KAVOD V’NICHUM ADDRESS
Rockville, MD. June 22-24, 2003
The Meaning of Our Work
Rabbi Jack Riemer
Before I begin, I want to say several things
First, hasn’t this been a fantastic convention? From beginning to end, it has been run so well and with such careful loving attention to every detail! So many things went well that I wonder: what would you choose as the high point of this conference? It is hard to choose, there were so many fine sessions. Personally, I am torn between two: David Zinner’s talk last night, which said everything that I am going to say only better- or that incredible moment last night when they auctioned off a casket! To see East Lansing bidding against West Virginia-and to see the casket going for over four hundred dollars—try to describe that moment to those who were not here when you get back—they won’t believe you!.
And the second thing that I want to say before I begin is that I am very much aware of the fact that I am the next to the last speaker. And that only I and the closing remarks separate you from lunch, and so I will try to be not too long. (Do you know the story of the speaker who goes on and on and on, and one by one people begin to leave until finally there is just one person left in the audience. The speaker says: thank you so much for staying-and the man says: that’s alright, I’m the next speaker.) And now, let me begin:
I want to say mazel tov to you for being here. I say mazel tov, because I believe that this is a HISTORIC GATHERING at which we have been assembled these last three days.. I believe that in years to come, we will look back upon this conference with much pride, and we will tell our children and our grandchildren that we were here.
I say this, because NEVER BEFORE in American Jewish history have people come together,
from Las Vegas and from Las Cruces,
from Oklahoma City and from New York City,
from Washington State and from Washington, D.C.
from San Antonio and from San Francisco,
and from as far away as Hawaii and Vancouver
—all united by one vision and one goal…which is;
to take back the responsibility for death and burial from the funeral industry, which has commercialized it and to return it to the Jewish community, where it belongs.
I believe, and I think that history will prove me right, that this gathering at which we are assembled today will someday be considered by historians to have been a turning point in the spiritual history of American Jewry,
Because what we are doing here today is saying:
To a new generation of Jews, who are hungry for a sense of community, and who are hungry for a sense of meaning and purpose in life—-that the Jewish tradition contains these things…if we only know how to read it, and if we only know how to apply it.
And therefore, I want to say mazel tov and thank you to all those of you who have come to this conference, and to all those of you who have worked so hard to make it happen..
And one thing more I want to say before I begin, which is: God bless David Zinner, who is the driving force of Kavod v’Nichum. Without his endless energy and without his incredible devotion, I don’t think that this conference or this organization would have happened. And therefore, I have two wishes for David Zinner.. One is: may you and I realize how very special he is—and my second wish is: may he NOT realize how very special he is.
And now, let me begin: I want to tell you, in all seriousness, that I stand before this group with a great sense of respect and reverence. Because it is easy to stand at a lectern, as I do, and talk about this subject in theory – anybody can do that. But the work that you do—–the work of taharah and mishmar, the work of kavod hamet and nichum aveylim, the work that you do without praise and without publicity, the work that you do, without notice and without payment, the work that you do, day in and day out, and sometimes night in and night out, the work that you do is truly sacred work, and therefore, I want you to know that I stand here with enormous respect and reverence for each one of you.
My talk today is going to be very simple. All I want to do is tell you four simple stories, 4 stories that I think describe the world in which we live……and then I want to share with you two simple words of Torah that I think this world of ours needs to know. What I want to do is compare and contrast these four stories from the present with these two passages from the Jewish past, so that we may realize and understand the spiritual differences between the world that was, and the world in which we live today. And so that we may understand what we have to do in order to bring these two worlds closer together once again.
My four stories come from New York City, from South Florida, from Palm Beach, California, and from Boston, Massachusetts.
The first story is about shiva,
The second story is about burial,
The third story is about taharah,
And the fourth story is about cremation..
And then, against the background of these four stories, which describe the world in which we live today, I want to study with you two passages from out of the Jewish tradition, that I believe every Jew ought to know by heart.
I want to share these two passages from the Talmud with you today because I believe that they explain, better than any words that I know, what the purpose and the goal of this new organization, Kavod V’Nichum, is. I believe that these two passages from the Talmud explain, better than any words that I know, what the meaning of the work that you and I are engaged in is really all about. But first, let me tell you my four stories about the world in which we live today.
