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Clergy Column by Cantor Jaime Shpall


True Loving Kindness – Chesed Shel Emet

Every Shabbat morning, when I lead our congregation in chanting the blessings called “Nisim B’chol Yom – Blessings for Everyday Miracles,” my heart is always drawn to the last two blessings, which stand apart from the rest. They are: “Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the world, who girds our people Israel with strength”; and “Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the world, who crowns our people Israel with splendor.”

These blessings single out the strength and grandeur of the Jewish people. For me, our strength and grandeur are rooted in our beautiful traditions and teachings, most especially the traditions surrounding death and mourning.

When my own father died, eight years ago, I felt completely untethered, like a feather in the wind. It was the support of our tradition, our loving family and community, that held me and sustained me through my grief. From the Viddui (deathbed confession) offered on my father’s behalf by the rabbi in the hospital, to the reverent care given to his body upon death; from the shomrim (guards) who sat with his body until burial, to the meal of condolence following the funeral, and the week-long shiva – together, these simple acts helped our family feel less alone and devastated. People showed up for us, prayed with us, cried with us, laughed with us and brought us food when we didn’t have the will to prepare meals for ourselves. After shiva our family took a walk around the block as a way of transitioning from one stage of grief to the next. Another marker came after thirty days (the sh’loshim period), when we moved to the next stage of mourning.

After the first thirty days, Jewish tradition encourages mourners to move forward in their lives, taking time each day to remember and honor their loved one. Traditional Jews say the Mourners’ Kaddish each day; for many of us, it’s every Shabbat, when we come together with our congregation. Rising for the Mourners’ Kaddish at the end of each worship service gives us a brief chance to remember, to cry a little and to take note of the passage of time and the state of our grief. During this first year after death, some mourners follow the traditional practice of not participating in festive occasions and parties, concerts and movies. These traditions help remind mourners and their community that it is still not business as usual. Mourners still have a special status that calls the community to treat them with extra tenderness and care. My family, like many Jewish families, came together again after 11 months for the unveiling of my father’s tombstone. As time passed, our grief began to subside, little by little.

When we are lost in our grief, it feels so reassuring to have a prescribed set of steps to keep us grounded, because losing a loved one can feel so disorienting and confusing. I am grateful for the network of rituals and traditions that sustain us when we are most distraught and vulnerable.

I’m so proud to announce that here at Beth Am we have recently formed our very own Burial Society – called in Hebrew the Chevra Kadisha. I am grateful to Beth Am board member Debbie Mukamal for inspiring and leading this sacred work, and to David Habib of Sinai Memorial Chapel, for helping to train our volunteers. 

The Burial Society gathers soon after a person dies and takes on the holy mitzvah of ritually preparing the deceased for burial. The process, known as Taharah, includes washing, dressing and laying the body in the casket to be ready for burial. The second function of our Chevra Kadisha will be to perform Sh’mira (guarding). Members of our Chevra will sit with the body throughout the night so that the soul of the departed will not be alone. We will perform these rituals for our deceased members and loved ones at Sinai Memorial Chapel in Redwood City. We will also take part in the third traditional function of the Burial Society, known as Nichum Aveilim (Comforting the Mourners). This will involve helping to set up for the meal of condolence after the funeral, providing support during the shiva period and throughout the first year of mourning.

Many years ago, I helped form a Chevra Kadisha at the congregation I served in Austin, Texas. I can honestly say that to this day, participating in that Burial Society has been one of the most transformative Jewish experiences that I have ever taken part in. The Jewish rituals surrounding death and mourning are sometimes known as Chesed Shel Emet (acts of true loving kindness), because they are completely unselfish – such acts can never be reciprocated. What a gift for community members to be able to care for one another in this way.

If you might find it meaningful to participate in the sacred work of the Beth Am Chevra Kadisha, please contact me.

Thu, April 9 2020 15 Nisan 5780