As 2014 comes to an end, many of us are looking forward to various New Year’s Celebrations. Of course, January 1st is not a Jewish holiday. The only time it is a tradition to stay up all night (as it feels to me when I stay up until midnight) is Shavuot, when we fight off sleep and study Torah, just as our ancestors who, standing at Sinai, forsook sleep to prepare themselves for the Giving of the Law.
Nor is it a particularly Jewish custom to spend the day watching football, though victory on the field of battle followed by a celebratory meal is something quite Jewish (note Chanukah, Purim, and Passover: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”).
Yet there is one phenomenon that both the secular New Year and Judaism have in common: any opportunity for self-reflection is a good opportunity. New Years in particular reminds us of the passing of time, and thus our own mortality. It reminds us that living life to the fullest can and should include preparing for the end of life as well.
In our Torah portion this week, Parashat Va-yiggash, we read the culmination of the Joseph saga. Joseph, who went from the depth of depths after being thrown into a pit and sold into servitude in Egypt to being the second in command of all Egypt, reunites with his brothers and reveals to them that he is their brother. Joseph sends them to retrieve their father Jacob, and the entire Israelite clan moves to Egypt to avoid a famine in the Promised Land.
Jacob, naturally fearful of leaving the Land of Israel, receives a vision from God. “Fear not to go down to Egypt,” God tells the patriarch, “for I will make you there into a great nation.” Moreover, God promises Jacob, “… the hands of [your long-lost, beloved son] Joseph shall close your eyes” (Genesis 46:3-4). In other words, God tells Jacob that Jacob’s favorite son, lost for so many years, would be present at Jacob’s death. In their mutual love and affection, Jacob knew as well that Joseph would provide his father Jacob with a respectful burial.
On New Years, as we contemplate the passage of time and our own mortality, let us communicate with those we love about our expectations regarding death and burial. Pre-arrangements are a significant and meaningful step toward easing the pain of those we love when our time arrives to leave this earth. If or when you are making such pre-arrangements with a funeral home, please be sure to let them know you are a member of the CSZ family and that you would like a CSZ rabbi and cantor to officiate. In addition, please speak with your loved ones about the following Jewish mourning traditions:
Traditionally, before someone dies (or even goes into a life-threatening situation, like surgery), the set of prayers called viddui is recited. Please contact Hazzan Propis, Assistant Cantor Gutman or me to lead the family in offering the viddui prayers when the time is right.
Following death, windows are opened in the room of the deceased and any standing water is let out. A funeral and kosher burial are to follow as soon as possible. And, at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, we are blessed with the most beautiful cemetery in the world: Clover Hill Park Cemetery.
A traditional seven-day-period-of-mourning, shivah, is observed by the mourners, with minyanim taking place at least every evening of that week (except Friday and Saturday nights, when the mourner should come to shul). Upon request, among the benefits of CSZ membership, we will provide minyan leaders to come to the shivah house. If you are interested in fulfilling the incredible mitzvah of leading shiva minyanim or if you are in need of leaders, please contact Assistant Cantor Gutman.
The traditional mourning period lasts beyond shiva into the thirty-day-period called sheloshim. Another benefit of CSZ membership is that the name of any deceased CSZ member or the immediate family of a member will be read before Mourners’ Kaddish at every prayer service, every day, for the entire thirty-day-period. The name will be read every year on the Yahrzeit of a loved one’s death as well.
These, of course, are just the “highlights” of the mourning process. Every situation is unique. Please give me a call if your situation happens to be somewhat extenuating or what you might consider out of the norm. Additionally, if I might be of help with counseling leading up to or following the death of a loved one, I am available. All of these services are benefits of membership at CSZ as well. Family takes care of family.
Unlike Jacob who was promised by God in our Torah portion that his son would ensure a proper burial, we have to advocate for ourselves and those we love by putting the pieces in place ahead of time to prepare for death and mourning. Your CSZ clergy and your CSZ family are here to help. Please do not hesitate to call.
Rebecca, Caleb and Ayal join me in wishing you Shabbat shalom and a happy secular New Year.
-Rabbi Aaron Starr