Showing honor: Importance of doing so in life and in death

Rabbi James Gordon

By Rabbi James Gordon, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1−25:18)

It was a few minutes past seven in the morning when I received the phone call that I so dreaded: “Rabbi Gordon this is the hospital, we are so saddened to inform you that your father, Rabbi Nathan H. Gordon, just passed away.  Your mother is at your father’s bedside.”

My mother and I had rehearsed what to do should my Dad die on Shabbat.  We came to the agreement that the most respectful, Halakhically correct way to handle such a situation would be for a non-Jewish employee to call and speak into the antiquated, automated voice-message machine that was still connected to my home phone.  That way, neither of us would have to pick up a phone.  Not only would this way honor the sacred traditions of Shabbat, but it would also be the most respectful approach to honor the deceased.  And, plus, it was the way that my Dad – – who was both meticulous and creative in his decision-making process – – would handle such a situation.  

This also began a new chapter in my performance of the great Mitzvah of Kibbud Av (Honoring one’s Father).

Upon hearing this voice-message, my wife Marilyn and I consoled one another.  I then laced up my running shoes and began an eight-mile walk to the hospital.  With my adrenaline flowing at its peak, the journey seemed effortless and passed by swiftly as I played back highlights of some of the many beautiful memories I have of my Dad – – from early childhood to the prior day.  Two hours and twenty minutes after departing my home I arrived at the hospital and quickly climbed eight flights of stairs to my Dad’s room.  There I found my Mom sitting next to my father’s bed where he laid with a serene, peaceful look on his face.   [During the previous six months, my father battled the Malakh HaMavet (Angel of Death) fearlessly, alternating between prolonged stays at the hospital and rehab center.  With the exception of almost the entire month of February – when my Mom was so sick that she was either hospitalized or convalescing at a rehab center – every night that my Dad was hospitalized, my Mom, his Eyshet Chayil of over 66 years, refused to leave his bedside.]  

My father, who valued and loved life, made it eminently clear to my Mom and me that we were to do anything and everything medically possible that could allow him to live a dignified life – – even if it meant that his physical and/or cognitive capacity would be diminished.  While many doctors would stop treating a patient as sick as my father, my Dad’s physicians clearly understood and respected his wishes.  My father passed away not because he or his doctors gave up, but rather, I am convinced, because the Almighty said that his time in this world had come to an end.

After passionately explaining to the unit’s director of nursing that our wishes were that my Dad not be moved until after the Sabbath, she acceded to our request.  My Mom and I spent the most difficult but, at the same time, the most meaningful Shabbat of our lives serving as Shomrim (guards) for my father.  While I had – in the past – reviewed each of the 150 chapters of Psalms, I had never done so in the span of ten (interrupted) hours.  I read through each chapter slowly so that I could fully grasp the meaning of each and every word of King David’s ancient text.

As soon as Shabbat ended, my Mom and I began to arrange for the dignified transport of my father and the process of preparing for his funeral.  While we were devastated by his loss, my Mom, wife, children and I were grateful that we got to spend meaningful time with my Dad throughout our lives and that we ensured that he was cared for in the most honorable manner during the final chapter of his life and in death.

Treating a person after his/her death in a respectful manner is known in Jewish tradition as K’vod HaMet (Honor for the Deceased).  Being the first Jew (Hebrew) to bury a fellow Jew, we take our lead on how to observe this precept from Avraham Avinu (Abraham our Father) and the way he arranged for the burial of his beloved wife Sara and the manner in which he mourned her loss.  This is the first episode that is recorded in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Chayei Sara.

In deciding where to bury Sara, Abraham was willing to overpay for choice land in Kiryat Arba/Chevron.  As the Torah teaches, Abraham acquired M’arat Ha (the Cave of) Makhpeila from Efron the Chitite for a premium.  He chose this burial site not only for Sara and himself, but also for the patriarchs and matriarchs who succeeded them.  M’arat HaMakhpeila, according to Rashi (Genesis 23:2), is also the site where Adam and Eve are buried.

The principle of K’vod HaMet has evolved from the time of the first Jewish burial to this very day to include such traditions as:

  • Tahara: cleansing/purifying the body with Mikva waters;
  • Takhrikhim: dressing all Jews uniformly in white shrouds that manifest our leaving this world simply, without material wealth, and – we hope – free of sin;
  • Speedy Burial: ideally within 24 hours after death;
  • Allowing the body to return naturally to the earth (no embalming or metal casket, etc.); and
  • Reciting Kaddish for all Jews (even those who are not survived by an immediate relative) for eleven months (approximately).

The traditions of K’vod HaMet are so rational that – – like Kibbud Av v’Em (Honoring our Parents) – they are widely promoted and practiced by Jews (leaders and constituents) who identify with all streams of contemporary Judaism.  

In reporting the deaths of both Sara and Jacob the Torah uses words that share the same root as Chayim/life (i.e., Chayei & VaY’Chi).  While their deaths marked the ends of their lives in Olam HaZeh (This World), they also commenced their new lives in Olam HaBa (The World to Come).

We learn from Avraham Avinu that we must do all that we can to ensure the safe passage of every Jew from Olam HaZeh to Olam HaBa.  By observing the traditions of K’vod HaMet, I am convinced that, not only are we assisting our loved ones obtain the most secure place in The World to Come, but we are also getting “credit” for observing the Mitzvah of Kibbud Av/Honoring our Father (Abraham).

Rabbi James M. Gordon is the assistant rabbi of Lincolnwood Jewish Congregation A.G. Beth Israel (Traditional-Orthodox) in Lincolnwood.

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