The first story I heard from my friend, Lifsa Schachter, of Cleveland. Lifsa has an aunt, who works in an office in New York City. One day, her aunt came into the office and she saw a notice on the bulletin board, that said that one of the secretaries in the office had lost her husband, and that she was sitting shivah that week at such and such an address.
Lifsa’s aunt didn’t know this woman very well, but she figured that it was only right to pay a shivah call on a fellow worker. So, during the lunch break, she went over to the apartment house, which was not very far from where she worked. She walks in, and she sees the woman sitting on a low chair, the way you are supposed to sit when you are in shivah. And people were gathered around her, offering whatever comfort and consolation they could.
So Lifsa’s aunt does the same thing. She offered a few words of comfort, and then she took a seat…. And then she looked around–and she was bewildered. Because on the wall, there were pictures of Jesus…and there were crucifixes, and there were all kinds of Christian icons all over the room.
And she didn’t understand how this could be. At first, she figured that maybe the husband wasn’t Jewish.
But if so, then why is she sitting shivah for him?
And then she figured: maybe the woman isn’t Jewish? But then, if so, why is she sitting shivah?
And then she figured: maybe this woman is a convert?? But if so, then why does she have all these Christian symbols around the room?
Finally, she gathers up her courage, and she asks the woman: what is going on here?
And the woman explains: she says: we are not Jewish. Both my husband and I are Catholics. But we have always been so impressed by the wisdom of the Jewish mourning practices that we made a pact with each other that, whoever goes first, the other will mourn in accordance in the Jewish way.
Isn’t that a remarkable story? Two non Jews, who were so impressed with the Jewish way in death and dying, that they chose to mourn in a Jewish way! Because that felt that that way made more sense to them than the wake, or any of the other mourning customs of their own tradition.
When I heard that story, I remembered a sentence that my teacher, Dr. Heschel, zichrono livracha, used to say. He used to say: Judaism is the world’s least known religion-especially amongst Jews. And when I heard that story, I couldn’t help thinking: We Jews copy non-Jews in so many ways—wouldn’t it be wonderful if we copied non-Jews in their respect for Judaism?
The second story comes from an experience that I had a few months ago in Florida. I was at one of the local Jewish cemeteries, I won’t tell you which one it was…I was there for an unveiling, and I happened to get there a few minutes early, and so I was standing in the front office, and I happened to notice a brochure there. I am an insatiably curious person, and so I took a look at this brochure.
On the cover of the brochure, it said: ARE YOU A PERSON OF GOOD TASTE?
Are you a person of good taste??? I figured this brochure must be meant for me. I am famous for two things-my modesty, and my good taste. So I picked it up, and this is what it said:
On page two, was a picture of a magnificent mausoleum,
And underneath, it said: all your life haven’t you worked hard to create a good impression? Now I was beginning to feel that maybe this brochure wasn’t meant for me after all, but I read on. On page 3, it said: All your life, have you tried to dress, and talk, and walk and behave in such a manner as to show that you are a person of culture, and refinement, and good taste?
And then, on the top of page 3, it said:
Surely, you want to show the same kind of good taste and refinement and culture in death that you showed in your life.
And then, the brochure went on to describe what it called: OUR ELEGANT MAUSOLEUMS.
What made this mausoleum elegant?
“It said: OUR CONTAINERS ARE FIFTEEN PER CENT MORE SPACIOUS THAN THOSE OF OUR COMPETITORS.”. That made me feel good already! Because I don’t like to feel cramped.
And then it said; OUR LETTERING IS DONE WITH REAL GOLD TYPE, NOT ARTIFICIAL.
I thought that was a nice touch. I like gold lettering.
And then came the part that really impressed me. It said:
REST ASSURED, I don’t know if that was meant to be a pun or not, but it said: REST ASSURED THAT WHOEVER COMES TO VISIT WILL SEE AT ONCE WHAT A DIGNIFIED AND CULTURED AND REFINED PERSON YOU ARE. End quote.
