don’t know where I will be living when I die.  But if it were to be possible and practical, I would want to be buried at the cemetery that is bound by tradition and walking gently with the earth.

In Closing
We will all die and so will our loved ones.  I love being part of  a tradition that not only honors the living but honors those that have died.  We also have a framework for taking care of mourners as they navigate their losses.

Now that I am in my forties, I have faced the death of many loved ones; I have held my friends who have lost their loved ones; and I have faced the loneliness when someone I love has died.  Doing this within a Jewish framework has strengthened me and helped me navigate what could be a challenging and sometimes painful process.

Reflecting back on my different journeys of life and yes death, I feel a sense of comfort in the blessings that I have experienced.  I have buried numerous family members and some friends, I saw my mother’s body within minutes of death and sung Tehillim (Psalms) to my father days before his death.  Together my brother and I sat with my father as he took his last breath.  Being part of the Jewish community and specifically the chevra kadisha has strengthened my foundation as a human being and a Jewish woman.  Saying good-bye to the physical being that we have loved is challenging, but knowing that there is a sacred group of people that are on this journey with us helps.

May we be blessed with a full life, loved ones, and a community that surrounds us.

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Lifecycle Reflections

For so many months I’ve been asking myself, “What derekh (path/direction) do I want to follow?  The answer is still unclear, but experiences are continuing to imbue me with insight on a regular bases.

Today was no exception.

This morning, I went to a workshop at my local Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.  While there, I seemed to be on a different plain than my colleagues.  Thankfully they are kind individuals that didn’t put me out to pasture; I am absolutely lucky to work with other educators who really honor each other wherever they stand.

Our workshop started with a d’var torah (discussion on Torah) in which we discussed this week’s parsha (Torah portion), Mikkets.  In the parsha, Yaakov turns to his sons and says, “Why do you keep looking at one another?” (This is in reference to the reality that Yaakov and his sons have no food in Canaan, but there is plenty of food in the neighboring Egypt. Our forefather Yaakov appears to be asking his sons why they are just standing there.)  The question is one I often ponder when there is work to do and no one steps forward for whatever reason they have.

So when a call came in a few hours later from a local Chevra Kadisha (Burial Society) asking if I would help with a tahara (ritual washing of a body before the funeral), I had to ask myself if I would just stand around and do nothing or step up to the plate.  I had a few excuses why I couldn’t do the tahara.

  • My family was looking forward to spending the 7th night of Chanukah together.  This Chanukah had not been as family oriented as it usually is.
  • My hand was hurting terribly and I needed to refrain from using it for the evening.
  • Did I say it was really cold outside and I wanted to stay curled up inside for the night?

But the call made me jump into action and the excuses weren’t acceptable.  Some beautiful soul called me because she needed me to help her congregation out.  I was her twentieth call.  Once I realized that I was the twentieth call, I knew what I had to do; none of my challenges for the evening were voiced.

After nearly three years of taking care of Aryeh, my now 16-year-old son who was (and is no longer) seriously ill, I realized it was time for me to leave the cocoon.  Now that my son is stronger, it is my job to respond when I am being called into action.

Tonight’s tahara was for a real tzadekes, righteous woman; she must have been a gem of a person.  As I walked into the funeral home, I met two women that loved this woman tremendously.  With time to spare before the tahara was to begin, both women shared memories of their dear friend.  It isn’t often that family or friends can share a story with you about their loved one moments before a tahara is performed.  After hearing a few stories, I felt so honored to be doing this particular tahara. The women seemed to be gems themselves; they were warm and lovely people who seemed to view the departed as a mentor.

One of the two women actually performed the tahara with me.  She was gentle and loving with her friend’s body.  She was strong in spite of her sadness.  I hope and pray that I am always so kind and loving when I perform a tahara; I also hope that next time I look for ways to be more available when someone needs me.

As a progressive Jew, the calls don’t come in from my own communities; they come in from a more traditional community nearby.  The good news is that I have been trained to do taharas and I love being able to give in that way.  I keep wondering if there is more that I can do to help those dealing with the death and dying process.  Maybe.  This will be one of the things that I will continue to ponder for the time being.

After the tahara, I found myself chanting Nachamu Nachamu Ami (Comfort, Comfort my people) again and again.  I wanted to reach out and comfort those in mourning; I wanted to create a sacred space for them to move through their grief.  I felt, as I always do, that I was exactly where I needed to be when I was available to do the tahara and I was exactly where I needed to be when I was chanting with the family/friends of the departed in my heart and on my mind.

With light and blessings,

Chava

PS – My soul friend/sister posted a beautiful blog on her own tahara reflections.  Please take a moment to read it!  http://theitinerantrabbit.blogspot.com/

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