Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

6 Elul 5759 - August 18, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Home and Family
Chessed Shel Emess
by G. M. Kestenbaum, England

"Chevra Kadisha? How could you do it? Isn't it depressing? Aren't you getting rather morbid?" Such are the questions asked by astonished friends.

I first joined the Chevra as a way of repaying the Kehilla for their kindnesses bestowed upon my family, besides wanting to partake in this ultimate chessed shel emess. But little did I realize, when I took this initial step, that I would derive far more from my undertaking than I would ever be able to contribute.

The achdus of the chevra all working as a unified team, scrupulously carrying out the intricately detailed laws of tahara, is an education in itself. To be part of such a team of caring, sincere, devoted women, is an honor one tries to live up to. One feels one's middos being hammered into shape, especially that of self control. When one sees a particularly gruesome wound and one's first reaction is to scream, one has to remember where one is and what one is doing, stifle the scream and react with the quiet dignity required. Self discipline is the order of the day, and it is the duty of the team leader to ensure this discipline. To see her controlling the chevra with a gentle word here, a discreet sign there, is a wonderful example and lesson.

It is even more inspiring and beautiful to see the respect and tenderness with which the deceased is handled. Here is a total stranger being given royal treatment by rebbetzins, distinguished women in the community. The mere fact that this woman is a member of our holy people makes her deserving of the chevra's meticulous care, no matter how Jewishly uneducated or non-observant she was.

One receives so much chizuk from realizing the self sacrifice each member invests in merely attending. Here is one woman well into her seventies, her determination making up for her obvious lack of physical strength. There is another who runs a family and business single-handedly and yet another who comes straight from her taxing teaching job on a Friday morning. The list goes on. None will boast of her sacrifice, rather, each will discharge her task in a quiet, dignified way.

One perceives, when dealing with the deceased, one's duty not only towards other people but also to oneself. Hashem gave us a body to treasure. If we neglect it, then we have betrayed a trust. Not only should we care for our spirituality, but also for the physical aspect of our bodies, which are also from Hashem, and must not be abused.

"Friday must be the worst day to be on the rota," comments the driver who takes us to the tahara room. But I disagree. One does somehow find oneself ready for Shabbos, even on a short winter Friday. An interesting principle applies: the more one gives to the mitzva, the more he receives from it.

The Shabbos one experiences after performing a tahara is of a higher dimension than another routine Shabbos. One has been made aware of the transience of earthly things and is thus all the better equipped to step into the ruchniyus of Shabbos.

This is the prime benefit of being in the Chevra Kadisha: it brings home the futility of the pursuit of materialism. How can one be petty and quarrelsome when being confronted by the stark fact of our temporariness, our mortality? How can one not strive to be a better person knowing that one could be required to give a Final Accounting any moment?

But the Chevra is not all seriousness and gloom. One is filled with a warm feeling of camaraderie based on purpose. The sound of heartfelt "mazel tovs" rings through the air as we discuss and share each other's simchos after our work is over. The "Good Shabbos" greetings exchanged by the women on leaving are probably the most sincere one will ever hear. They fill me with a sense of well being.

I can safely tell my friends that it is not at all a depressing occupation, in fact, it is the opposite. As one experiences this living mussar lesson, one is left with a more heightened awareness of the true essence of life. One learns to value each precious moment that we have on earth, to use it to its greatest potential.

[We have compared notes with someone involved in the Chevra Kadisha in Eretz Yisroel, where the work is done on a "professional" basis, rather than through volunteers. Not that the employees are any less devoted or sincere, G-d forbid. Perhaps there is room for volunteer workers, or standby helpers, for those who do wish to be involved.

In America, we were told by a woman who sought to volunteer, that while the Chevra Kadisha used to be operated by volunteers, now the work is carried out by women who need the livelihood.

In any case, we have presented the above article just for the timely and different perspective it presents on "life," as we stand on the threshold of our annual judgment, with the Books of Life and Death open and waiting.]


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