May 19, 2024
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May 19, 2024
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Over the last number of years, as klal Yisrael’s calendar page turns to Parshas Vayechi, communities throughout the country dedicate this Shabbos to the topic of kavod hameis.

Numerous articles have been written on this topic, many from this author, about the significance of the sanctity of life and of the requirement to prolong one’s life, regardless of the level of functionality of that life. We often quoted the Chazal “Yafah sha’ah achas b’olam hazeh, mikol chayai olam haba,” “greater is one hour of life in this world than an eternity in the next world.” Chazal are referring to the opportunity to accomplish, gain zechusim, and do chesed for others that cannot be done in the heavenly world.

We are all familiar with the famous story of the Vilna Gaon, who was on his deathbed and began to cry. His students questioned his crying and said, “Rebbe, how can you cry when you are heading to a lichtiger Gan Eden in reward for all you accomplished in this world?” The Vilna Gaon grabbed hold of the strings of his tzitzis and lovingly kissed them and said to them, “How can I not cry when I will soon be leaving the world that is so filled with mitzvos, that by just putting on a four-cornered garment with tzitzis one fulfills a mitzvah in the Torah?”

And so, when first asked to write once again about the topic of kavod hameis, I declined, because what else can I add to what has already been said and written? That was my decision until an incredible timing of a phone call changed my perspective and made me realize how incredibly important this issue of kavod hameis is.

Allow me to explain.

Two weeks ago I participated in a program for 500 Jewish university students, mostly either totally unaffiliated or marginally at best. It was a special one-day forum titled “The Resiliency of the Jewish People.” The dedicated organizers of this program had divided it into two parts. The morning session would host several speakers, each focusing on a different historical period of churban for the Jewish people that had lasting ramifications. There was a session on the Churban Beis Hamikdash and the Yidden going into galus, another on the Spanish Inquisition and a third on the Holocaust. The second part held in the afternoon would focus on the historical periods of rebuilding following the Churban, one session on the Chashmonaim, and yet another on the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

I agreed to participate in this innovative program, as I felt the opportunity to speak to hundreds of unaffiliated young Jews in one forum where I had the freedom to speak openly, that just maybe Hashem would put into my mouth the proper words that would have some spiritual impact on these young, open-minded Yidden.

I was given the topic of the Churban Bayis and was given an hour for my presentation. Immediately following me was an acclaimed historian and author of the Holocaust period who was slated to bring to the forefront the absolute horrific destruction and suffering that klal Yisrael went through during this period. I decided to stay and listen to his presentation.

While his presentation was enlightening and informative, he went into graphic detail of the use of the crematoriums by the Nazis (yemach shemam). From my vantage point of the stage, I looked out at the crowd of young students and saw many of them sitting uncomfortably, some squirming in their seats having to listen to the presenter’s graphic description of the crematorium. At first, while sitting there, I couldn’t understand why he chose to speak about this particular aspect of the Holocaust in such detail and why I needed to hear it. Less than an hour later, I understood.

After his presentation, I left the forum and was in my car heading to my next appointment when my phone rang. On the other end of the line was a dear friend, the expert and advocate for kavod hameis, a person who has dedicated his life to chesed shel emes, Rabbi Elchonon Zohn. With his organization, NASCK—The National Association of Chevra Kadisha, he, perhaps more than anyone else, has raised the issue of kavod hameis to a place where it deserves to be—in the hearts and minds of every Yid.

The purpose of his call was to share with me another one of his creative ideas to help spread the idea of the importance of kavod hameis to the non-traditional Jewish communities. He then shared with me an astounding statistic that totally overwhelmed me, that in certain Jewish communities around the country, the rate of Jewish families that choose cremation instead of burial is almost 70 percent. Nationally, it is about 40 percent. I was shocked, as I am sure you are, at the level of disregard for our most sacred mesorah of burying our dead in the same manner that our avos hakedoshim did from the beginning of time.

After concluding the call, I couldn’t ignore the coincidence of the timing of this call. I just sat through an hour-long lecture on the horrific fate of klal Yisrael in the Shoah, that even after all the colossal suffering and murder of millions of Yidden, the Nazis (y”s.) had to even take away the opportunity to allow their victims to be buried with kevuras Yisrael and instead burned their heilige bodies in the crematoriums. And immediately afterward, I receive this phone call from Rabbi Zohn on the painful statistic of how many Yidden today, in a free country, in a medinah shel chesed, choose themselves to do to their loved ones what the Nazis (y”s) did to our parents and grandparents just decades ago.

