Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hesed Shel Emet - A Modest Proposal

This term figures in Parshat Vayehi, to be read two weeks from this Shabbat, where Yaakov extracts from his sons a promise to carry his body out of Egypt and bury him in Israel. It refers to "true kindness," that shown to the dead who cannot reciprocate in this world. We Jews place a high value on respectful handling and prompt burial of the dead. Ideally, all handling and preparation, as well as the burial itself, should be performed by observant Jews.

I explained in a previous post how it saddens me to see a casket wheeled out the back door of the funeral chapel on a cart like a bale of dry goods being wheeled to a loading dock. It should be carried instead by strong Jewish men. That is usually the case at the cemetery itself, where relatives and friends of the deceased carry the casket to the open grave, lower it and fill the grave with earth. However, I recently had occasion to attend the funeral of a family friend's mother where this was not the case. Death occurred on a Thursday, and the funeral was held the next day. Friday at this time of year is a bad day for a funeral, as if there was any such thing as a good day for one, what with people having to work and prepare for Shabbat. The chapel was practically empty, and there was no minyan at the cemetery for Kaddish to be recited. Of the men that were there, most were elderly and unable to handle a shovel. The Gentile cemetery workers had to carry the casket from the hearse to the grave and lower it in. I and one or two others shoveled as much earth as we could and covered the casket, and then the cemetery workers completed the filling-in.

All this happened because of the timing and the fact that the deceased had few friends or relatives who could attend. It no doubt happens too often for comfort. The resulting indignity could be mitigated if the cemetery workers were observant Jews. Part of the sickness of galut is an aversion to manual labor, as if it was shameful to make a living with one's hands. But not everybody is capable of mastering the Talmud or memorizing the Krebs Cycle. There are people who cannot sit in one place and focus on a text for any length of time, but who like to make things, fix things and otherwise work with their hands. Our society marginalizes such people instead of making use of their talents. If they are blessed with physical strength, they could support themselves honorably by handling Jewish burials when no other Jews are available. Such work might also appeal to recent graduates temporarily unable to find jobs in their fields. As a side benefit, the work itself would keep the workers fit and strong. And they will be getting paid for it in both worlds.

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