Chukat, this week’s parasha, reveals the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron, not only significant leaders of the Jewish people, but siblings of perhaps our greatest leader Moses. As we all know, from the beautiful reading heard at most funerals, life is a journey and death a destination. Death is inevitable in our lives and our families’ lives. How do we personally approach death? Can someone ever be prepared? How can we ease the way for those we love?
In 1990, from January through April, our small family saw the deaths of both my beloved parents- my mother Madaline, newly turned 73, and my dad Lester, who was 76. Neither were ill, yet not in great health. Mom died unexpectedly, in three days, from the flu aided by severe complications from emphysema. Without her, I knew Dad had only a small chance to survive. Their irascible relationship had kept him alive since a very early cardiac surgery years before. In early April, he had a heart attack one Shabbat eve in temple and later died of an embolism. Our daughters Lysa and Amanda were 17 and 13, respectively, and were devoted to their ‘Gangy and Pa’. Death dealt its severe blow twice, and our small family circle was forever altered.
Jewish traditions surrounding the death of a loved one allowed us to survive the trauma somehow intact. Our community, friends, and family surrounded us. Our daughters had never been to a funeral so our rabbi at the time, Rabbi David Sofian, gently told them what to expect - from the service at the temple, to burial at the orthodox cemetery where they could choose to place some dirt on the coffins, an age-old custom that is always hard to fulfill but important. Two lines, he explained, would form to lead us away from the gravesites so we mourners would feel comforted. Each small outreach smoothed the path, giving us hope that we would return to some type of wholeness again.
Our sisterhood, Women of Shaarai Shomayim, has an amazing committee called the Bereavement Committee. As soon as there is a congregational death, the rabbi informs the chair who connects with the bereaved. Sisterhood women prepare the entire Shiva meal, the meal of consolation, awaiting the mourners after the funeral. We shop, cook, plate, serve, and clean up. The family simply says how many to expect. Sisterhood sends a bill for the food, and most families return a check along with a donation to sisterhood. This is an example of what makes our Lancaster community unique, special, and proud. No family ever stands alone, ever.
During Shiva, the Shaarai community responds by filling out evening minyans. Again, sharing memories and praying together help the bereaved ease their way back to life. As a community, many Shaarai Shomayim members feel obligated to perform mitzvot, including mourning with those who are now alone and lonely.
Our Jewish rituals about death do not end with a funeral. Saying Kaddish at the festival holidays, on Yom Kippur, and especially at yartzeit, on the anniversary of the date of a death, regularly engage us to remember those who have died. Remembering is important. It is a way to honor those who have given us life. Those who come to a Jewish life by choice need our help to understand and go through these traditions. Women in sisterhood are perfectly poised to gently guide newcomers through our customs that will mean so much after they become familiar.
Lighting my yartzeit candles brings me comfort. Saying a prayer with my parents’ names somehow makes me feel closer to them Seeing my parents’ smallest habits in our grandchildren’s behaviors gives me marvelous joy. All these efforts and moments allow me to remember, zachor; death is not an end as long as those who come after us remember. I remember with love, respect, and blessings, and some laughter too. I imagine all of you do the same. Shabbat shalom!
Rosanne Selfon is a past president of WRJ. She is a member of Women of Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, PA.