I didn’t buy that mausoleum. But may I suggest that that brochure is the shortest, simplest definition of the opposite of Judaism that I know.
Because Judaism believes that we should measure ourselves, and that we should measure each other, by only one criterion: by our good deeds, and not by how fancy our funeral is, or by how elegant our mausoleum is. AND THE FACT THAT SUCH A BROCHURE CAN BE PUBLISHED, it seems to me, is proof of how far we have come from the people that we used to be, and how little we know about Jewish values and Jewish teachings, about life or about death.
And therefore, I believe, that if you ever have any doubts about how important the work of this organization is, think of that brochure, with its message that what counts in life and what counts in death is how elegant your lifestyle is and how fancy your funeral is, ….and you will understand why we need Kavod V’Nichum and why its work is so important.
When I looked at that brochure, I remembered one of my favorite stories…..do you know the story of the man who gathers his children around his bedside, and says to them: I want you to liquidate all of my assets, and put the money into my coffin. They say: that you can’t take it with you, I want to see if it is true or not.
The children try to talk him out of it, but he insists, and so they liquidate all his assets and they put the money into the grave. He gets to the olam ha emes, and they say to him: Reb Yid, you don’t understand…Here–cash is not legal tender. Here, the only thing that counts is receipts.
The people at that cemetery in Florida who drew up that brochure didn’t understand that.
My third story comes from Debbie Friedman. Does everyone know who Debbie Friedman is? Debbie Friedman has probably done more to change the character of Reform services than anyone else I know. When I was a child, Reform services were very dignified, they were high church, the rabbi wore a frock coat and striped trousers, there was an organ, which overpowered and drowned out the voices of those who wanted to sing, and there were hymns….
And then came Debbie Friedman, and now, thanks to her, Reform services are very different. Now people sing, and dance, and they clap hands during services. Thanks to her the guitar has replaced the organ, and the whole spirit of the service is now much less formal, much less high church, and much more spirited than it used to be.
At any rate, in my book, Debbie tells this story about what happened when her grandmother died. Debbie was very close to her grandmother. And so, when her bubbie died, she decided that she was going to make sure that she had taharah, and, if possible, she was going to participate in the taharah.
Before the taharah began, she said: bubby, if I do anything to humiliate you, or cause you embarrassment during this taharah, I ask your forgiveness in advance. I ask you to know that I would never do anything to cause you shame or embarrassment.
And then she describes how they did the taharah. She describes how washing the met reminds her of when she was a child and Bubbie used to bathe her. And she describes how dressing Bubbie for the last time reminds her of how often Bubbie used to dress her.
And when she finishes, she remembers how Bubbie had asked her, near the end of her life, to make sure that she had a kosher funeral, including taharah. And so she feels grateful that she has been able to carry out Bubbie’s last wish.
And when it was all over, she said goodbye to her Bubbie, and walked out of the room.
The undertaker was waiting for them. In his deep funereal voice, he asked: And how will you be paying for this?
Debbie said: Do you take visa? The funeral director said: yes.
And she said: Oh, good, Bubbie would love for me to get the mileage points, because Bubbie always loved a bargain.
And then she writes these words, which I want to share with you. And I ask you to hear her well:
“Some people think that dead bodies are frightening. Some people flinch at the thought of touching, or being in the presence, of a dead body. I believe that that fear arises from the confrontation with our own mortality. There are those who have the same response to live bodies. The thought of closeness, the thought of touching or being touched, either physically or emotionally, by another human being, is frightening. This idea may be connected to the idea of loss. The fear of death, and the fear of life, may be one and the same thing. That a human being can leave you, or stop loving you, or can die on you is scary. The idea is so scary that it can keep us at a distance from the relationships that we want most to have in our lives.
There was great comfort in knowing that, for the first time in my life, I could do something for someone who could not say: thank you. For me, this was a special gift. My life has not been the same since. Now I am aware of the fact that caring for the dead is the highest mitzvah one can do, but it seems to me that there is a higher mitzvah. Kal Vichomer, how much more so, if one is capable of giving to one who is dead, how much so should we give to those who are still alive. This insight was Bubbie’s last gift to me.”