It was at that moment that I decided to take pen in hand and once again reach out to acheinu Bnei Yisrael to take this issue very much to heart and let everyone do their part to increase the awareness of the value of life in this world and the significance of kavod hameis for those who have left this temporal world.

Many months ago, a very wonderful Yid from the Five Towns community reached out to me with a painful shailah. His father unfortunately suffered a major stroke more than a year ago and has remained in a comatose state ever since. Months earlier, he was transferred to a facility that is about an hour’s drive from his son’s home. For the first few months, he visited his father every single day after leaving work before he went home. Then he limited his visits to once a week and lately he has been going every other week.

The shailah he asked me was a difficult and painful one. He explained that his father is in a coma and has no knowledge on any level that he is there to visit him. He has a very full day with a large growing family at home, and each visit, which is an hour travel time each way, takes out more than two and a half hours out of his already hectic day, leaving him physically and emotionally drained. Yet he feels terrible that he is not providing the proper kibbud av that is required of him, and the infrequency of his visits to his father is greatly troubling him. His shailah to me was what is his requirement to his father under these circumstances, and how often should he go. He made it very clear that he would follow whatever I instructed him to do.

I am sure that my rabbinic colleagues reading this also share my uneasiness paskening this type of shailah. On one hand, the mitzvah of kibud av is a mitzvah raba and is not meant to be an easy mitzvah to perform. On the other hand, the son’s responsibility to his own family and his own well-being is of paramount importance as well. I took the easy way out and told him I will consult with Hagaon Rav Dovid Feinstein on his shailah and get back to him in a few days.

A few days later, a friend, Rabbi Binyamin Koval, the rosh kollel of the Flatbush Morning Kollel, shared with me the most incredible insight that he had heard in the name of the then-zakein hador, Maran Rosh Yeshiva Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, zt”l, that will be life-changing for many.

An elderly Yid was approaching his 100th birthday and he was greatly troubled. On a daily basis he would share with his son the source of his agitation. He explained, “I need to understand why I am zoche to have this arichas yamim. My father died at 46 and his father before him at 41. I am a simple person, not learned or accomplished, why am I zoche to live now until the age of 100 (and beyond)?” Any response that his son shared with him was inadequate. The son was so concerned about his elderly father’s wellbeing with this question that so troubled him and he decided to present the shaila to the gadol hador, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, zt”l, to receive guidance on what he could answer his father. What the rosh yeshiva answered was absolutely incredible and it could only come from someone whose vision of the happenings in this world, big or small, is worlds apart from our own.

The rosh yeshiva responded, “Tell your father the following reason why he is zoche to arichas yamim. Hakadosh Baruch Hu is working to bring an end to Galus Edom. The zechus that Edom had all these years was the great kibbud av that Eisav had for his father. And so, Hakadosh Baruch Hu, in the tekufa achrona, was meshane teva haolam (changed the nature of the world), allowing people to live longer, so that klal Yisrael, in caring for their elders longer, can generate additional zechusim of kibbud av that is k’neged the zechus of Edom, thereby being able to bring (finally) an end to Galus Edom.” In other words, this person was zoche to arichas yamim so that more zechusim could be generated by his children and thereby additional zechusim for klal Yisrael.

What an absolutely incredible insight into the darchei haolam, and what our simple eyes see as a good fortune of growing old is really part of Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s plan to bring the geulah for klal Yisrael. After hearing this machshava, I quickly called the fellow who asked me the previous shailah and shared it with him. I suggested that he should keep the rosh yeshiva’s insight in mind when trying to determine what his course of action should be in juggling his obligation to be with his father and his obligation to himself and his growing family.

As I was preparing to leave to Eretz Yisrael for a yahrzeit trip, this person called me again. This time he shared with me the following. He just got up from the shiva for his father but wanted to express his personal hakaras hatov to me. He explained that ever since I shared with him the machshava of Rav Aharon Leib, he once again began to visit his father several times a week.

However, these times he wouldn’t be burdened with the thoughts of what good are his visits accomplishing when his father is not even aware of his presence, for now every time he got into his car for the hour drive to his father, he had in mind that he is contributing to bringing the end of Galus Edom. This so motivated him that he went enthusiastically, and it also invigorated his family as well as they all supported his efforts not only on their behalf, but on behalf of all of klal Yisrael.

There you have it. It’s all interconnected. Kavod hameis and kavod hachai should be viewed by us as not burdensome or insignificant,chas v’shalom, but rather as bringing an end to this bitter galus we are in, one zechus at a time.

May it happen speedily in our day.

By Rav Aryeh Z. Ginzberg

 (This article is written lz”n Sarah Chaya z”l bas Rav Aryeh Zev.)

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