Drash on Parashat Ki Tetse 2019
Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue, Bentleigh, Victoria
One could become overwhelmed with the eclectic 72 mitzvot (according to Maimonides) contained in this week’s parsha. From desirous captives and spousal favourites to the peril of a rebellious child, the prohibition against cross-dressing causing unnecessary cruelty to animals, the penalties for rape and adultery, as well as our responsibility to prevent accidents, create fair working conditions, care for the underprivileged in society, and to bury and treat our dead with dignity. And the list goes on.
It is this last mitzvah I want us to focus upon. Some of you may know that our congregation has just completed a 5-part series entitled “Confronting Death”. While some people queried why we needed or wanted to talk about death, many people were almost relieved to have a space to gain information and ask questions openly. Whereas death continues to be a taboo topic in most Western societies, our Jewish tradition has dealt with death openly, individually, and communally. Our tradition teaches that caring for the dying is an act of gmilut chasidim, of kindness and compassion, fulfilling the mitzvah of honouring your parents (kavod et avicha v’et imecha) and honouring the dead (kibud ha’met), ensuring us a place in the olam ha’ba (the world to come). In “the old days,” the elderly would live, and often die, in the home with their relatives of all ages surrounding them. No adult or child was spared the reality of the dying process. It was considered the natural way of life. When society began to remove the ill and the aged from our homes into institutions, people became less familiar and thus less comfortable with death and dying. The fear of the institution representing or bringing upon death was thus established. The mystery surrounding the dying process grew, as people were less accustomed to interacting with the dying.
This week’s parsha talks about caring for the dignity of the dead body, ensuring a speedy burial. Our tradition has later added the rituals concerning tahara – ritual cleansing of the body, preparing it to go back to the earth as clean and pure as it entered this world. We, in Melbourne, are blessed to have a group of dedicated volunteers who comprise the Progressive Chevra Kaddisha who ensure this mitzvah is fulfilled and dignity for our dead is maintained. In Sydney, and other parts of our region, the Chevra Kaddisha, often run by the Orthodox, fulfil this same task. It is indeed the highest mitzvah – one that can never be repaid.
After death, the grieving process is also challenging. Again, our tradition established brilliant mourning rituals to help facilitate the grieving process. The raw, exposed, unsheltered burial ceremony - hearing the piercing sound of the dirt hitting the coffin - forces the mourners to confront the reality of death. The shiva period (7 days after the funeral) is designed to enable us to sit with our grief, not to rush back to our normal lives, pretending that we’re strong enough to continue as life as usual. We’re not. We’re not supposed to be. In fact, the more we try to continue as usual and not deal with our loss, the more likely our grief will reappear when we are unsuspecting. Then, shloshim (30 days after the death), we go back to our normal lives, but avoid putting ourselves in situations of celebration, for it is often in those situations that we feel our loss most acutely. Finally, the yartzeit (11 months for the righteous, and 12 months for those whose life deeds were questionable). We look back and see how we have fared during the past year, feeling our loss and learning to live with it. According to Dr. William Worden, there are four tasks of grieving: 1) accept the reality of the loss; 2) work through the pain and grief; 3) adjust to a new environment without your loved one; and 4) create an enduring connection to your loved one. Our Jewish mourning rituals guide us through this process. Death is a reality that we all face. It is a natural part of life. Yet, so many of us are uncomfortable in the lead up to death and even how to manage after the death of a loved one. Let’s start talking about it. Talking won’t expedite the onset of death, but it will appease some of our anxiety, feelings of helplessness, and discomfort when the time comes, enabling us to live our lives more fully.
Burying the dead with dignity can only be done when the living also look after themselves. As we draw near to our Day of Judgement, may we live our lives in a way that enables us to fully be there for those who need us, knowing they will never repay our deeds.