Isn’t that a powerful statement of what Debbie Friedman learned from doing taharah for her Bubbie? That doing good for someone who cannot say thank you is a great mitzvah? And that, kal vichomer, if you can do good for someone who is alive, how much more should you be willing to do so. That was her Bubbie’s last gift to her…and that is what it means to be part of a Chevra Kadisha. It is truly holy work.
The Jewish people have had many different organizations in our history. We have bikkur cholim societies, and matanot li evyonim societies. We have had chevra tehillim groups and we have had chevra shas groups…There is only one group to which we have given the name: chevra kadisha—the holy brotherhood. That is how important this group and this work that it does is in the Jewish scale of values.
And now let me come to the fourth and the last book that I want to study with you today. And let me begin by telling you that I was uncomfortable with this book from the moment that I read it, but that it took me a long time to figure out what it was about this book that bothered me.
The book is TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE, by Morrie Schwartz and Mitch Album. This book was on the best seller list for 170 weeks!!!! So perhaps the reason I didn’t like it is because I was jealous.
There are not very many books that get on the best seller list,
And of those that do, very few stay on the list for more than a few weeks,
This book stayed on the best seller list for more than 170 weeks! And so it is evidently a book that struck a chord in the souls of a great many people.
And yet, for some reason that I could not understand, I didn’t like this book. I felt that there was something inherently wrong with it, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.
And then I finally figured it out, thanks to my friend, Rabbi Harold Schulweis. The two of us were at a convention in Philadelphia a few years ago, and after the convention we both went out to the airport to take a plane home. Nowadays, because of security, you have to get to the airport the day before your flight, so we were both there early. And we happened to be at adjoining gates. So we walked up and down for a while schmoozing. And the topic somehow came around to this book; Tuesdays With Morrie. And Harold said: I know Morrie. I don’t know him personally, but I came from the same world he does. He came from the Bronx and so did I. And he came from a Yiddishist, Socialist background, and so did I.
And when he said that, I understood the book as I had not understood it before. And now listen to the sentence that Harold and I both found so offensive.
Morrie is a professor of sociology at Brandeis. And so he chooses Al Axelread, who was the Hillel Director at Brandeis, to do his funeral. And near the end of the book, Al comes to visit Morrie, and Morrie says to him: I’ve decided that I am going to be cremated….don’t argue with me, that’s what I want. And then he says:
Do me a favor, Al, please. MAKE SURE THAT THEY DON’T OVERCOOK ME.
That’s the line that upset me: MAKE SURE THAT THEY DON’T OVERCOOK ME? me???? What a course, and vulgar thing that is to say!
IS A HUMAN BEING A HAMBURGER to be barbecued?
It is bad enough that after Auschwitz, that after the crematoria, that a Jew would want to be cremated——–BUT TO MAKE A JOKE ABOUT IT? That, it seems to me, goes beyond all good taste. I think that a person ought to speak more respectfully about death- ESPECIALLY about his own…
And now that I know Morrie’s background, I can begin to understand why he could say something that was so insensitive, so callous, and so stupid.
Morrie did not go to Cheder or to day school. He went to a yiddisheh schule, and then to mittele shule.
And as a result, he did not learn Siddur or Mishna or Talmud, Instead, he learned Yiddishe Kultur.
And therefore, his heroes, when he was growing up, were not Rabbi Akiva or the Rambam, or the Baal Shem Tov or the Vilna Gaon. Instead, his heroes were Sholom Aleichem and Mendele and Peretz and Chaim Zitlovsky, and Avrohom Reizen.
Let me be clear: I do not mean to say that the world of Yiddishe Kultur from which he came, was not an ethical and a moral world. It was a very ethical world..
It was, as Harold Schulweiss pointed out, a world in which YOU NEVER CROSSED A PICKET LINE.
It was a world in which THE cardinal sin was EXPLOITATSIA.
It was a world that believed in menschlichkeit, in decency, in kindness, and in compassion, and that believed, above all, in social justice.
Morrie grew up in a world, in which you never bought a garment, unless you checked first to make sure that it had a union label on it.
