Presented at the 2nd Chevra Kadisha Conference, Las Vegas, June 2004

Lynn Greenhough -

From Jewish mysticism we learn that there is a need to remove the tum’ah that we have brought upon ourselves during our lifetime. The taharah procedure is designed to remove that tum’ah. It also offers the hope that God will remove the tum’ah that death causes (i.e. tum’as mais – the impurity of death). It therefore symbolically represents a hope and a prayer for a resurrection and for eternal life in the world to come.

When I was first asked to speak about the liturgy of taharah, I must admit to feeling overwhelmed. I cannot tell you how many times I sat at my computer, texts lining my desk, and facing a wall, blank pages, scattered thoughts.

It was as if some meaning of death ritual eluded me; I did not yet understand what was in the room with me. I could sense it, but couldn’t name it. Eventually in some small ways I began to sense a connection with the changes in my own life, a connection with some of the grieving that was balanced against a sense of hope I held for my own future. I was getting married at 52; doors were opening and doors were closing.

Death was in the room and yet I was alive. I am usually not a person given to last minute preparations and as the days went on I found myself both puzzled and panicked by my procrastinations. It was also becoming confusing looking through my saved files at the variations of incomplete approaches to the topic.

So one day I decided to approach this topic as personally as I seemed to be feeling it.

What I am about to present today is part of my journey, and I hope, will reflect part of the soul-journey that those of us in a Chevra Kadisha may be witness to.

I am hoping my thoughts will, in some small part, reflect back to us some of the musings of Zachariah, of Isaiah, of Kohelet.  Their reflections and their visions, while often mystically ecstatic, if not indecipherable, have become very much part of our journey as Jews, in life and in death.

We learn through their words; words that were once embedded in living memory. We re-live the catastrophic destruction of the Temple and the attendant loss of the functions of the Kohanim and Leviim. We re-live our return from galut, from the exile of Bavel. Within these visions we find the hein, the chesed, and the rachmanes that will guide us forward today, even as our landscape may appear bleak, empty, in ruins.

In Victoria I am not only involved with the Chevra KadIsha I teach in our Hebrew School. Just recently I have also resumed work I did for a number of years – that of teaching the B’nei Mitzvah students. One of my students has been working on his d’rash for his Bar Mitzvah in July. His parahash is Balak, and his haftarah is taken from Micah. Micah’s words as the Haftarah ends are truly prophetic – “He has told you O man, what is good, and what God seeks from you; only the performance of justice, the love of kindness, and walking humbly with your God.”

These words reverberated within me as I was thinking about the manner in which we come to do this work in our Chevrot. The ritual of taharah resonates with the values of tzedakah, with justice, with chesed, with loving-kindnesses. As we walk with God, modestly, humbly, so do we stand before our now dead loved ones. As we walk in God’s pathway of halachah; so we attend our dead, with ritual and careful attention, from shmirah to taharah to levayah.

As God prepared Moshe Rabbenu for his burial, so too have we learned to bury our own. And, although Micah is not named or cited in any of the taharah booklets I have seen, I feel his words reverberate through this work of our hands.

Zechariah and Isaiah, not Micah, are in the room with us. These two prophets were writing after the fall of the First Temple. Jews were returning to eretz Yisrael from Bavel, from Babylon. Zechariah was urging them to re-build their Temple, re-build their lives in this land that God had promised to the Jews.

Zechariah and Isaiah speak to us in images that soar like eagle’s wings, images that resonate with the grandeur and awe that the Kohen Gadol must have felt as he stood before the Holy of Holies. Their images stir us profoundly, even as, on many occasions, their images may soar almost beyond our reach.

Zechariah is telling us to pick up the stone, carve out the walls, build the Temple, make it our home again. Is there a suggestion perhaps that within Olam HaBa we may find our Mishkan HaBa? And, that by dressing the metah in tachrichim, we may be preparing her neshamah to enter such a Mishkan? Images reverberate within images.

