Parashat Chukat/Balak

Saturday July 12, 2020
Congregation Netivot Shalom, Berkeley CA
Rabbi Stuart Kelman, Founding Rabbi Emeritus

Chukkat is the parasha that deals the most with the topic of death.  In it, Miriam dies and is buried; Aaron dies at the end of an elaborate ceremony and the people mourn for 30 days; and at the very beginning of the parasha, we have this bizarre ritual of the parah adumah, the red heifer.  Every commentator finds this a most difficult ritual to understand, it’s a chok – a law in the Torah whose logic is obscure.  It is the description of the purification process because someone has become impure as a result of being in contact with death.  A special water of cleansing is prepared, a red heifer unblemished is found, killed, and its ashes placed in a vessel containing fresh water.  It was this mixture that was sprinkled on the person who had become impure because of contact with death.  The paradox is that those involved in the preparation of this water of cleansing became impure themselves.  All this, because someone came in contact with death.

Today, we don’t have a temple, we don’t have a red heifer, we don’t have a kohen gadol.  We don’t even have the concepts of pure and impure (tahor and tameh) implemented in the manner in which they was first described. What we do have today are hints, memories and some rituals that are based on these elements of our past. For example, the group of people who form a Chevra Kadisha, a holy group, are those who now deal with death, not the kohen gadol (high priest).  Members of the Chevra Kadisha assist those dying and those who have died, in making the transition from this world to the next.  While the primary work of the Chevra is tahara (preparation and purification of the body) and shmira, being present with the body, the scope of activities ranges on the continuum from bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) to nichum aveylim (comforting the mourners).

Full disclosure. Cynthia Whitehead asked me to speak about the Chevra Kadisha today because of my involvement with the Gamliel Institute, which is the institute for the training of those in Chevrei Kadishot (plural) in North America. And either by design, or by chance, our parasha happens to deal with the topic of death

Members of Chevra Kadisha have come out of the shadows.  In the past, one learned the work of the Chevra by apprenticing.  Now, for the first time ever, anywhere in world, it’s possible to study these tasks in an academic setting, with the added benefit of everything being on-line.  In 10 years, we’ve developed a full curriculum, taught 30 full courses based on the university model, graduated 35 wonderfully dedicated students, taught more than 500 unique students in courses all on-line, created graduate courses, and from our graduates, chosen a staff of 9 individuals who meet weekly as volunteers.    All this and more is the result of a dream and passion of David Zinner, who is the driving force behind Kavod v’Nichum (the parent organization) and the Gamliel Institute, its educational arm.

For first time in history, members of Chevrei Kadishot gather together yearly to meet each other,  share and learn.

For first time in history, we have created an extensive website of thousands of resource materials, including some new and original material created by our students.

And for the first time, there is the beginning of a ‘literature’ which marks the formation of a legitimate field of study.

Our goal is to change the way the American Jewish Community deals with death and dying, and not be afraid to struggle openly with very difficult issues such as cremation, new liturgical texts, gender, and customs, to name but a few.

Now, we are faced with COVID-19.  We can no longer do what we have been trained to do in carrying out those rituals that have been done for generations.

The challenge: to find new ways to carry out the functions of these rituals in the face of new conditions.  I want to cite four examples of what is now going on both in our community and nationwide.

  1. Tahara (purification) – not a good translation, because the purpose of the ritual which uses water is to assist the deceased in the transition between worlds. There are three primary steps in the ritual: cleaning the body; pouring water to effect transition; and dressing the body. But today, Chevra members are not even permitted to enter the mortuary’s prep room to perform tahara.  Here in northern CA, thank God, we have Sinai Memorial Chapel, Chevra Kadisha under the leadership of Sam Salkin.  Together with our Netivot Shalom Chevra, for example, after someone dies, Sinai staff perform a greatly modified tahara at which point our Chevra is notified that they have concluded and have placed the body in the casket.  Around the country, synagogue Chevrei Kadishot have been simulating the ritual by engaging in a “virtual taharah,” or by simply reciting the liturgy, thus assisting the deceased transition from this world to the next. Each synagogue may do this for its own members, showing care and feelings for those we love.  Just as a synagogue cares for new babies and new families, it must care as well, for the dying and the deceased.
  1. Shmira (watching) – Once the body is prepared, it is watched.  Here, too, it was customary to be present with the body, but we cannot enter the funeral home.  Many Chevrei Kadishot are using creative means to carry out this mitzvah.  In our case, Sinai takes a picture of the casket after the body has been prepared, and sends it to the head of the synagogue’s Chevra, and the photo is passed on to others, one-by one, until burial.  Now, people from all over the world can be present with the deceased.  We’ve been able to increase participation in being present with the deceased, so that the body is never left alone, one of the primary principles of tahara.
  1. Burial – today, we can only have 10 people present at burial, which has led in some communities to the streaming of funerals. True, we cannot perform the actual mitzvah of burial, but people all over the world can at least see the ceremony which then becomes an opportunity to say a final goodbye.
  1. Shiva – now, it’s virtual – which makes it both a positive and a problematic experience. How we all wish we could hug the mourners and be present to comfort them in their own homes. But we can’t.  And yet, many who would normally not be able to be at shiva, can now at least be there virtually.

Chevrei Kadishot are now finding new ways to create opportunities in the face of new conditions.

The days of this Pandemic have forced us to raise the topic of death to a level of public discourse which has not been the case before in our lifetime.  We are stunned and shocked to know the daily number of individuals suffering from Covid-19 and the truly unreal number of people who have died from it, here in CA and nationwide.Our congregation has been fortunate but others have not. I cannot imagine how those in the Chevrei Kadishot of New York City have managed with such a staggering number of dead. And here in our larger community of Berkeley, we are in a sense privileged because many of us are able to shelter-in-place with minimal loss. We can adapt to zoom and see each other in that small box – not really liking it, but adapting.  And we can even deal with the sacrifice of not being able to gather physically at our shul, now or even at the High Holydays, which remains empty of sound and community.  What is wonderful is the ability of the Jewish community to adapt to conditions that we face.  That has been the saving grace of Jews throughout the centuries.  But let’s not forget that others are not so fortunate.

This should also be a reminder to write a will, execute a Power Of Attorney for finances and one Power of Attorney for health decisions. And perhaps even to write an ethical will – sharing with those you love the values that you held in life.

So Chukat – the death of Miriam and Aaron and the mysterious law of Parah Adumah.  Our Torah was not afraid to bring up the subject of death, and we shouldn’t be as well.  It is a scary time, but a moment in time where we can face our fears and feelings.  And perhaps we should do so with others, thereby lessening the level of anxiety we all face.  We don’t have the ritual of Parah Adumah to deal with when someone has died.  We do have a Chevra Kadisha to help us with rituals of death.

May we all learn from these lessons how to live well in life, how to adapt in the face of uncertainty, and discover what is truly, for each of us, most important in in our own lives.

Shabbat Shalom.