Just as a frum Jew would look for a plombe on a chicken, to make sure that it was kosher, before he would buy it, so a good socialist would look for a union label on a shirt, or on a pair of pants in order to make sure that it was not made by exploiting a working man.
If it did not have a union label on it?—it was trefe.
I wonder what Morrie’s father would say if he came back today, and found out that much of the lettuce that we eat today is harvested by illegal immigrants, who work for subsistence wages, because they do not have a green card.
And I wonder what Morrie’s father would say, if he came back today, and found out that much of the clothing that we wear today, is made in Vietnam, or in Korea, or in Thailand, or in sweatshops in this country. I think that he would be very upset, and I think that he would say that lettuce that is harvested by illegal immigrants, or clothing that is made by people who work for subsistence wages, is trefe…and he would not let them into his house..
And he would be right. And so I have great respect for Morrie Schwartz’s father, and for the socialist, and the yiddishist ideals for which he stood. I really do.
But do you know what’s happened to those ideals and those values of Morrie Schwartz’s father in the last two generations?
Harold Schulweis said to me that I have a hunch that most of the children and the grandchildren of that generation of Yiddishists and Socialists are today doctors or lawyers or capitalists, or the founders of dot.com companies, and captains of industry,
And I have a hunch that the children of Morrie Schwartz’s father no longer have the idealistic, socialist fervor, that motivated him, and that motivated his generation. I doubt it very much.
My hunch is that Morrie Schwartz’s father’s children and his grandchildren have given up his socialist fervor and his commitment to Yiddishe Kultur, and that they have not replaced it with a faith, which is deeper and more substantive than his was.
And therefore, I am upset when Morrie tells Rabbi Al Axelrad…please cremate me, and please make sure that they don’t overcook me. I am upset that Morrie doesn’t have enough of a Jewish education to understand how vulgar that request is…and I am upset that the rabbi, for whatever reason, did not correct him, as he should have.
Morrie said what he did, Morrie made the request that he did, because he was brought up on socialist ideas and ideals, but was deprived of an education into the world from which those ideas and those ideals originally came.
Let me explain. Morrie’s mother probably sang him to sleep with Yiddish lullabies, just like my mother did, songs such as Paparosen…which is a song that many of you may still remember. Paparosen means cigarettes. And Paparosen was a song about a little boy, who stands on a street corner, and tries to sell cigarettes to the people passing by, so that his family will have food for supper. And most people pass him by, without buying anything from him. And the little boy in the song says; just you wait, when I grow up, I am going to be rich, And when I am rich, I am going to buy Paporosen, from every child who ever stops me on the street. Just you wait and see.
Morrie heard that song, in his infancy, just as I did. And it helped to implant within him a moral conscience, and a desire to help create a society, in which there would not be such a great gap between the rich and the poor.
But the tragedy is that Morrie was never told, not by his father, not by his mother, and not by his teachers in Mittelle shule, WHERE THE VALUES THAT ARE EXPRESSED IN THAT SONG REALLY COME FROM. He was never told that they come from the Bible and the Talmud. If the Talmud was ever mentioned in Mittle shule, it was probably treated with disdain. He was probably told that the Talmud is made up of bubbe maises, or that it is made up of petty, pointless, rituals that nobody needs to pay any attention to, and that have no moral meaning.
Morrie grew up in a world in which you never crossed a picket line.
Morrie grew up in a world, in which ‘exploitatsia’ was the cardinal sin.
Morrie grew up in a world that was focused on justice for ‘de arbeiter’, for the working man.
But Morrie grew up in a world in which nobody ever told him that these values come, NOT ONLY FROM MARX AND NOT ONLY FROM ENGELS, AND NOT ONLY FROM LENIN, but from the prophets and from the Sages of Israel. And nobody ever taught him that THE ONLY WAY THAT THESE KINDS OF VALUES EVER GET IMBEDDED INTO THE PERSONALITY OF A PEOPLE IS IF THEY ARE TURNED INTO LAW, AND IF THEY ARE EMBODIED IN RITUALS, AS THEY ARE IN THE TALMUD.
If you read Marx or Lenin today—you forget what you have read by tomorrow.
