Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 5 June 2021 / 25 Sivan 5781

To Believe Is to Behave (Part 8)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

To Believe Is to Behave (Part 8)
(Lailah Gifty Akita)

“These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world, but whose principal remains intact in the World to Come. They are: honoring one’s parents; acts of kindness; early arrival at the study hall in the morning and the evening; hosting guests; visiting the sick; providing the wherewithal for a bride to marry; escorting the dead; praying with concentration; making peace between two people; and Torah study is the equivalent of them all.” (Tractate Shabbat 127a)

The seventh mitzvah is escorting the deceased on their final journey. As with the previous mitzvah, this does not refer only to participation in the funeral service. Rather, it also includes all arrangements and preparations that must be taken care of before the actual burial. These acts are described by the Rabbis as being chessed shel emet — true kindness. The expression chessed shel emet is a slight variation of the words that Yaakov used when speaking with Yosef: chessed v’emet — kindness and truth (Ber. 47:29). The Torah says that at the end of his earthly life, Yaakov makes a few last requests regarding his passing and his burial. When Yaakov asked his son Yosef to promise not to bury him in Egypt, Yaakov says, “If I have found favor in your eyes… and do kindness and truth with me.” In the Midrashic texts, the phrase chessed v’emet is called chessed shel emet.

What was Yaakov alluding to when he asked Yosef to treat him with “kindness and truth”? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch clarifies that Yaakov did not doubt that Yosef would bury him with appropriate pomp and ceremony. This was something that Yaakov regarded as chessed, kindness. But, of greater concern to Yaakov was the emet — the truth. Yaakov wanted to be buried in the Land of Israel. Why was it so important to Yaakov to be buried in the Land of Israel and not in Egypt? Where was the urgency for him to have Yosef swear to him that he would do as he asked? Rabbi Hirsch explains that Yaakov wanted to impress on his descendants that Egypt was not their place, that they did not belong there. With his passing, Yaakov wished to convey to them a final message: they were merely sojourners in a land not theirs. The Land of Israel was their natural homeland, and it was to the Land of Israel that they should aspire to want to live.

The Midrashic texts define chessed shel emet as being kindness that cannot be repaid in this world. For this reason, anything involved in the burying of a dead person is described as chessed shel emet — because the deceased is no longer able to give anything in this world to compensate for the kindness that was done to him by bringing him to a Jewish burial. In effect, being involved with part of the burial process is a completely altruistic act.

The altruism of being involved in burying the dead is clear. However, there is one group of Jews who are nearly excluded from being a part of this mitzvah — kohanim (“ priests”). Due to their elevated spiritual status, they are forbidden to come into direct contact with a dead body or to enter a cemetery. This severely curtails their ability to be involved in this exalted mitzvah. However, not all that long ago, in Amsterdam, an enterprising kohen actually managed to perform the mitzvah without transgressing the various potential prohibitions. The Jewish community there had purchased a piece of land to create a new cemetery. They held a ceremony that was attended by the entire community, during which the land for the cemetery was consecrated. It was a hauntingly memorable event.

Soon after its consecration, someone from the community passed away. He was the first person scheduled to be buried in the new cemetery. The accepted local custom was that the final preparations for the grave were normally done by the burial society as the deceased arrived at the gravesite. But, this time everyone was surprised to find that the grave was completely ready for the burial. The local burial society in charge of the cemetery had no idea how the grave came to be prepared for the deceased, and after the funeral was over they began to make inquiries. They discovered that a member of the community wanted very much to be able to partake in the mitzvah of burying the dead, but, because he was a kohen, he had never been able to do so. When that kohen had heard that the very first burial was going to take place in the new cemetery, he was filled with an urgent sense of spiritual anticipation. In his mind, he was being presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah, one that a kohen cannot normally perform. However, since this cemetery did not yet have any corpses in it, it was not considered to be a place of spiritual impurity. Therefore, the kohen was permitted to enter it. And this is exactly what he did! The night before the funeral, he had entered the completely empty cemetery and had prepared the grave to be ready for the next day. In that way, despite his being a kohen, he was able to accrue a unique mitzvah.

  • To be continued…

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