Posts Tagged 'Not In Heaven'

In Your Hand: A Reflection on the Chevra Kadisha

In our zoom existence it is so unusual to actually have a visceral experience. Everything feels two dimensional. Now when I have truly grounded experience it is a little jarring. It can really get me in my kishkes.

For years I have been involved in the work of the Chevra Kadisha for years. I pause in writing this to reflect that I have been doing this for over 25 years. We in the Jewish burial society see to it that the bodies of deceased Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition. It is holy and at times even mystical work. The customs are diverse and wild. When you stop to think about them it seems that we are looking at a pastiche of ritual. In response to death we pull together so many different threads from so many elements of Jewish life.

One powerful element of the ritual is dressing the men and women up in Tachrichim (Hebrew: תכריכים). There are traditional simple white burial furnishings, usually made from 100% pure linen, are for interment after undergoing a taharah (ritual purification). In Hebrew, tachrichim means to “enwrap” or “bind”. This came up recently on Purim because it comes from the Biblical verse “And Mordechai left the king’s presence in royal apparel of blue and white and a huge golden crown and tachrich butz– a wrap of linen and purple, and the city of Shushan rejoiced and was happy”(Esther 8:15).

The universal use of shrouds protected the poor from embarrassment at not being able to afford lavish burial clothes. Since shrouds have no pockets, wealth or status cannot be expressed or acknowledged in death. In every generation, these garments reaffirmed a fundamental belief in human equality. In addition to tachrichim, men are wrapped in the tallit in which they prayed. The layers of this white cloth along with lack of pockets harken to the cloths of the Priest in the Temple that we read about recently in Exodus.

I had not thought about all the garments and their think to the Priest until a few months a go. David Cohen, a lovely man from our synagogue, passed away and I had the honor to do his taharah along with some other friends from shul. As part of the ritual we clean the body head to toe. One of the things we do to clean the body is to take toothpicks to clean out the dirt from their nails. I always find holding the dead person’s hand to clean it to be a powerful, humbling, and intimate expression of care.

But with David it was different. It was not just that I knew him. It was not just that I liked him and wanted to honor the father, husband, educator that he was in his life. It was different because David took his being a Cohen seriously. There holding his hand and cleaning out any dirt from under his thumb I got to thinking about Vayikra, this week’s Torah portion. Here we read:

The priest shall bring it to the altar, pinch off its head, and turn it into smoke on the altar; and its blood shall be drained out against the side of the altar.

Leviticus 1:15

In explain what “pinch off its head” means Rashi says:

The nipping of the bird’s head must not be done with an instrument but by the priest’s very self:. He nips with his finger-nail close by the nape, cuts right through the neck-bone until he comes to the “organs” (the wind pipe and the gullet) and cuts them through too (Sifra, Vayikra Dibbura d’Nedavah, Section 7 3; Zevachim 65a).

Rashi on Leviticus 1:15

There I was for a moment looking at David’s nail being transported past all time and space. I got to imaging this very nail being the agency of our sacrifices in the Temple. Even if that is just fantasy, this DNA was the same DNA that did that in the Holy Temple.

We have spent so much time removed from humanity over the last three years. Holding his hand in mine reconnected me to our people throughout history. I was reminded of the importance of ritual. Doing this really got to my kishkes. It is not only that the “Torah is not in Heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12), to hold compassion and history in my hand reminded me that there is infinite capacity for redemption in all of us. There is a profound connection to Torah is in our very bodies.


Populist Torah

At the end of Yitro, this week’s Torah portion, we read that we should make an altar of earth and not of stone (Exodus 20:21-22). It seems to make sense that in response to our having just received the Torah we would feel the drive to respond to God’s revelation with sacrifice. But, why the commandment to make alters out of earth and not stone?

I think an answer to this question is found in Yitro’s critique of Moses which itself serves as the introduction to the giving of the Torah. Moses is sitting all day adjudicating God’s law for the people. Yitro says:

The thing that you do is not good. You will surely become worn out and you are well as this people who are with you for this matter is too hard for you. You will not be able to do it alone.” (Exodus 18:17-18)

At the core Yitro is telling Moses to reveal God’s Torah to all the people directly. Torah needs no agency.

The centrality of earthen alters over hewn stone seems to reflect a populist notion of devotion. Everyone should have access to this response, not just those who have the money or the physical strength to make a stone structure. Everyone should have access to saying thank you to God just as everyone should have access to Torah itself. Neither Torah nor a response to it is in Heaven; they are both in reach. In a world with Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook every aspect of knowledge is within reach. The more I learn about Jewish history the more I want to say thank you. Why not find new ways to learn about our heritage? My challenge stands, just as Yitro, that we all find some good people to join in learning Torah. While Torah is not in heaven it is much easier to reach in the context of a community. And the best part is with the help of the internet, we are no longer limited to finding community in the context of the stone buildings of our institutions. Our community might be right there in our backyard.

MI Torah

I always think about how to make Torah relevant to myself, my family, the Jewish people, and the world. Torah is unchanging, but what it means is always evolving. Torah will not survive in a museum behind glass. This idea is well articulated in Nitzavim / VaYelech this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

12 It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’     13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ 14 Rather the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it. (Deuteronomy 30:12-14)

There is no agency. Torah is supposed to be for all of us.  While it seems the plain reading is that to understand that Torah is not just for learning, but rather for action. That seems to sell learning short and worse miss too many students. Torah itself is learned in many ways. Rashi comments that” in your mouth” implies the oral Torah as much as the written Torah, but I still think that is missing the mark. Torah can be learned in many different ways including “in your mouth” (speaking and tasting), “in your heart” (emotional intelligence), and action itself.

Howard Gardner, the renowned developmental psychologist,  believes that there are multiple intelligences.  This graph does a good job breaking out the different ways people learn.

It is true, Torah is not in heaven. It is also true that Torah is not limited to the Beit Midrash or the School. Torah is out there in the world. There is no one else who can bring it to you. It is very near to ourselves and we must figure out for ourselves and help each other realize in ourselves what kind of student we are and our way of discovering Torah.  I am not saying that Torah is innate. We still have to do something to reveal it. Maybe in future posts I will look at the different intelligences individually. For now I can say that there is no one way to learn Torah.

On the recent occasion of  sending Yishama to kindergarten a teacher at the Carmel Academy, my children’s’ school, sent this video to me . Enjoy.

I sincerely hope that I am able help each of my children find his or her own path in Torah and his or her own variety of success in the world. There are many gates to the Torah. I hope to give my children the keys and never be perceived as a gate-keeper. An empowered child will transform our world in ways we have yet to imagine.  As we move to Rosh HaShana I hope that we all reconnect to our inner intelligence and open more gates in the days, weeks, and years to come.

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