The chevra kadisha (“Holy Community”) is a geographically-organized group responsible for all Jewish matters pertaining to death, including arranging people to sit with and guard the body (shemira), and preparation of the body for burial (tahara). The 7th of Adar, which falls this year on March 3rd, is the date the Rabbis assigned to Moshe’s death (Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 38a). Because God prepared Moshe’s body for burial Personally, the chevra honors this date as a day of reflection on the work they do. Different chevras and members have various approaches to balancing modesty with a desire to spread knowledge regarding death rituals to make them less obscure. In the days leading up to and following Zayin Adar, chevra members from across the country will be sharing their stories. You can read past entires from this year and years past by clicking here. Today’s piece from Rabbi Steven Philp is the last in our series for this year.
Like most people, I have been taught to be embarrassed of my body. The lesson started at an early age, when I was teased for having freckles. I remember wishing for a soap that would scrub them off. The next day, I would arrive at school with clear skin – just like my classmates. Instead, my freckles multiplied – and while we have learned to coexist, I still find myself engaging in the childhood fantasy of washing them away. Because schoolyard bullying does not stop when you become an adult, it simply changes its medium. Sitting on the subway, I am surrounded by advertisements that tell me how I can reshape or hide the contours of my physical being, to mask the noises and smells of my body, to become something more palatable for others to consume. My stomach grumbles during a meeting and I apologize. I run the tap while in the bathroom to cover any crude noises. I check my breath – once, twice – before approaching a friend.
We feel ashamed by our natural state of being: sweaty and smelly, pimply and freckled, with stretch marks, scars, and hair in unexpected places. The message that our physical selves require improvement is, at best, a constant and uneasy companion with those precious moments that our bodies delight us – and at worst, a darkness that obscures everything we understand about ourselves. The ideal figure that has taken hold of our collective imagination leaves no room for human diversity, its shapes, colors, and textures.
Death undoes whatever mechanisms we have put in place to hide the fact that we are embodied beings. The dead body is pale and stiff, disheveled, and often quite odorous. It did not comb its hair, brush its teeth, or apply perfume. As air escapes and fluids begin to settle, it can make startling noises.
It was my first time serving on a chevra kadisha. The room was filled with a gentle silence, as the men quietly washed the deceased. The low buzz of fluorescent lights was occasionally punctuated by song, each of us taking turns with the liturgy. The words are a celebration of the body, largely borrowed from the Song of Songs – a biblical love poem unapologetic in its desire of the physical. This became our kavanah, the intention behind our movements, as we carefully tended to the deceased. His body satisfied no imagined ideal. Yet it was a sacred vessel, no different from a sifrei Torah. Instead of containing the story of our people, his was the object that once housed the talents, aspirations, and memories that only belonged to him.
As we neared the end of our time with the deceased, the men slowly lifted his body off of the preparation table to place it in a simple, wooden box. With the change in position, a little air escaped: a small, rude noise that interrupted our solemnity. The man next to me smiled, but not out of embarrassment – for him, or for the moment, or for the deceased. Rather, his smile came from that tender place which allows us a joyful appreciation of the body’s textures, smells, and sounds. It’s the place that generates belly-aching laughter when a child farts during her baby naming, the place that helps us fall further in love when we went in for a kiss on the lips but ended up on the nose, the place that lets us find the humor in wiping food off our aging parent’s chin – “This is for all the times you had to clean up my mess,” we say, as we share a smile with them. It is where we encounter chesed shel emet, an honest and unflinching kindness that gives us permission to love our bodies even when they fail us.
It is not easy being an embodied being in a world that tells us to view our bodies with shame. But I have come to learn that chesed shel emet is not only meant for the dead, but owed to the living as well – to no longer see our physical selves as deficient, but sacred vessels worthy of our time, care, and gentle consideration. Let us celebrate its ability to both please us and surprise us, anticipating how it may change with sickness, age, and – yes – even death with the same unconditional love of the chevra kadisha.
Steven Philp is a rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York, NY. He has volunteered with the chevra kadisha in Chicago and Boston.