When Chaos Arrives: Ancient Techniques for a Transition into Order

The Chevra Kadisha Member as a Spiritual Midwife

Presented at the 2nd North American Chevra Kadisha Conference – Las Vegas, NV

Rabbi Alfredo Borodowsky

As the founding president of the Estelle Silverstone Foundation for Jewish Spiritual Revival, I was faced with the challenge of explaining to my Board of Trustees why we should sponsor the National Chevra Kadisha Convention. “After all,” they inquired, “what does ‘Spiritual Revival’ have to do with its seeming opposite, burial?”  The mandate of the Foundation, as its charter clearly states, is to provide for the revival of spiritual Judaism, not its interment! The foundation has awarded grants to day schools, religious schools and many boards of Rabbis; but making an award for the ‘Jewish business of death’? That may be going too far!

I had to make the case to my board and the words I share with you today are a longer version of my arguments to them. To begin, however, allow me to indulge in sharing with you a piece of my personal journey.

Twenty years ago in Argentina you could move out of your parents’ home through only one door: marriage. Yes, my friends, from bondage to bondage. It did not matter if you were 18 years old or 30 years old; no wedding, no escape! For a Jewish boy, forget about going abroad to study. That would have been considered a direct desecration of the Jewish soul. Considering this, my Mama and Papa took it relatively well when one night, a night like any other, over the dinner table I calmly announced, “In two months I will be going to the United States.” The problems began, however, when I continued and specified, “I’m going to Cincinnati.” With all due respect to the ‘Queen City’, as hard as we tried, we could not find it on the map. To make matters worse, the travel agent had a similar problem when he attempted to purchase a ticket for me from Buenos Aires to Cincinnati, Ohio. Where was that place? Eventually, breathing a deep sigh of defeat he said, “Alfredo, fly to Miami and buy a ticket on a domestic flight to Cincinnati. That will be much easier.”

In theory it would be much easier, but in fact it wasn’t. I swear that the day I arrived at the airport in Miami, at four in the morning, a miracle had taken place: all the Spanish-speaking people working in the airport must have decided to take the day off. The only reason for this that I could think of was that somebody had tipped them off that I was coming. Twenty years ago, before globalization, without knowing a word of English, in an airport where no one spoke Spanish, I bought a ticket to Cincinnati on an airline I had never heard of: Delta Airlines. When the plane landed I heard on the loud speakers something that sounded like, “Welcome to the Kentucky airport.” You know, you all have been part of the ritual. The ritual of the plane landing - when people begin opening the overhead compartments a second before the plane stops and you know you have two clear options: either move or be crushed. Well, I was the only one not moving and the stampede nearly terminated my existence. Suddenly the plane was empty. I thought to myself, “Well, I must be the only one going to Cincinnati. Apparently everybody else today is going to Kentucky.” The flight attendant approached me and said something like “sir….” I replied, “Cincinnati, not Kentucky.” Then came my first encounter with airport security – men appeared from ‘nowhere,’ literally lifted me by my armpits and removed me from the airplane. Nobody explained to me that Cincinnati and Kentucky are connected by bridge and Cincinnati uses the Kentucky airport!  I was so scared! This was the instant I realized that I had entered a new world, and I was alone.

Somehow I located a taxi.  It carried me across the bridge and into Ohio. In Cincinnati, my “interstate” taxi arrived at what looked like a giant medieval castle. That was my first impression of the dorms at the Hebrew Union College. I spent the first night alone in the unbearably silent, enormous structure. Where was everybody? Had they joined the Spanish speaking people from the Miami airport? Later I learned that I had arrived two weeks before the beginning of the semester. Actually, to be precise, there was one other student.  He had given me my dorm key when I arrived. He also told me he was a Mormon (whatever that meant!); the first Mormon I ever met. (By the way, where did he get the Spanish translation of the Book of Mormon he promptly gave to me that first night?) Let me tell you, Kentucky, empty castle, the Book of Mormon … things were beginning to get to me.

The next day, he guided me to the dining room for my first American meal. To me, the only recognizable part of it was the tomato sauce on top of whatever sat on the plate in front of me. My Mormon friend told me that this food had the flavor of whatever a person wanted. I thought, “Great! manna falls in Cincinnati.” But after my first bite I discovered the use of a word in the English language that begins with ‘s.’ Later on I learned that it was not manna, it was called tofu!

Hungry and exhausted, I entered my room that night and my eyes could not believe the “monster” I encountered right outside my window. I later learned its name: squirrel. As far as I could tell, as somebody coming from Buenos Aires, it was just a fat rat with a long, furry tail. I said to myself, “Relax, Alfredo, relax. Just take a shower.” Which I prepared to do.  However, as I stood in the shower, what did I find? There was only one shower knob. Where I came from we had two: cold and hot. You turn the cold a little, you turn the hot a little, and you neither freeze nor burn. But, in this bathroom the shower had only one large knob right in the center with the letters ‘H’ and ‘C’. Now, you must understand that in Spanish the word for ‘hot’ begins with the letter ‘c,’ caliente.  I figured that the letter ‘h’ must refer to the English word for, what in Spanish would be frio. The result?  I almost got third degree burns!

