Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26 )
GOOD MORNING! Anyone living in a God-driven world knows that things don’t happen by accident – there are no "coincidences.”
A significant portion of this week’s Torah reading is dedicated to the end of life issues of our patriarch Jacob, his eventual death, and funeral procession. Remarkably, just last week I was called to a meeting with Rabbi Yaakov Lyons who works for South Florida Jewish Cemetery (SFJC.org), a charitable organization dedicated to seeing that all Jews have a traditional Jewish burial.
Aside from helping indigent Jews afford the otherwise very expensive costs associated with funerals and burials, this organization is dedicated to steering people away from cremations and toward a traditional Jewish burial.
This particular issue was VERY near and dear to our beloved friend and teacher Rabbi Kalman Packouz, of blessed memory. He would spare no expense or effort to try to convince bereaved families not to cremate their loved ones. This week’s discussion is dedicated to this very important issue and includes some of his remarks on this topic.
I would like to start by relaying some information about what a "traditional Jewish burial” entails. For thousands of years, Jewish communities around the world have had local organizations dedicated to the important task of properly burying members of the Jewish community. This group is called the Chevra Kadisha – Holy Society.
Their holy work is known in Hebrew as chessed shel emes – the ultimate kindness; after all, the dead cannot repay their kindness. This term is derived from this week’s Torah portion in which our forefather Jacob asked his son Joseph to fulfill his wishes for his death and burial plans (Genesis 47:29).
The Jewish men and women who oversee this sacred obligation ensure that the bodies of deceased Jews are prepared for burial according to Jewish tradition and are protected from desecration, willful or not, until burial. Two of the main requirements are the showing of proper respect for a corpse and the ritual cleansing of the body and subsequent dressing for burial.
At the heart of the society's function is the ritual of tahara – purification. The body is first thoroughly cleansed and then ritually purified by water. It is then dressed in shrouds of white muslin or linen and the casket is closed – except in Israel, where a casket is generally not used.
Burial in the ground is extremely important because one of the fundamental principles of the Jewish faith is the staunch belief in the eventual resurrection of dead. Burying a person begins the process of rebirth; in fact, the Hebrew word for grave – kever – is also the word for womb. Thus, burying someone is akin to planting a seed.
Cremation is antithetical to everything Jews believe. To wit; traditional Jewish cemeteries will not bury the ashes of those who are cremated. Below are some of Rabbi Packouz’s comments on this topic.
The time to decide how to bury is before a loved one passes away. It is a great kindness to your relatives to think this through and make your arrangements in advance. The more information a person has, the better decision he will make. Here are 5 perspectives regarding cremation vs. burial: Spiritual, Philosophical, Practical, Jewish Consciousness, Lessons for the Living:
1. SPIRITUAL: The Torah teaches that life is a gift from the Almighty. We are created with a soul and a body. However, our essence is the soul. The body is a vessel on loan from the Almighty to house the soul. Like all objects that are on loan, we are obligated to care for the body to the best of our ability and eventually to return it to its Owner according to His instructions. The Almighty told Adam, "From dust you are and to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19). In the Book of Deuteronomy 21:23, the Almighty says, "You shall surely bury him."
2. PHILOSOPHICAL: How we treat our dead tells us a lot about ourselves and our society. After everything is said and done, do we burn things we love? We burn trash and bury treasure! Cremation destroys the body, symbolizing and promoting the marginalization of the worth of physical life and of the individual.
3. PRACTICAL: Some people think that cremation is ecological. No. It consumes a tremendous amount of fossil fuels and generates toxic wastes, particularly heavy metals (in 2005, the EPA estimated that 6,600 pounds of mercury was vaporized into the air via cremation, which eventually finds its way back into the waterways, the fish, and the ecosystem).
Oftentimes, parents will opt for cremation thinking that they are doing their children a favor by saving them money, but cremation robs the children of having a grave to visit. Even though an urn is portable and may seem easier for geographically dispersed children – how many urns can a child take with him through multiple moves in a lifetime? What happens to those urns with the next generation?
People think that cremation is antiseptic and wholesome. One moment a body, the next moment a sealed urn of fine ashes. The reality: Even after incineration, cremation does not reduce everything to ashes. Actually, the ashes are discarded. The bones are ground and put in the urn. Is this the final honor we wish to give our loved ones?
4. JEWISH CONSCIOUSNESS: After the Holocaust it is hard to believe that a Jew could request to be cremated or agree to cremate another Jew. I can only imagine Adolph Hitler, may his name and memory be blotted out, laughing with glee and saying, "What I failed to do to all of the Jews, they are now doing to themselves!"
5. LESSONS FOR THE LIVING: Graves are not wasted land. We, the living, need them. Graves teach about life's finality – not to be over-focused on acquisitions or ego. They connect us to each other through commemorating loved ones. They remind us of love, devotion, and bonds that we don't always feel in the present – the importance of the affection given from parent to child, grandparent to grandchild.
Graves motivate us to consider what will be written on our epitaphs – what will be my contribution? How will I be remembered? Graves obligate us to assure their maintenance and perhaps to visit. We need obligations to be fully human. We need to be reminded that our lives are important and that we will be remembered. That the world will take note, in some way, that we lived. That we died. That our lives had meaning.
There is a national organization of Jewish Burial Societies, it’s called NASCK (National Association of Chevra Kadisha). Because of the lessons gained from this week’s Torah portion, this is the week that NASCK organizes synagogues all over the country to host a TEAM (Traditional End-of-life Awareness Movement) Shabbat. Please go to their websites (NASCK.org and TeamShabbos.org respectively) to learn more.
I will leave you with a last and rather macabre thought on the subject – "Cremation is one way to ensure that you end up with a hot smoking body."
Vayechi, Genesis 47:28 - 50:26
The parsha, Torah portion, opens with Jacob on his deathbed 17 years after arriving in Egypt. Jacob blesses Joseph's two sons, Manasseh (Menashe) and Ephraim (to this day it is a tradition to bless our sons every Shabbat evening with the blessing, "May the Almighty make you like Ephraim and Manasseh" — they grew up in the Diaspora amongst foreign influences and still remained devoted to the Torah. The Shabbat evening blessing for girls is "to be like Sarah, Rivka, Rachel, and Leah"). He then individually blesses each of his sons. The blessings are prophetic and give reproof, where necessary.
A large retinue from Pharaoh's court accompanies the family to Hebron to bury Jacob in the Ma'arat Hamachpela, the burial cave purchased by Abraham. The Torah portion ends with the death of Joseph and his binding the Israelites to bring his remains with them for burial when they are redeemed from slavery and go to the land of Israel. Thus ends the book of Genesis!
(or go to http://www.aish.com/sh/c/)
Guatemala 5:31 - Hong Kong 5:39 - Honolulu 5:48
J'Burg 6:46 - London 3:57 - Los Angeles 4:38
Melbourne 8:27 - Mexico City 5:57 - Miami 5:29 - Moscow 4:01
New York 4:29 - Singapore 6:55 - Toronto 4:42
Everybody wants to go to heaven
but no one wants to die.