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Caring for Our Dead, Known and Unknown - Ki Teitze 5781

Friday, August 20, 2021

Last Shabbat morning, we spoke about the importance of providing medical prevention and care to all in our midst, whether we approve of our neighbors’ choices or not. In that conversation, we referred to a passage of our parashah in which an unidentified body is discovered in the field. In such a case, the Torah teaches, the elders of the town closest to the body ritually claim responsibility for the deceased, as they recognize that they are in some way responsible for that individual’s death. So too, through the ways in which we structure our society and through our effort to check on those who need extra support today, we are responsible for the lives and deaths of those who reside among us.

This week, I am reminded even further that our responsibility to our neighbors does not end with healthcare during life; our Jewish tradition also prescribes a responsibility to our neighbors after they have died. In Parashat Ki Teitze, we are presented with a fairly graphic example of our responsibility. If a person has done so much wrong that she is sentenced to death by hanging, we must take her down and bury her as soon afterwards as we can, as “kil’lat Elohim talui” (Deut. 21:23) - that image of a hung body is a curse to God. According to Rabbis of Midrash and Talmud, since every human being has been created in the image of God, seeing the image of someone who has been hung is like seeing the defilement of the Divine image itself. While last week’s parshah presented us with responsibility for the care of a deceased person we do not know, this week’s parshah presents us with the responsibility for the care of a deceased person who has explicitly wronged us. Each and every person deserves the respect of a proper burial, regardless of their deeds and their relationship with family, community, and God.

In the Jewish tradition, pre-burial and burial practices include taharah (or washing the body), shmirah (or watching over the deceased between taharah and burial), and burial in the ground, in a casket made of natural, biodegradable materials. Even though cremation is less expensive, we see cremation as a destruction of God’s physical creation. The body we wash, watch, and bury is, at the end of the day, a representation of the image of God and deserves the corresponding care. After burial, that body is now in God’s hands and in the grasp of the earth and the bugs and the bacteria to decompose and recompose into future, vibrant life. Whether a Jewish person has a large, extended family to remember them or no one to mourn for them, our Jewish community is responsible for providing them with one final act of kindness, leading them into the earth.

In just two years here, I have already received multiple requests to assist with funeral preparation of people whom our Shreveport Jewish community and I do not know well. Sometimes these people have families who cannot afford burial, and sometimes these people have no one to handle their affairs. Between preparation at the funeral home, the cost of keeping up cemetery land, and breaking the earth for the burial itself, a basic Jewish burial costs thousands of dollars and hours of time from both volunteers and paid staff. In a community with limited resources and volunteer hours, it may seem practical for us to pass over these cases of people who have died without contributing to or showing themselves in our community. And yet, I believe it is our responsibility to do what we can towards a full burial, and for those whose families or representatives request it, taharah and shmirah for each Jewish individual in need.

When we assist in the preparation and burial of our Jewish deceased, we show respect for the image of God that resides in each and every one of us, and we show gratitude for the work that God puts into crafting each member of Creation. As I mentioned last week, when we assist someone in their final moments, we acknowledge that our choices, whether social, political, or personal affect the lives of every other person in our community. Whether the deceased experiences a tragic or peaceful death, our communal actions - the funding that that hospital had, the emotional attention that person was given, and the state of the roads that person drove on - were a part of that person’s life and death. On a more personal note, when we assist in those preparations for death, we contribute to a community that will make sure we are taken care of when it is eventually our time. Whether or not our families and loved ones can afford to support us, and whether or not we have those Jewish close friends and relatives to prepare us for our final journey, at the very least, we will have a loving Jewish community to guide us there.

But again, that ideal communal compassion requires significant funds and effort. Regardless of our financial status, each of us can contribute to that hesed v’emet, that final act of true kindness for each person in need. For those with time to spare, you can serve on the hevrah kadishah, assisting with taharah and shmirah, bathing and watching over the deceased. If either of these sounds like a task with which you would be willing to help, please speak with Dr. Karen Gordon, Dr. Richard Zweig, Sandra Ginsburg, or me, or even just check your emails when you know someone in the community has died. If the presence of a coffin or a dead body is triggering for you, you can always check in on the families and friends of those who have died or prepare food for a shivah minyan. If you have the funds to spare, you can keep your ear to the ground to listen for when families need help burying their loved ones, or you can even donate to our cemetery fund, the synagogue, or the Jewish Federation with the specific designation that your donation should be used for the preparation and burial of someone in need. Even in a community with limited resources, we have the capability and obligation to serve our wider Jewish community in life and in death.

In just a few weeks, we will come face to face with our mortality once more, with the words of Un’tane’tokef: “Who will pass on, and who will be born? Who will live, and who will die?” When we ask these questions of God, we cannot help but think about our own future, about who will take care of us when we are gone. Even if we know our loved ones will, who will take care of them in their mourning? We as a Jewish community must put structures in place so that those who experience mourning in all of its variations are supported in their grief. We as a Jewish community must help to insure the memory and safe journey for each and every person who dies in our midst. Shabbat Shalom.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyyar 5784