Astonished in the Swirl of Existence

November 25, 2015

[Editor's Note: This seemed a good entry for the Thanksgiving holiday (in the U.S., it is November 26th this year). We at Kavod v'Nichum wish all, whether you celebrate the event this week, at another time, or not at all, a time of blessings; love, plenty, prosperity, health, and most of all peace/Shalom.]

Here’s a paradox, and one that accounts for why any agreeable person would take on such work as preparing a body for burial, or in my case, serving as a hospice chaplain: being present to the dying the dead and the bereaved  has intensified my sense of being alive. Just as a contrary character in a novel can heighten the goodness of the hero, being near the dying or the dead can serve as a foil to life. Sometimes as I step outdoors after visiting a hospice patient, everything I encounter seems more firmly anchored in the here and now. Birdsong and the patter of rain make of me a rapt audience. A swaying traffic light beams out with more redness; a wind kicking up and vacillating between cool and cold bars my way from any warmer crosswinds. How can all this be happening around me while someone is about to cut loose from the moorings of her life?  I stand astonished amidst the swirl of existence.

Where does this intensity come from?  The closer I am to reading the end of a piece of fiction, the more weight the sentences bear. Each succeeding word seems to take on a deeper significance. When I am talking with someone who is nearing the end, whatever they are saying is more poignant given that backdrop. I think that is why so much is made of hearing a person’s “last words.” We assume they will be loaded with wisdom, or that they will enlighten us regarding something we had never understood about that person or about ourselves.

Members of a burial society (such as a chevrah kadisha in Jewish communities) and others of us who care for the dead and the bereaved, get a sneak preview of our own final crossing over the inscrutable edge between life and death. As with any rehearsal, we reap benefits that could never accrue if we were to simply improvise when the time came.


Rabbi and board certified Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan is author of “>Offbeat Compassion. The author announced the release of the audio version of   




Winter 2016:   

During the coming Winter semester, the Gamliel Insitute will be offering the course. Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah (T&S). This course will run at two times: from January 5th to March 22nd, 8-9:30 pm EST/5-6:30 pm PST, and from January 11th to March 28th, Noon to 1:30 pm EST/9-10:30 am PST (12 sessions at each time). There will be an online orientation session Monday January 4th at 12-1:30 pm EST, and a second orientation session on Monday, January 4th at 8-9:30 pm EST (Students may attend either one). For more information, visit the “>Kavod v’Nichum website.

This course is an in-depth study of the work of the Chevrah Kadisha in the activities and mitzvot of guarding the body of the deceased (shmirah) and of ritually preparing the body for burial (taharah). This is very much a “how-to” course as well as an examination of the liturgy, and of the unusual situations that can arise. The course also looks at the impact of the work on the community and on the members of the Chevrah Kadisha, and provides an ongoing review of best practices. Studies include: spiritual transformative power; personal testimony; meaning and purpose; face of God; Tahor and Tamei; Tachrichim; History; manuals, tefillah, training, impediments; safety; and complications.


NOTE: Tuition for Gamliel Institute classes is $500 per person per course. Groups of 3 or more from the same organization can receive a 20% discount. There are clergy and student discounts available, and we work to find Scholarships and help students seek sources of funding. Contact us to inquire about any of these matters.


You can “>jewish-funerals.org/gamreg.


Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.


Donations are always needed and most welcome – online at    


Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE “>@chevra_kadisha. Email J.Blair@jewish-funerals.org to be receive an email with the link to the blog weekly.


To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find to be of interest, click on “About” on the right side of the page.There is a link at the end of that section to read more about us.



(Not sponosored by or connected to Kavod v’Nichum):


A Jewish Renewal Shabbaton with Reb Simcha Raphael

From Darkness to Light – Kabbalah and Practical Wisdom for End-of-Life Transitions

Rosh Hodesh Hanukah December 11-13, 2015

Sanctuary Retreat and Renewal Center 19520

Darnestown Road Beallsville, Maryland

Through study and story-telling, prayer, and meditation we shall explore the richness of Midrashic, Hasidic and Kabbalistic teachings dealing with the finality of life, journey of the soul after death and personal and communal responses to grief and to loss.

*  Transforming Darkness Into Light: Death, Destiny and the Calling of Our Lives”

*  “Do Not Go Gentle Into the Night”: Moses’ Death in Torah and Midrash – Contemporary Reflections”

*  Afterlife and Near-Death Experiences in Kabbalah – Practical Wisdom for End-of-Life Transition and Bereavement Care

*  End-of-Life Wisdom and Soul-Guiding in Hasidic Deathbed Stories

*  Contemplative and Joyous Renewal Davennen’

Full Program with Friday & Saturday night Lodging & 5 meals: $ 270 Early Bird ($300 after Nov 23rd) Commuter – Full Program with meals: $195 Early Bird ($225 after Nov 23rd)
Commuter – All Day Saturday (Lunch/Dinner): $165 Early Bird ($195 after Nov 23rd) Discounts (Cannot be combined) – 15% AK Full members Code FULL
10% – AK Assoc members Code ASSOC; Couples (same household) – Full weekend only Code COUPLE
10% – People attending from outside the DC/Baltimore Metro area Code OOT

Register and pay online at 301-349-2799

Lodging is limited.

Reb Simcha Raphael, Ph.D., is Founding Director of the DA’AT INSTITUTE for Death Awareness, Advocacy and Training. Ordained as a Rabbinic Pastor by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, he teaches Jewish Mysticism at Temple University, works as a psychotherapist and spiritual director in Philadelphia, is a Fellow of the Rabbis Without Borders Network and is author of numerous publications including the ground-breaking Jewish Views of the Afterlife. His website is  



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