A Taharah Thought for Thanksgiving


Tomorrow, November 24th, 2016, is Thanksgiving in the U.S. Lots of people will be gathering with loved ones, enjoying a favorite meal and special treats, chatting about events, possibly arguing about views of what the future holds. Some will be watching football (American, not the other kind!), and some perhaps will be taking walks or raking leaves in the yard. All will be participating in their own way in observing and celebrating the holiday – a civic celebration, offering thanks and recognizing how fortunate we each are.

A few of these people will have their day of celebration interrupted. There will be a call, or a text, and they will prepare to leave the warmth of home and friends and family and food. They will reach into themselves and call on the resources and reserves that they have, and prepare to fulfill an obligation, to perform a mitzvah.

Of course, this applies to doctors, nurses, EMTs, firefighters, police, those in the military – emergency workers and other first responders. I, for one, am deeply grateful for their willingness and what they do.

But there are others, as well, often not noted or remembered for being on call. These are the persons who will leave home to respond to fatal accidents, transport the deceased, go to funeral homes or other locations to form Taharah teams or sit Shmirah, those who will join in working with others who will undertake the final kindness, caring for those who have died, preparing the body for burial, and accompanying the soul of the meit/ah as it prepares for and begins its journey to the next stage.

They often do not know what they will encounter when they answer the call, what will confront them when they enter the room. I cannot help but recall instances where my own heart was shredded by the circumstances I found, and I know I am not unique in that way; these people have all had similar experiences – and yet, they continue to respond and step forward to fulfill the sacred task of fulfilling these great mitzvot.

The tradition is that, ideally, it is not known who serves on a Taharah team (who performs a specific Taharah). This is both a way of honoring and respecting the deceased, and of allowing the mitzvah that these people perform to be pure; if they are not known, no one can thank them, and what they do is uninfluenced by any considerations of what others think. They act entirely for the meit/ah and in the service of the community. So for the most part, the members of the Taharah team, and those who sit Shmirah, are not acknowledged.

But today I want to acknowledge them, at least, as a group. And though I don’t know most of them, nor am I ever likely to, and I will not know what they have done, or for whom, as we approach a day of acknowledging and giving thanks in general tomorrow, I want to offer thanks for all of them, and for what they do.

When they leave their home and family to fulfill the mitzvah, they do so for the meit/ah, for the bereaved family, and for their community, but in a larger sense, they do so for all of us. They are our hands and our tongues in doing and praying at that moment.

Consequently, we owe them an immense debt of gratitude and appreciation for the service they provide; we cannot shake their hands or say thank you to them, so it is my hope that we may express our thanks in our actions towards each other. May we make the honor and respect that they demonstrate in fulfilling the mitzvah as our agents our own, and act in similar ways towards each other, and towards all whom we encounter. May the mitzvot inform our choices, our actions, and our thoughts in all aspects of life.

Ken yehi ratzon. May it be so.

Rabbi Joe Blair is the editor of the Expired And Inspired Blog. You can read more about him in the ‘About the Author’ link to the bottom right of this entry. 

 {Ed. Note: On behalf of Kavod v'Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, we wish all who celebrate it, a happy, joyous, safe, and blessed Thanksgiving. For all others, may the same wish be true for you as well. — JB]

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       Winter 2016:

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Gamliel Institute Course 1, Chevrah Kadisha History, Origins, & Evolution (HOE) as planned will be offered over twelve weeks on Tuesday evenings from December 6th, 2016 to February 21st, 2017, online.  

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The focus of this course is on the history and development of the modern Chevrah Kadisha, the origins of current practices, and how the practices and organizations have changed to reflect the surrounding culture, conditions, and expectations. The course takes us through the various text sources to seek the original basis of the Chevrah Kadisha, to Prague in the 1600’s, through the importation of the Chevrah Kadisha to America, and all the way to recent days. It is impossible to really understand how we came to the current point without a sense of the history.

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