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Dvar by Deborah Zafman, March 8, 2014

Today we are commemorating Moses’ yahrzeit and in so doing, hoping to raise death awareness. Traditionally, Zayin Adar is a day when Chevra Kadisha groups gather in recognition of the highest act of loving kindness, which is tending to the deceased, since repayment is not possible. Chevra Kadishas are a community of members who deal with issues around death and mourning. Tahara is the Jewish ritual of preparing the body for burial and the soul for its ascension and one of the many possible mitzvot members of a Chevra Kadisha can perform.

Bnai Keshet’s newly forming Chevra Kadisha is a wide and inclusive umbrella under which members can assist in all things related to ‘continuum of life’ a term I prefer to ‘end of life’ since I believe death is more accurately understood as a transition from one state to another rather than an abrupt end.  There is a synagogue in Colorado where each member is automatically part of that congregation’s Chevra Kadisha. This doesn’t mean that everyone is obligated to perform Tahara, but as a community, they are all there to offer their support and love in one form or another to those facing their final days and to those grieving.

Through my involvement with the Gamliel Institute, which is a center for study, training and advocacy concerning Jewish continuum of life practices, I have discovered that a great shift is currently taking place throughout the country that promotes death awareness and understands the value and importance of removing taboos surrounding death in order to allow for the recognition and experience of death’s deeply sacred nature.

There is a movement on the rise as evidenced by the hundreds of Chevra Kadishas popping up at congregations nationwide beyond just orthodox communities. This movement embraces death’s spiritual significance which has been occluded by an overly empirical and rational world view, a view that holds tight to skepticism when confronted with immeasurable intangibles.

While Tahara has been performed for centuries by Chevra Kadishas, what is unique about the current movement is the particular emphasis on kavanah, the intention or direction of one’s heart while performing the ritual. Instead of  focusing only on the technical details of how to perform Tahara, it seems the emerging Chevra Kadishas seek to sacralize the ritual and experience the true holiness with which death is imbued.

Death is the ultimate mystery, the final surrender, the humbling of our ego selves. Is death not other than God calling?

Today’s parsha “vayikra” means “god called” And the smaller aleph you may have noticed at the end of the word has been interpreted as a sign of Moses’ true humility since he did not want to claim that he was anything special to have been called by God. I cite now an excerpt from Rabbi Jonathan Kligler’s discussion of the small aleph in Vayikra.

“The Book of Vayikra, also known as Leviticus, is the third and therefore central book of the Five Books of Moses that are contained in the Torah. It begins with the phrase “Vayikra el Moshe” – “God called to Moses”.  The word Vayikra ends with the Aleph always written very small.

Aleph is unique in the Hebrew alphabet, for it has no sound. The rest of the Hebrew alphabet contains consonants that have sound:. But Aleph is soundless. Our tradition teaches that Aleph is the voice of God. That is, Aleph is the open space, the silence, the pregnant possibility, the soundless inspiration, the in-breath that precedes all human speech. In a tradition in love with language, this is deeply meaningful: the opening of our alphabet points us to the mystery from which our ability to speak emerges, giving us pause, making us listen before we begin.

Vayikra means “he called” and Vayikar with the aleph removed means “he chanced upon”. This Aleph is so significant that our sages tell a charming and meaningful story about it: Moses was so humble that the first time God called out to him, at the burning bush, Moses’ only reaction was “Why me?” And so our sages teach that the Aleph is small in Vayikra because the humble Moses had a disagreement with God. God is dictating the Torah to Moses, and they reach the beginning of Leviticus: “God called to Moses”. Moses says “I can’t write that!” And God says, “Look, I’m calling you, Moses, because you are able to receive my teachings and transmit them to your people. I am now going to instruct you in the ways of holiness.” And Moses responded, “I don’t deserve or want any credit, I am nobody special – I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I can’t write “Vayikra el Moshe” – “God called to Moses”.  Just say, “Vayikar el Moshe” – “Moses chanced upon God, and heard these instructions.” Moses and God could not come to an agreement, so finally they compromised, and Moses agreed to include the Aleph, but written very small.

Is the universe calling to us? We can legitimately argue about whether the purpose we may experience in our lives is the result of a calling larger than ourselves, as our tradition asserts, or merely a construction we build for ourselves. But either way, we all seek a life animated by a sense of purpose, and we pore over our lives in search of clues to guide us. That is, I think it is simply in our nature to look for meaning. It is up to each of us to decipher God’s call in our own life.”

The themes of ‘being called’ and of ‘humility’ resonate with me particularly with regards to my experience of feeling called to be part of BK’s Chevra Kadisha.  The first time I ever felt my soul being called to perform holy work was when I heard Joel speak at Yom Kippur about forming the Chevra Kadisha. Something stirred within me that overrode whatever discomfort my rational self might have felt imagining the ritual preparation of a body and soul. On one level I was thinking, probably like many of you,  “how morbid” or 'I could never touch a corpse', and yet, at the same time, in the depths of my being, I felt drawn to it and compelled by a force greater than my ego  - imagine what a mitzvah to become a midwife of the soul.

My personal response to "why would anyone want to perform Tahara" has to do with a hunger for holiness and a thirst for an evermore intimate and intense relationship with life and God.  My soul feels called to humbly serve as a bridge to help escort souls from this world into the realm beyond.  I am supposed to offer comfort and reassurance and assuage any fear and confusion that arises when the soul departs from the body. I am supposed to be fully present, open and loving, offering recently-departed souls the most angelic part of myself to ensure that theirs is a peaceful journey onward. 

Thu, February 22 2024 13 Adar I 5784