Our Tradition (BT Sotah 14a) records the teaching of Rabbi Chamma, the son of Rabbi Chaninah on the verse from the book of Deuteronomy (13:5), “Follow Adonai your God, revere God, keep the commandments and obey God’s voice; this is how to serve God and hold fast to the divine.” Rabbi Chamma quotes the verse and then asks the question, “what does it mean to follow God? Can a human being actually follow the Divine Presence?” His answer is that “follow” is a metaphor for “emulate.” Read the text, and see what God does in its stories. Then, go out and do those things.
And among the things that God does in the stories of Torah is to lovingly care for the dead. It’s the very last thing God does, as it so happens. And the person whose body God cares for is Moses: “God buries the dead, as it is written, “God buried him in the valley.” So you too should bury the dead.”
Seeing to the proper burial of the dead is of paramount value in Jewish tradition. It is so important that the people who take on the work are called the chevra kadisha, the “Holy Fellows” or “Sacred Society.” And all around the Jewish world, the seventh of Adar (which was on Tuesday) was marked as a day to honor their work.
Why is this the case? First, because Moses’ yahrzeit is computed by the Rabbis to be the seventh of Adar. When else but on the anniversary of the day on which God performed the mitzvah of burying the dead would we honor those who follow in God’s ways? Additionally, Parashat Tetzaveh, which includes the description of the Priestly Garments, is always read on the Shabbat following the seventh of Adar — and those garments become the template for the tachrichin, or shrouds, which the chevra uses to adorn the body for burial.
So how do we honor the Chevra Kadishah? It must be said that most of the year, we don’t. While the identity of the chaverim isn’t a secret per se, it’s also not meant to be a point of pride. We are careful to never thank someone for serving on a chevra kadisha, instead recognizing their efforts by saying tizku lamitzvot — “may you be lucky enough to perform even more mitzvot.”
By intentionally holding back our gratitude and accolades, we are allowing the Chevra to more fully turn their holy work into what our tradition calls the chesed shel emet — the truest, most altruistic, act of kindness there is. Lovingly and respectfully tending to the body of a deceased friend, neighbor, or even stranger is ultimately non-interested. It is the favor that, by definition, cannot be returned. And so we call it chesed shel emet, the truest kindness of all.
But serving on the chevra is a chesed shel emet in another sense, as well. It is the chesed, the loving deed, that is performed around the moment of emet, or ultimate truth. When we learn of a death, we say baruch dayan ha’emet – inelegantly translated as “Blessed is the Judge of Truth,” but better rendered as my teacher Nancy Flam does, “Blessed is [the One] who sets limits and ordains the physical laws of creation,” or “Blessed is the Maker of limits and finitude.”
It’s hard to confront mortality in more than an abstract way. Everyone dies, sure. Most of us can say the words. But the members of the chevra kadisha who wash and dress the bodies of their fellow Judea members confront mortality in an earthy, real way. The mortality of others and, at least in my experience as someone who’s been privileged to perform the mitzvah, their own. It’s hard work, and beautiful work, and holy work.
The desire and perhaps even the need for the chevre to work in relative anonymity in order to maintain the proper relationship to their task stands in tension with the need the community has to acknowledge their work, and the importance of lifting up the work as a way of inspiring others to be involved. And so, once each year, on or near the seventh of Adar, the chevra is recognized and thanked for what they do to serve us.
In a moment, we will be reading from parashat tetzaveh, the section that describes the garments which were worn by the priests in ancient times, and whose names are now mapped onto the shrouds. You can follow along on page __ in the Etz Hayim commentaries, beginning with verse 39 of Exodus, chapter 28. Coming to the bima for the aliyah tonight will be the members of our chevra kadishah. As they come forward, we honor their presence and pray for their continued success in their sacred work….
May the one who blessed our ancestors bless these holy chevrei, who give of their time to do the most sacred work there is: the chesed shel emet. May their service bring honor to all beings created in the divine image, and may the work shape their souls in beautiful ways. May their presence on this bima inspire others to Your service, O Holy One, as future members of the chevra and in many other ways. May they continue to follow You, revere You, keep Your commandments and obey Your voice; may they serve You and hold fast to You, always.