Chukat presents us with several issues. The much discussed ritual of the “red cow” and rites of purification begin the section. There is continued murmuring of people against the leadership and the “sin” of Moses and Aaron (20:2-13). Yet, the portion also contains the death of Miriam (20:1) and Aaron ([20:28]). Look at the distinction between the two. I am sure many a Torah study group this Shabbat will spend some time on that. The two stories could not be more different.
I just returned from being part of a powerful day long conference, sponsored by Yeshiva University, on Spirituality and End of Life Care. Some of the speakers referenced Chukat in the context of how the rituals of burial and the mourning were observed and what some of the texts had to say. As the day progressed, I could not help but think of the ways in which our own mourning customs have evolved. We are at the stage of life when we are much more aware of this issue. After all, how many conversations that we now have with friends somehow evolve into who has what health issue, what doctors have we visited or a “have you heard about….?” How we pay homage to our dead and how we choose to accompany them in that final passage was an underlying theme of the conference. This week’s portion is a perfect way to remind ourselves that our tradition has a powerful series of rites and rituals that help us in our own challenge to deal with death and this ultimate transition.
A web site that may be of interest to you for further education is www.jewish-funerals.org. Kavod V’Nichum is an organization that helps develop and train people to become members of a chevra kadisha, the traditional group of people who prepare a body for burial and keep watch over the body as interment approaches. There has been, in recent years, a rise in interest among the non-Orthodox community, to develop such “progressive” groups. The educational arm of this group, the Gamliel Institute, has a series of classes that assist in this effort (full disclosure I am the dean of this Institute as of July 1). The message of this can be seen in the growing interest, on the part of Baby Boomers, to have more involvement in our own passing. This is, I feel, part of the larger cultural shift now taking place, to become more concerned with and active with our own death and final resting place. We are seeing a rise in cremations, interest in so-called “green burial”, and even discussions on human composting. Once again, our generation seems to be pushing the boundaries of accepted norms. This is also a reminder that one of our key values is that of kavod ha-met, the honoring of the dead. The sanctity of each of us does not end with death. Indeed, as “images of the divine” we are called upon to honor and respect the body even as life ends. This moral and ethical position links us tot he ethics of how we, as a tradition, should see life. Dignity in death, as in life, is part of who we are as a people.
Rabbi Richard F Address