Now marking close to 50 years serving Bergen County, the local chevra kadisha has become an enormous, around-the-clock endeavor. Between the proliferation of shuls and the influx of new families, and factoring in the tragic passings of the past year, the chevra has been overly taxed with physical efforts and emotional tolls. Thus, the annual tribute to the many members of this extraordinary group could not be overlooked this year. Coinciding with Zayin Adar, the 7th of Adar, the event took place on Thursday evening, February 18. Zayin Adar was selected as the date to honor these altruistic community members as it marks the petira of our greatest leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, who was tended to upon his death by Hashem Himself.
Addressing the Zoom participants, which consisted of many of the members of the chevra kadisha, their families and supporters, were Rabbi Larry Rothwachs, mara d’atra of Congregation Beth Aaron; and Rabbi Dr. J.J. Schacter, University Professor of Jewish Thought and Jewish History and senior scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University.
Rabbi Rothwachs introduced his remarks by pointing out that the virtual setting of the tribute was indeed fitting as the work of the chevra kadisha, though mainly of a physical nature, most definitely deals with the virtual or spiritual world. The physical body being prepared for burial maintains its spirituality and thus has to be treated with the utmost respect. The well-informed and prepared members of the chevra are highly attuned to that which they cannot touch with their senses. “They have to possess virtual sensitivity.”
Rabbi Rothwachs went on to share a highly meaningful interpretation by Rav Pam on the pasuk in Parshat Terumah describing the contributions of the nation to the building of the Mishkan. The verb used in conveying these contributions is “V’yikchu,” they took. How can one “take” a contribution? Rav Pam offers that there are two types of tzedakah. The first is when the giver sees a need and contributes to the best of his ability. The second is giving for the purpose of being involved in a holy activity, thus in a sense receiving back in spiritual reward.
As Rabbi Rothwachs explained, “With the performance of any act of chesed we are not expecting to receive anything back in return. However, the second act of chesed enables us to walk away enriched by having been involved in that which has eternal value. Such is the work of the chevra kadisha. The older members of the chevra, recently joined by younger members, come back year after year to participate in holy and enriching work that engenders great personal satisfaction.”
In his introduction of the next featured speaker of the evening, Rabbi Rothwachs referred to Rabbi Dr. J.J. Schacter as one who incorporates multiple imprints: Impressive credentials, Insightfulness and Inspiration. Again citing the recent parshiot, Rabbi Rothwachs referred to Rabbi Schacter as being like those chosen to work on the construction of the Mishkan, namely “chachmei lev,” smart of heart. That is to say that Rabbi Schacter balances two extraordinary traits—brilliance of mind and expansiveness of heart.
Rabbi Dr. Schacter began his remarks by admitting that though he is a long-time member of Congregation Rinat Yisrael, he has never actually been aware of who the members of the shul’s chevra kadisha are. And within the Zoom venue they can still remain behind the scenes.
He heartily thanked those identified and those not for their selfless acts of gemilat chesed.
In expanding upon gemilat chesed, Rabbi Schacter mentioned the Yerushalmi that we recite daily about those acts of chesed that have no “shiur,” measurement. Citing the Rambam in Hilchot Evel, those are acts that a person engages in b’gufo, with his body. These are acts that incorporate the central pillar of our required actions, “V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha, love thy fellow man as yourself.”
As a concluding blessing to the laudatory members of the chevra kadisha, Rabbi Schacter referred to a well-known Rashi on the life of Sarah Imeinu. In eulogizing Sarah, the text mentions her age in three separate references—me’ah shana, v’esrim shana, v’sheva shanim.
Rashi comments that this separation of years indicates that she was as pure of sin at 100 as a 20-year-old, and as beautiful and innocent at 20 as a 7-year-old. Rav Druk, author of Doresh Mordechai, gives a most relevant interpretation of these references. The text is equating Tehillim kuf, 100, to Tehillim caf, 20. Tehillim caf, 20, beseeches Hashem to answer us in times of tzarah, woe. Tehillim kuf, 100, exhorts us to worship Hashem in simcha, joy. Rav Schacter’s closing bracha to the members of the chevra kadisha as well as to the entire community is to be able to confront tzarah with the same intensity with which we welcome simcha. “May we be able to experience the benefits of blessings in our personal lives in the zechus, merit, of the tragedies we are experiencing this year.”
By Pearl Markovitz