But if you study Talmud today, and if you create institutions that are based on the insights and the values of the Talmud today, then those values will last, and they will become a part of your psyche forever.
And now, let me show you what I mean by studying with you half a page from the Talmud, Masechet Moed Katan, daf kaf tet, page 29B:
Tanu Rabanan: The Sages have taught:
It was the custom that people would bring food to the house of mourning—-the rich would bring food in baskets made of silver and gold,
And the poor would bring their food in willow baskets…
V’HAYU HA ANIYIM MITBAYSHIM. And the poor felt humiliated.
And therefore, the Sages made the rule, that EVERYONE, THE RICH AND THE POOR ALIKE, can only bring food to the house of mourning in willow baskets,.
MIPNEY KAVODAM SHEL HA ANIYIM, out of respect for the dignity of the poor.
They used to serve drinks in the house of mourning—during shivah—
The rich would serve drinks in glasses made of crystal,
The poor would serve drinks in cheap, colored glass.
VIHAYU HA ANIYIM MITBAYSHIM, and the poor felt humiliated,
And therefore, the Sages decreed:
That everyone must serve their drinks in colored glasses,
MIPNEY KIVODAM SHEL HA ANIYIM, out of respect for the dignity of the poor.
And then the Talmud goes on to say:
They used to uncover the faces of the rich when they died….they had open caskets…because they looked well,
And they would cover the faces of the poor when they died, because they looked ghastly, their faces were disfigured by starvation.
VIHAYU HA ANIYIM MITBAYSHIM…and the poor were embarrassed.
And so the Sages decrees that the faces of ALL people should be covered.
MIPNEY KIVODAM SHEL HA ANIYIM, out of respect for the dignity of the poor.
And then the Talmud says:
THE COST OF BURIAL WAS SO GREAT
THAT FAMILIES WOULD RUN AWAY AND LEAVE THEIR DEAD IN THE STREET, BECAUSE THEY COULD NOT AFFORD THE COST OF A FUNERAL…
AD SHEBA RABBAN GAMLIEL, VIHITKIN, UNTIL RABBAN GAMLIEL CAME ALONG, AND MADE A DECREE…
RABBAN GAMLIEL WAS ONE OF THE WEALTHIEST PEOPLE IN THE LAND… AND YET HE MADE A DECREE THAT WHEN HE DIED, HE SHOULD BE BURIED IN A PLAIN WHITE ROBE, THAT HAS NO POCKETS, BECAUSE YOU CANNOT TAKE IT WITH YOU, AND IN A PLAIN PINE BOX,
MIKNEY KIVODAM SHEL HA ANIYIM, OUT OF RESPECT FOR THE FEELINGS OF THE POOR.
And that has been the Jewish way ever since! From Rabban Gamliel on, Jews are buried in a plain white robe, that has no pockets in it, and in a plain pine box, in order to remove the pressure to keep up with the Joneses, and to have a fancy funeral…I would respectfully suggest that we elect Rabban Gamliel as the Honorary Chairman of this organization, because ever since Rabban Gamliel, a fancy funeral is ILLEGAL in Judaism! Ever since Rabban Gamliel, what some undertakers do, when they try to persuade vulnerable people to buy fancy caskets and to dress the dead in tuxedos, and gowns, and to put rouge and cosmetics on their faces—has been forbidden by Jewish Law!
THIS IS JEWISH SOCIALISM!!! And Morrie, nebech, never knew it! Morrie never knew it, because nobody in his house, and nobody in his Mittle shule, ever taught this page of the Talmud to him.
And yet, this is the stuff out of which Yiddishe Kultur came!
YIDDISHE KULTUR DID NOT COME OUT OF MARX AND ENGELS, IT DID NOT COME OUT OF LENIN. IT CAME OUT OF THE PROPHETS AND OUT OF THE TALMUD.. IT CAME OUT OF MASECHET MOED KATAN, IT CAME FROM THIS PAGE THAT I HAVE JUST READ TO YOU.
But Morrie never knew that, because Morrie’s parents and Morrie’s teachers never taught him this page.
And that is why Morrie is able to make such a callous and such a vulgar request: cremate me, but make sure that they don’t overcook me.