Just as we may make ready each metah, dressing her in a linen kittel, avnet, and michnasayim, we plead with God to recognize the worth of her deeds; that the very mitzvoth she has performed in this lifetime will transform from linen to light-filled shining raiment. Her garments thus, in Olam haBa, will radiate the worthiness of her deeds, her tzedakah, thereby invoking the compassion, the rachmanes of God.  And yet even as we read of Zechariah’s mystical vision we are filling buckets of water, cleaning nail polish, mopping tables.

This counterbalance of earthiness and flights of poetry I think reflects very much the balance we negotiate while performing a taharah. We are washing a physical body, checking fingernails, cleaning between her toes. We carefully daub the body that has housed her neshamah. We may even sense the presence of this same neshamah now hovering in the room, hovering in a liminality of presence, reflecting the Shechinah, God’s own liminal Presence here in this lifetime, on this earth. 

We are matter-of-fact yet gentle; imbued with the sanctity of the presence of the neshamah before us, yet carefully attentive to the most prosaic of details. Is there a time when we are more aware of how utterly sacred the breath of life is, than the times of birthing and dying? We are mid-wives, women amongst women, drawing upon our years of washing behind ears, and brushing hair ever so gently, and gently folding arms into too-tight sleeves.

God breathed life in us, God made adam from adamah. We were clay; heavy, formless, damp, yet full of the potential we call chayeem, life. God’s ruach gave us shape and, in turn, gave us our own ruach, our own neshamah, our own nefesh. And just as breath has an emanation, so too we have a tradition of signing niggunim, song-breath, an emanation that brings a haunting sweetness and a lyrical connection between us. Some Chevra members may include a niggun during their taharah, breathing a tune wordless, sad yet full, saturating the room with a melancholy memory.

In the dailyness of our lives as Jews, we are often reminded of our covenantal status with HaShem. We do as we have been asked by God to do. In our dress, in our choices of food, how we eat that food, how we share our wealth; our activities reflect God’s presence in this infinite cycle of Creating that is God’s avodah.

Avoda: such a remarkable concept/word. Avodah is both the work of our hands and measure of our whole-hearted service to God. Avodah connects each Jew within k’lal Yisroel to God; each Jew to each other; and each of us to our own neshamah. The ecology of the very mitzvoth is found in the multiple layers of this profound word. The word avodah reflects a wholeness of system and a small moment within; a particularity of purpose that is a fractal of Echad.

I propose that this idea/ideal of avodah informs the tefillot as we wash, and bathe and dress a metah. We do and we serve. We do and then in an act oft remendous chutzpah, we ask God to do as we have done. We ask God to bring His generosity, His boundless capaciousness to forgive this soul, and to cleanse this neshamah just as we have done. And we ask this neshamah to forgive us, her washers.

Taharah is an act of enormous chutzpah. It is truly an act of religious audacity. We are asking God to come after us, after our work and do as we have done. Imagine!

But this request, built into our hands and into the tefillot is not mere cause-effect. We are within a larger circle of past-present-future. We are within a larger circle of teshuvah, of sin and of repentance, of sin and purity. We are within a Temple that houses us all. A Temple where each of us will become, as it we were, the Kohen Gadol, dressed in garments that symbolize the purity of our intent, the simplicity of our relationship with God.

We are truly, in these moments of teshuvah , I-Thou.

Aharon, brother of Moseh Rabbeinu, the first Kohen Gadol was in many ways I think, the arbiter of teshuvah. Aharon watched the construction of the golden calf, and allowed such an aveirah to take place, even as he must have known in his cells, in his very bones that such construction was a collective negation of the Presence of God. God’s Presence had led us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great fear, and with signs and wonders.

Aharon, charged as he was with the role of Kohen Gadol, in some ways would symbolically become the Golden Calf, a symbolic need to make manifest, to make material and tangible God’s redeeming presence amongst us. In Talmud we learn that it was necessary for Aharon to bear the burden of ‘serpents’ on his back, literally to bear the burden of his own sin, in order for him to fully comprehend the transformative nature of teshuvah.

