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Respect for the dead

Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26 )

by Yehuda Appel

It has been said that one can measure how civilized a culture is by the way its dead are treated. One rabbi I know has found a novel way to give his congregants a greater appreciation of Jewish tradition: He takes them on a tour of a secular funeral home, followed by a visit to a Jewish funeral home, where the body is cared for by the "Chevra Kadisha," the Jewish burial society.

On the first stop, among many other troubling things, the congregants witness undertakers working with a cadaver as rock music blares in the background. The visit with the Chevra Kadisha is quite different. There it is explained how, according to Jewish law, the body is gently cleansed as a preparation for burial. Prayers are recited, and a "shomer" (guardian) stays with the deceased throughout the process. The difference between the two funeral homes is striking and has a marked effect on the congregants' view of Judaism.

A major theme in this week's Torah portion, Vayechi, concerns the funeral plans Jacob made for himself before his death. Jacob was the first Jew to arrange to have his body brought from the Diaspora to Israel for burial - a custom which has been repeated by thousands of his descendants.

Worried that his body will be worshipped by the Egyptians if he is buried by the Nile, and very much wanting to be laid to rest next to the graves of his wife and ancestors, Jacob implores his son Joseph to see to it that he is buried in Hebron.

Joseph agrees, and when the time comes that Jacob dies, Joseph leads a great procession accompanying his father's body from Egypt to Israel.

Jewish tradition places great importance on the "Levaya," the act of accompanying the dead body to the grave. Rashi presents an interesting rationale for this practice, declaring it beyond simply showing respect for the deceased. Rashi writes that inasmuch as one who is kind to the poor is looked upon as being a partner with the Almighty, it follows that someone who shows kindness to the dead (who are "poorer" than any living person), will certainly have gained this relationship with God.

At Jacob's funeral, the eulogy given was described as being "great and heavy." The commentaries explain that the eulogy "weighed heavy" on the hearts of the mourners. In fact, Judaism says the essential purpose of a eulogy is to move people to a greater appreciation of the deceased, and deepen their recognition for what they once had - and have now lost.

"Shiva," the seven-day period of mourning following a relative's burial, was instituted at this time by Jacob's family. Common sense (and modern psychology) supports this notion of devoting seven days to deep mourning after a great personal loss. Surprisingly, however, Jewish tradition does not see the mourners as the sole beneficiaries of the Shiva period. Instead, the Talmud explains how the soul of the deceased hovers over the body for seven days, and the specter of people mourning over the body that the soul formerly inhabited helps to ease the soul's pain.

Despite all the great changes that have occurred in the world since the time of Jacob, Jewish mourning practices have remained remarkably consistent.

May we all live and be well.

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