That night, a twenty year old, combative public defender in the tough Argentine court system, called his parents and cried like a child, “I want to come home.”

Two days later Rabbi Clifford Kulwin, then head of the World Union Latin American department for the Reform Movement, visited me.  After I uttered a Spanglish sentence he immediately invited me to his car, drove to a large store, and bought me a small black and white TV. Then he said, “Alfredo, go to your room sit in front of this TV eight hours a day and train your ear to the English language.” That night full of hope, I turned on the TV. But the first show I watched in America was a man who talked to himself at the speed-of-light. This robbed me of my immediate aspirations of ever “training my ear.” And yet, I persevered. Later I learned that the show I chose for my first instruction in English on American TV turned out to be an act of pure luck.  My speed-of-light ‘teacher’ was none other than Johnny Carson.

The morning following my lightning collision with American television, I was again ready to return to Argentina. But the telephone rang and surprisingly it was a call from a stranger who introduced himself as Leonardo Alanaty, a rabbinical student from Brazil. Leonardo and his wife invited me to their home and indulged me with a succulent South American meal. They also gave me gave an orientation of the campus and showed me around Cincinnati. Suddenly, my state of chaos, anguish and inadequacy were replaced with a feeling of harmony and peace. I will never forget the Alanatys or the awesome power which comes from the kindness of those who offer themselves as our guides in times we are lost in the world and, thereby, transform chaos into harmony.

Sociological studies reveal that the four most traumatic events of the human experience are: 1) divorce; 2) losing a job; 3) moving; and 4) ultimately, confronting the death of a loved one.  What is the common thread that connects these situations? Each of them entails being pushed from the known into uncertainty; a sudden forced transition from a place of security, into chaos.

This unique, painful condition which is triggered by the eviction from the familiar into the unknown is clearly acknowledged by the Torah.  It is interesting that faced with the extensive list of calamities from which to choose the archetypical tragedy, the Torah does not select the obvious candidates, such as murder or betrayal, but rather the expulsion from paradise: the paradigm of existential dislocation. The vanishing of order by forced exile into an historical journey towards a future which conjoins exhilarating potential and excruciating pain, is what the Torah reveals.

Life is full of those existential dislocations. One of the most frightening experiences of my childhood still remains fresh in my mind. I got lost on a beach once. It was a beach which my family visited frequently and so it was familiar to me. I may have been six years old and found myself alone, separated from my family members. The familiar beach where I played, had fun, and felt safe suddenly became an evil labyrinth. I thought I was going to be swallowed by the crowd of strange faces. But then, I recognized in the distance the advertisement of a Yogurt company.  This yogurt ad marked the place where my parents always placed their beach umbrella. Like the North Star, that one point of certainty transformed chaos into order.

In those moments we feel lost, sometimes we require just one particle of the known in order to defeat chaos. The ‘yogurt’ in my Cincinnati experience was Leonardo Alanaty. He was the one who, coming from my world, provided me with a familiar connection which helped me build my new world. It is an experience that leaves you wondering how it is that the small flame of the familiar can dissipate so much darkness of uncertainty. In the Jewish journey this miracle is captured by the story of Hanukah. The ultimate impurity and desecration which covered the very navel of the universe, the Temple in Jerusalem, is dissolved by the small everlasting flame of the last remaining jar of pure oil.   This clear particle which dwells in the midst of the densest darkness is acknowledged by the Jewish mystics. The soul contains a simple pure point, a nekuda a pshuta v’tehorah she va’neshama, which once we tap into releases positive energy.

Did you ever wonder why after taking the first step on the moon the astronauts planted a flag?  Not just to take possession of a really large piece of real estate! Confronted with an unfamiliar territory the spatial explorers could not continue their journey without establishing a known place to which to return; a point of departure from and through which to map their adventure. In the same way, cities erect obelisks or create a monument or fountain around which religious and governmental buildings are located, and this is regarded as the city’s center. This is reminiscent of the tall totem which in the ancient village marked the navel of the universe, an axis mundi, which connected the terrestrial with the divine. In the Jewish collection of imagery this is manifested in Jacob’s ladder and the stone located at the very center of the Temple. We all long for an origin to which we can refer in times of chaos. We sit in the same chair around the family table and sleep on the same side of the bed. All of these are manifestations of our need to conquer chaos by establishing a fixed, unshakable, identifiable point in the universe. In the Jewish tradition this point is called makom kavua, “the fixed place.”  Jewish law prescribes that the same seat must be reserved for the regular attendee in the synagogue. It is a finite, certain point in the material universe to reach and be reached by the eternal. In the temporal domain this point is called Shabbat. A time from which the chaotic week is built as we count the days, one day to the Shabbat, two days to the Shabbat…and so on.  