The rabbis teach us that if Aharon had only lived in purity, if he had not sinned, if he had not deviated from the expectations of what he should be as High Priest, he would not be able to achieve the required state of ritual purity. He needed to know personal teshuvah to enact collective teshuvah.

What seemingly reads as an inherent contradiction is in fact a reading steeped in rachmanes. The Kohen Gadol needed to know teshuvah in his bones –if there was no sin, there was no teshuvah. It is only those who carry a sack of aveirot on their back, who feel the burden of their sins, who can then seek teshuvah, seek repair and know wholeness again, It is only the sinners who are able to forgive and be forgiven. We are not perfect. We all live within our own circles of creating and of teshuvah –this in many ways is I think the work of our lives. We need to walk, as Micah so acutely phrased it, to walk humbly with our God. We need to acknowledge our own sack of nachashim on our backs.

Without sin, without personal culpability how could the High Priest atone for our sins? Aharon was bound to this people, who were perfecting an image of their own fecundity, an image constructed from golden reparations into burnished golden faith. (One recalls earlier generations fervent expectations of imminent riches within the streets of the Goldeneh Medinah).

Aharon literally incorporated their doubts, their need, and their spiritual anxiety into his own body. There was no ‘them/me’ or ‘them/us’. There was only an echad of anxiety and fear and loss. How anxious too, we all become at the threshold of death and life. Trust, faith, memory – all are challenged by the immediacy of loss, of witnessing a physical/spiritual incorporality diffusing as a living body dies.

Aharon as High Priest became a leader of the cadre of kohanim who would eventually guard the Temples Inner Sanctum, who would accept offerings made for them and through them to God. Kohanim continue to this day to dukhen, (to invoke God’s presence with an open-yet-closed fingered gesture of blessing), even as many synagogues, in an effort towards equality between all persons, an effort I would question, have erased their role.

Yet even as some of us continue to dukhen, the question of whether we have truly superseded those days of the Temple, where tangible offerings of wheat and blood, of barley, fire, and oil were made daily to the kohanim, hovers. We learn through the writings of Micah, of Yermiyahu, of our Nevi’im; we learn through the writings of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, that God wants something more from us – offerings other than the physical offerings as were made in Temple days. But even today, thousands of years later, our fingers memory still rub together, and our physicality yearns for touch, for heft, for smell. What can we do?

After the destruction of the Second Temple, in some respects the Kohen Gadol lost his job. The Kohen Gadol had, in a very real way, stood between the Jews and their God. Only the Kohen Gadol entered the Holy of Holies. The Kohen Gadol was a powerful symbol for Jews: of redemption, of forgiveness and of grandeur, and of that liminal betweenness that we sense at birth and death. Yet after the Destruction the Kohanim and the Kohen Gadol entered galut, a place/time marked indelibly by a collective longing for return.

When Rabban Yochanan remarked that what God wants from us is tzedakah, and acts of chesed, tefillah, and teshuvah, not sacrifices, he created a fascinating conundrum. By our very acts of chesed in our Chevrot we are in fact re-enacting the drama of Temple days. We dress our dead in garments that call to mind the avodah and the garments of the Kohen Gadol. We enter, ideally, a place of teshuvah. We are uniting both the vision of the Kohen Gadol and the vision of Rabban Yochanan through teshuvah.

And so, the metah lies before us, her eyes, and lips closed. We sense her neshamah hovering between us, hovering between us and God. We are commanded to gently step into this liminal olam. It is a place fraught with danger, with spiritual impurity. Death is literally in our hands. And, just as the Kohen Gadol would spill blood, blood that was symbol both of life and death, so do we spill water. Just as the Kohen Gadol wore a kittle, a mitznefet, an avnet, michnasayim, so do we dress each met and metah. By our entering this covenantal space we resolve the conundrum. As with all, we must do and we must remember.

As we do these acts of washing and dressing we truly are acting in the spirit of Rabban Yochanan’s injunction. We come with teshuvah in our hearts, to do this act of chesed shel emes. We read tefillot that bind us to our hi/story. And we feel in our wet hands the tears that well in our eyes,