Let me read you one more passage from the Jewish tradition.
Everyone knows that when a person dies, you are supposed to bury him or her as promptly as you can. Right? Everyone knows that law.
BUT WHO KNOWS WHY? WHY are you supposed to bury a person as promptly as you can? Did anybody in your Hebrew school ever tell you why?
A law has to have a reason, doesn’t it?
The reason for this law is found in chapter 23 of the book of Devarim. There it says that if a man commits a capital offense, if he murders someone, then you have to execute him.
But then it says that, after you hang him, you have to cut the body down from the gallows and you have to bury him as quickly as you can…..Ki killilat Elohim talui, because a hanging body is an embarrassment to God.
What does that mean? Why is the hanging body of a convicted criminal an embarrassment to God?
Listen to what Rashi says on this verse:
He says: lima hadavar domeh, what can this be compared to?
It is like a king, who has a twin brother, and the twin brother becomes a criminal, and eventually the twin brother is caught in a crime, and he is executed. And people who go by see the body of the KING’S TWIN BROTHER HANGING ON THE GALLOWS, and they say to themselves: Look, the king has been hung! Therefore, you cut the body down and you bury it, as quickly as you can….so as not to embarrass the king.
(We have just had a case like this recently here in America. The President of a University in Massachusetts has a brother who is a criminal. And the police are trying to force the president to tell them where his brother is hiding. And so far the president has refused to do so. And there are those who are calling for the President of the university to be removed on the grounds that he has a brother who is a criminal. That is what this midrash is about—a king who has a brother who is a criminal, and who is taken down off the gallows quickly so as not to shame the king).
What does that parable mean?
The king in the parable is God….and the twin brother is the human being,–every human being, even the criminal, even the murderer. And therefore, whenever a human being dies, he must be buried quickly, because GOD’S IMAGE IS DEFACED, GOD’S DIGNITY IS DECIMATED, GOD’S HONOR IS DIMINISHED, GOD’S REPUTATION IS DESECRATED when His twin dies.
THAT’S WHY the funeral is not delayed….
SO THAT PEOPLE MAY REALIZE AND UNDERSTAND THAT DER MENTSCH IZ HAYLIK, THAT YEIDER MENTSCH IS HAILIK, that the human being is holy, that every single human being is holy, that every single human being is a twin of God.
Why didn’t they teach that passage to Morrie in Mittelshule?
And why don’t they teach that passage to our kids in Hebrew School or Day school today?
I meet Morrie’s children at funerals. And they say to me: rabbi, can we please have an open casket? Can we please have viewing of the body?
After all, he looks so nice….He just came back from Florida, and he has such a nice suntan. And the undertaker has done such a good job on him. He is all dressed up in a tuxedo. And he has cosmetics on his face. So can’t we please have an open casket? And can’t we please have viewing?
And I say no. And their response is always: if the rabbi says no, then it is no. And they give in. People never argue with the rabbi at a funeral. Whatever the rabbi says-goes.
But it is not enough to say no. Anybody can say no. You don’t have to be a big talmid chochem to say: no. An am ha aretz can say no. What you have to do if you want to be an effective rabbi is to explain to the mourners WHY the answer is no.
You have to explain to them that we close the casket out of respect to the met, because the deceased is now a NIREH VI EYNO ROEH… he can be seen, but he cannot see. He has become an object, an it, a thing. And you have become a viewer, a spectator, a voyeur. Because you are now able to look at someone, who cannot look back at you.
And that’s not right! That is not befitting human dignity. That’s why the rabbi says no. Because only God can be a roeh vieyno nireh, Only God can see and not be seen. Human beings are not God and therefore human beings are not allowed to look at a person who cannot look back at them.
I learned three things from this workshop on Taharah that we had here last night. One: somebody said: women are buried in aprons, men are not—but in the world to come, men will wear aprons too.
The second was: Orthodox women do not wear pants in life-but they do in death. The tachrichim for women include a kind of pants.