We desperately need to contain chaos within the confines of the certain. I was once told about a woman who always bore a sad expression. One day she came to the synagogue with a radiant smile. The Rabbi asked her if she had received good news. She responded with excitement saying, “My son is autistic.” Why would a mother rejoice in her child’s autism? The joy emerged from the fact that now she can name her child’s and her own pain and contain it within the domain of the known. She can read about autism in the medical journals or join a support group. She can now communicate and share her pain with others by using known categories. Her child is no longer an anomaly, a lonely island of pain. In the imagery of the Torah this is conveyed within the very act of creation. God transforms the primordial chaos by naming it. “Let there be light,” and darkness was dispelled.  Chaos is controlled though the creation of categories. Each element is nicely stored in containers called days. In this light, Genesis chapter one is not about the order of creation but the creation of order. Reflections of the divine, following the commandment to procreate, Adam and Eve are ordered to name the animals. God, Adam and Eve, and the mother of the autistic child confront chaos equipped with the power of naming, of confining the surrounding chaos within categories.

Before I came to Las Vegas I happened to visit for the first time “The Container Store.” In my home we have only one container…the house itself! Who would have ever predicted that a whole store dedicated just to containers would be so successful? As we hear more and more testimonies of people feeling broken in our society the need for personal organizers, or containers made of plastic or rubber, becomes insatiable. In the universe of religion these vessels are made out of ritual. They are the existential blocks of Lego through which we shape chaos into the bearable. It is through this prism that the complex web of Jewish law should be understood. Our normative obsession between the allowed and the forbidden - manifesting itself in an endless list of dichotomies of such things as kosher and excluded animals, Shabbat and weekday, Israel and other nations, the land of Israel and the rest of the world, and the bizarre prohibition of mixing linen and wool – is simply an attempt to master chaos. Mimicking the Creator who generated the cosmos by separating the primordial shapeless waters, we diligently dissect reality in search of order.  When chaos erupts and the dams of meaning crack, we feel such pain! At the close of every Shabbat as we experience the extra soul of Shabbat being “evicted” from our being, we fall into despair. We begin our farewell ceremony called Havdalah with a supplication, “Behold, God is my unfailing help, in whom I will trust and not be afraid…I raise up the Cup of Salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord.” It is not surprising that the very ritual of transition between the harmony of Shabbat and the potential chaos of the week is called Havdalah, “separation.” Neither is it shocking that the ritual concludes with a rhythmic series of dichotomies such as “holy” and “ordinary, ” “light” and “darkness.” Where do we place our broken soul if not into some meaningful categories?

Imagine, because that’s the most we can do, just imagine, the pain created by the ultimate eviction of the soul: death! In the words of philosopher John O’Donohue in his book Beauty, death is a “forced eviction from the world and from the body, the only home we know.” With every arrival of death, the expulsion from paradise, the close of Shabbat and all other existential dislocations are summoned. As the soul of the departed travels to the next world, the immediate family is also expelled from the world. However, they do not have a further destination for they must remain within the pain of the nowhere. Because the life of those we love is like a totem, a flag on a strange moon, a fixed place at the synagogue or at the family table and when it suddenly evaporates we sink into unbearable disorientation. And it is at that very point that you, members of the Chevra Kadisha, enter the unwanted land of chaos and extend your arms gently and slowly pull us back into the world. When death paralyzes and silences us, you come armed with the rituals which express our unfathomable pain.  You help us tear our garments manifesting our shattered hearts. By embracing us within tradition you rescue us from the wasteland of death into the realm of our peoples’ ageless rituals dispelling the unbearable pain of loneliness and abnormality. In partnership with the clergy you are our ultimate guides through chaos. Every body you wash, every body you carefully dress, as it was done from generation to generation, turns exile into love.  Every night you spend praying next to the deceased, chaos is evicted!

Once again in the words of John O’Donohue, “Birth is appearance; death is disappearance, or the reverse for all we know.”   In essence you are the spiritual midwives who deliver one soul into the next world and guide others back into their own. 

I was born to a new life in America and I remember how I cried during that transition. I know about saying goodbye to friends and family as I walk into the uncertain. I will never forget the ones who, at those times of my brokenness, became my guides transforming deep feelings of inadequacy and rejection into a second chance at life. And you, my friends who belong to the Chevra Kadisha, you are spiritual life vests when the soul begins to sink into the darkness of silence and death.  

And that’s why, dear board, we must sponsor the National Chevra Kadisha convention.  They literally are “spiritual revival.”  You are.

You are!