In death, our tradition has always done two things simultaneously, honor the dead and comfort the mourner, Kavod v’Nichum. With Covid-19, all of that has dramatically changed. What do you do when the rituals you rely upon are taken away?
As the pandemic wave washes over the country, our health care system is being overwhelmed. People will die, some succumbing to the disease and some because we are unable to provide other care required as limited resources are focused on treating Covid-19. Compounding this, The state and pragmatism will supplant the rituals that usually bring us solace.
Refrigeration trucks are already in place as bodies accumulate faster than our ability to process them. This means that the expedited burial Judaism prescribes will be put on hold. Regulations from this health care emergency may limit burial altogether. Cremation has been debated in the Jewish community, but it may become the state mandated way of caring for the deceased.
Remember too that throughout all of this we are dealing with real people not statistics. These are individuals who have died as a result of this virus. Each person would be entitled to the care offered any Jew at the end of his or her life. Each person should be properly prepared with Kavod, or honor, and buried according to our tradition. And each survivor is entitled to properly grieve the loss of a loved one. This includes a hesped or eulogy, accompanying the dead to their final resting place, interring him or her, standing among friends and family offering words of condolence: hamakom yinachem etchem btoch shaar avelei tzion vYirushalayim, returning home to sit shiva and process grief with the comfort or Nichum of our time-tested rituals.
What are we to do in times like these when our traditions and rituals cannot be practiced?
Part of the answer lies in focusing on the values at the heart of our rituals. Once we understand how the rituals express our values in loss and bereavement, we can reimagine our rituals. Additionally, we might consider options that either supplement or even substitute for familiar rituals to provide succor. One example of this is the recitation of this is the Kaddish Yatom.
The Kaddish prayer is a Sanctification of God’s Great Name. We extoll the Almighty. For most Jews, it is the mourner’s prayer. Tradition has required that the Kaddish is recited it only when a Minyan or community (minimum size of 10) is present. Currently that may not be possible. Many traditional communities are accepting a virtual minyan as one work-around to the issue. But the Kaddish remains the prayer that most Jews understand as central to the mourning and burial process. The funeral is not the time to educate a person as to proper ritual observance, it is a time to comfort. To deny the mourner a chance to say this prayer is tantamount to our being denied access to the one thing they believe in their hearts and minds as integral to fulfilling a Jewish Commandment. A denial creates a deep cognitive disconnect at best, a betrayal of faith at worst. Sanctifying God’s name is an opportunity to intimately connect with the Almighty. We are able to honor the dead and find fulfillment in our core obligation. What if we recast the prayer, it’s meaning, and shared it regardless of a minyan?
Kaddish does not say goodbye to the departed, nor wish his/her soul find everlasting peace with the Eternal One. That is the work of the El Malei Rachamim prayer. I have suggested to mourners that the Kaddish prayer is essentially a prayer of gratitude, thanking God for the blessing of having this loved one in our life for as long as we had the time to enjoy this extraordinary gift. As a personal expression of thanks, the Kaddish can be said by the mourner even if a minyan is not present. Given the limitations on congregating, a minyan is likely not possible despite the virtual work-around cited. Through recasting of the Kaddish and relaxing the traditional minyan requirement, the mourner has the opportunity to share this deeply significant prayer and find comfort in honoring their beloved one. Similarly, almost all of our other rituals can be reimagined.
The Jewish Wisdom tradition has mastered the art of Kavod v’Nichum, honoring the dead and comforting the living. The values that lie at the core of our rituals are deeply sensitive to the human condition. By embracing this understanding, our tradition can continue to serve these noble ideals emending and amending them to remain fully available during these extraordinary times.