June 26, 2019

Soul Play

— Parashat Yom Kippur: Leviticus 16:1-34, Numbers 29:7-11

 For many of us, death is “the unthinkable.” Yom Kippur is supposed to help us with this problem. It asks us once a year to spend a day without food, water and other elements of life, and to dress in one of the garments we will be buried in, our white kittel, to invite us to think about our own death.

There are two reasons for this. First, we need to realize its reality and finality, so that we appropriately dread its coming — and make plans against it — by creating a life well lived. And we need to experience its familiarity — and make plans for it — so that when it comes, we will yield to the inevitable with grace.

Because, I’m sorry to say it, we will die.

Our bodies will cease and our souls will move on. Exactly where they will go, Jewish tradition is not clear.  But how our souls will feel during the transition, this has been described in great detail over the centuries.

Each of us has a three-part soul (nefesh, ruach and neshamah), according to the Kabbalists, with each aspect checking out on its own agenda. Ruach, our spirit or personality, often leaves first, leaving a living husk of a person, flickering at the edge of death. Nefesh, our animal soul, is our animating force. Without it, our heart is silent. Neshamah, our spiritual soul, connects us with the Holy One and all of life. It is charged with important tasks between death and burial.

The following scene captures this drama, as death unfolds for a woman I’ll call Rachel, and how Judaism’s death rituals enable the living to provide a cocoon of support for those headed to the afterlife, Olam Haba’ah [the world that is coming/to come]:

 

 “Neshamah, why are we still hanging on? Ruach left a week ago.”

“We can’t bear the thought of leaving,” says Neshamah.  “Even one more breath is worth the effort!”

“We wanted to die with our faculties intact,” Nefesh asserts. “We are depriving Rachel of that. At least when Ruach was here, Rachel was still Rachel. Now all she does is breathe, and wince. There’s no dignity in this lingering. We should let go.”

“We don’t feel free to do that yet. Rachel was tough in life, and we’re all that’s left of that.”

Nefesh prods Neshamah. “You know the Talmud teaches that death can be painless, right? Like drawing a hair out of milk. And she won’t be alone. You’ll be here for a while yet.”

 

Rachel’s brother and sister hover around the bed, breathing along with her labored breaths and stroking her gently. The rabbi arrives. She asks if they would like to have the Viddui read, the prayer of release. They tearfully accept, and chant the Shema together, wishing their sister only peace.

Neshamah is touched, and relaxes her grip. Nefesh slips away. Rachel is no more. The rabbi opens a window for Nefesh to take flight, and lights a candle to honor Neshamah, the last of Rachel’s soul sparks, who will linger among the living until the funeral.

Neshamah floats up and settles into position above Rachel’s head, watching anxiously. The body needs to be properly prepared for the journey, or the soul-parts will never be reunited. Or worse, Neshamah realizes — Rachel can lose the connection between body and soul, and miss out on resurrection in the Time of the Messiah. It all depends on what comes next.

The rabbi calls together a team of holy friends (Chevrah kadishah) to wash and dress Rachel’s body, and another of guardians (Shomrim) to vigil around the clock. An inkling of relief eases over Neshamah, growing as the first shomer arrives and the recitation of Psalms begins.

The Chevrah gathers. They put on their protective clothing, and begin the ritual known as taharah, filling buckets with water. Gently, they bathe Rachel’s body, preparing her for the greatest mikveh of her life, that which follows death. For God is the hope (mikveh) of Israel, we learn in Jeremiah 14:8. Just as the mikveh waters purify the body and embrace us during physical transitions in life, God creates the ultimate purity of soul, through our return (teshuvah) on Yom Kippur, and following death.

It is time for the purification. The team pours vessels of water in overlapping rhythm down Rachel’s body, declaring “she is pure” (tahara hi). It is so.

They lay out the burial garments, and dress her. The garments match those listed in the Yom Kippur morning Torah reading from Leviticus 16:4, describing how the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) prepared to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur:

“He shall put on the holy linen shirt, and he shall have the linen pants upon his flesh, and shall be girded with the linen belt, and with the linen turban shall he be attired. They are the holy garments; and he shall bathe his flesh in water, and put them on.”

As the team members recite this passage, they tie knots in the shape of letters, to form a physical blessing around Rachel. Then they wrap her in the winding sheet, place her in a wooden casket with holes drilled in the bottom, and offer blessings of protection and love.

Neshamah, strengthened by these acts, feels confident. The funeral will come soon. Rachel’s body will have easy access to the earth. Her path to the World to Come seems sure.

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick, BCC, is a chaplain in private practice and owner of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services ( Editor's note: On behalf of Kavod v'Nichum, I extend the hope that you will be inscribed and sealed for a Shanah Tovah Umetukah, a good and sweet year. May it be a year of blessings for you and your loved ones, and may you be sealed for good.


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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSE: Chevrah Kadisha – Origins & Evolution

We want to acquaint you with the work of the Gamliel Institute, if you are not already familiar with us, and to announce our next upcoming course.

The Gamliel Institute is the leadership-training arm established by Kavod v’Nichum (“Honor and Comfort”), the educational resource for Chevrah Kadisha groups throughout North America. Kavod v’Nichum provides a comprehensive website (www.jewish-funerals.org) on issues related to Jewish end-of-life practices, and offers community and synagogue trainings and educational programs. In addition, Kavod v’Nichum holds annual conferences that focus on issues and concerns dealing with the topics of Jewish death, mourning, burial, and remembrance, including the work of the Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish practices from serious illness to death and mourning, as well as Jewish cemetery operation and maintenance.

The Gamliel Institute offers a program of online, interactive classes at an advanced level. The Gamliel Institute will be offering Course 1: Chevrah Kadisha – Origins and Evolution – to begin October 14, 2014 (with an introductory logistics session on October 7). Course sessions will be on Tuesday evenings online (5 pm Pacific, 8 pm Eastern).

This course is an in-depth study of the origins and history of the Chevrah Kadisha, the Holy Society that deals with the sacred tasks surrounding practical and ritual preparations of the deceased person for a Jewish funeral. The course further examines how the institution and role of the Chevrah Kadisha has evolved over the centuries and in different localities into the modern day.

Are you interested in taking this course? If so, please be in touch with us with questions, or sign up for the course at We are looking for motivated students who want to engage in study of this subject matter and use it to make a difference in their communities.

We also want to enlist your help in finding others who would benefit from this course. Please pass this information along to anyone you think might be interested. Thank you!


Kavod v'Nichum Conference!

Join us for an unforgettable time in beautiful Austin, Texas, Feb 22-24, 2015 for the 13th N. American Chevra Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference. Regiser now! Visit the web page to register, reserve a hotel room, and to make your plans!