And the third, which I was not aware of before, is that the last act of the Taharah is that the face of the met or the meyta is covered. Because they cannot see, and therefore it is not right for us to look at them. They are nireh vieyno roeh, and therefore, if we look at them we turn them into objects, and we turn ourselves into voyeurs, and that is not right. That is why we don’t have open caskets and why we don’t have viewings, even though the undertakers want to show off their skill at cosmetics and their talent with rouge.
I must tell you that I believe that we have failed Morrie, and we have failed his children, and his grandchildren, really we have. We have turned over the whole process of educating them over to the undertakers. And the undertakers have taught them WHAT to do, and WHEN to do it, and WHERE to do it, but the undertakers have never taught them WHY we do what we do in time of grief. The undertakers have taught our people what side of the chest to put the black ribbon on, and what side of the ribbon to cut, but the undertakers have never taught them WHY we do this ritual. The undertakers have never taught them that you are not supposed t o use a ribbon altogether, that you are supposed to rip A GARMENT, not a ribbon, because it is a little death, when you lose someone whom you love…and it is supposed to hurt, and it is supposed to be painful. And it is not enough to mumble a brocho that you don’t understand. That is not what the law is all about.
When Morrie died, there was no Kaddish, there was no shivah, there was no minyan, there was no Moley, there was just a cremation…..and that is sad. I hope that at least they didn’t overcook him, as per his request….
But even before Morrie died, Yiddishe kultur died, and the Yiddishe Teatre died, and the Socialist Yiddish newspaper died, and Jewish socialism died. They died, because they were not linked to anything ultimate, they were only ties to Yiddish, and once the immigrants or their children learned English, they were unnecessary, and so they could not outlive the first generation of immigrants to this land.
They are all gone now. –and I miss them. I miss them, because they were great movements, each one of them—the Yiddishe Schule, the Yiddishe Tseitung, and the Yiddishe Teatre, They had great values, and I miss them, each and every one of them.
But, like it or not, miss them or not, they are all gone…
BUT WE ARE STILL HERE…AND WE HAVE A JOB TO DO! And our job is an urgent one.
Our job is to make clear the connections:
Between Yiddishe kultur and Yiddishkeit,
Our job is to make clear the inseparable connection
between ritual and ethics, to make clear that either without the other is a distortion of Judaism.
Our job is to make clear the inseparable connection
between halachah and spirituality
Between the secular and the holy,
And between the living and the dead.
This, it seems to me, is the ultimate purpose of this organization: Kavod V’Nichum, that we have now begun.
It is to teach Morrie’s children what Morrie was never taught. And which he was therefore never able to teach them,
Which is that the Torah is not just a long list of dos and don’ts, of what he thought were petty, picayune rituals, and bobba maises
But that the Torah is an INSEPARABLE COMBINATION OF DOS AND DON’TS,– AND OF WHY’S, AND WHY NOTS!!!
And that whoever observes the dos and the don’ts without understanding the whys and the why nots perverts and distorts and diminishes the depth of the Jewish way of life, and the Jewish way of thought..
And therefore, If we are going to make it into the future, if we are going to reach the minds and hearts of the next generation, we need organizations like this one, organizations that will teach the next generation—in the only way that anyone ever teaches anything, which is by example, which will teach our people that the Torah is a way of sanctifying life, and that the Torah is a way of dealing with death, and that the Torah is more than a bunch of pointless rituals, and that the Torah is more than a bunch of empty ceremonies,
that the Torah is a network of ideas and ideals, that are expressed in the form of rituals,
and that have the power to give dignity and sanctity
To both human life and human death.
That’s what this new organization is really all about. It is intended to give Kavod, not only to the dead… It is intended to give Kavod to the Torah and to the Jewish way of life.
And it is intended to give nichum, not only to the mourners who need comfort,
But to our God, who must mourn so much to see the sacred way of life, and the sacred way of death, which He gave us, so misunderstood, and so perverted, so commercialized and so nearly abandoned, and so nearly forgotten in our time.
This is why I am so excited by the birth of this new organization, and this is why I am so grateful to each one of you who believes in it, and who belongs to it, because you are enriching Jewish life, and you are ensuring the Jewish future, by the sacred work that you are doing. And therefore, I wish you well, and I thank you very much. May God bless the work of your hands.