D’var Torah Chevra Kadisha

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 18 March 2019

This shabbat begins the 2nd day of Adar Sheni, the second month of Adar, which means that we’re twelve days away from Purim. Adar is the month about which the Rabbis said “Mi-shenichnas Adar marbin b’simchah,” “When Adar enters, joy increases”.

Which is why you might perhaps think that the 7th of Adar, next Thursday, is an usual choice for the annual dinner of the Chevra Kadisha, the group of volunteers in this community, as in many others, that, following customs dating back  centuries, does the ritual work of preparing the bodies of those who have died before their funeral, according to Jewish practice.

It may sound strange for the Chevra Kadisha to gather this way during the month of joy, but it is in fact an expression of a deep Jewish value of looking life square in the face, and of holding seeming opposites together in a seriously playful dialogue.

Facing life square on means, of course, facing death. And it’s an expression of Judaism’s understanding of the richness and complexity of life to see that there is no life without death, and that our very care for life’s preciousness means that present in every joy is the possibility of sorrow, and that every sorrow is sown from the same seeds of care that give us joy. Life and death, sorrow and joy, are intertwined in an endless tapestry that make this – all of this – possible.

In a wider society which pushes all of this to the margins, keeping it far out of view, the work of the Chevra Kadisha is, in many ways, joyful. It is of course also serious, and sombre, and tender. But it’s joyful too because joy isn’t the same as happiness or pleasure. It’s the sense of being deeply engaged, together, in life. It’s the deep satisfaction of being able to take exquisite and dignified care at the last stage of a life’s journey, and to do so in the midst of community. And it’s the quiet joy of being reminded, again and again, of the wonder of this mysterious something, so beautiful, and so precious, and so unlikely, that is the presence of life in each of us.

The Chevra Kadisha at Alyth is part of a wider group of volunteers who share in this work across a number of local Reform communities. Men attend to men, and women to women. And it’s easy to become part of – there’s training and support, and the opportunity to learn in the presence of others who have had practice and experience. And if you’re at all interested, or want to find out more about what it’s like or how to get involved, all you have to do is speak to Lynette, whose details you can find on the (back of) the shul sheet.

The reason the Chevra Kadisha dinner is on 7th Adar is because it’s the date of Moses’ death. But it’s also, brilliantly, the date of Moses’ birth. And so the Chevra Kadisha dinner, which falls on a day that holds the polarities of death and life together is a joyful celebration, a chance to mark the privilege of being part of a community in which there are deep bonds of both care and attentiveness and that engages, head on, with the realness of things.