Things Will Never Be The Same Again by Eve Levy
This Shabbat, we start at the beginning of the Torah with Parshat Bereisheet. It is the same old story we have been hearing since childhood, but this year it’s completely different for me. In fact, nothing looks the same.
A few weeks ago, a JWRP sister was visiting her ill mother here in Portland, Oregon. The daughter had come to be with her mom and siblings to celebrate her mom’s 70th birthday, but her mom died on that very day.
That same day, I got a call from the Chevra Kadisha, the Jewish burial society. They had a sudden death in the Jewish community and needed help with the tahara, the Jewish purification of the body before burial. They were short that day because one of the main volunteers had broken a finger. I realized that this tahara must be for my friend’s mom.
As a child growing up in Toronto, I knew my mom volunteered for the Chevra Kadisha but I never really knew what it entailed. As hesitant and as nervous as I was to help out, I could not say no, not for this Jewish woman and especially not for my dear friend.
I quickly made arrangements and got ready to go, completely unsure of what to expect. The woman who picked me up had been doing this for many years, and I clung to her, asking dozens of questions on the ride to the funeral home.
Nothing could have prepared me. We arrived at the home and rolled up our sleeves. There was work to be done. We needed to prepare the casket, get supplies, fill buckets with water… I had no idea what was going on, but I tried to be as helpful as possible.
We suited up in hospital gowns and put on gloves. Then, I caught a glimpse of the lifeless body in the next room. She was beautiful. I had never before seen a dead body. The last memory I had of being so close to death was when I was 12 years old, crying over the closed casket of my beloved Zaidy Lipa, who would tickle me and sing me Yiddishe songs.
This was so different. This was intense. I paused before entering the room, as if wanting to ask permission from the dead woman first. I felt her soul in the room. I felt her watching me. I felt a wave of fear wash over me. Could I do this?
As the question floated around in my head, I was given more instructions. Before I knew it, I was rushing back and forth, refilling buckets of water and helping the other women wash the body.
We started with the head, washing her hair and rinsing the soap out ever so gently. Each hair that fell out was collected and placed in a linen bag to be buried with the body. Each limb was washed, one at a time, with so much respect and care. The body was covered at all times. The first time I touched the body was to undo her beautiful necklace. The body felt so strange, cold, stiff, heavy… so lifeless. The necklace was gold and unique, with beautiful stones and the initials of her three children dangling from it. I set it aside to return to my friend during shivah the next day.
The tahara process took more than two hours. It entailed propping the body on moistened wooden planks to create a continuous flow, almost like a mikvah, as three of us volunteers poured water over from her head to her toes. Water splashed over us all but we continued until three entire buckets were emptied. We chanted “Tehora hee” three times. “She is pure, she is pure, she is pure.” It was beautiful.
I was crying, not out of sadness but out of complete awe. Over the years, I have taken many women to the mikvah. Many brides in the prime of their lives, many JWRP sisters upon returning from their trips, and many returnees to Judaism and its mitzvot. I always feel so fortunate to help these women transition from one state of spiritual reality to another. Every person is born through water, and we have the ability to continue renewing ourselves through immersing in the mikvah waters as we start each new chapter in our journeys.
The last part of the tahara process was dressing the body in the special tachrichim, shrouds, garments made from simple white linen. There was a bonnet, pants, a tunic, and an overcoat called a kittel. The garments came with many linen ties, and there was a specific way of tying them. I felt like I was dressing this woman for her wedding day. She shined in the crisp, white garments.
I felt an intense sense of peace descend as we finished preparing Penina bat Avraham for burial. After gently moving the body into the wooden box, there was one final step. We took earth from the land of Israel and put it on her eyelids, her mouth, over her heart and body. And last, we placed pieces of broken pottery over her eyes and mouth, then we wheeled her out of the room to take her final journey in this world.
As I washed my hands and collected my belongings to leave, I knew my life would never be the same. There is no turning back after such an experience. A certain innocence was gone, but in its place was a deeper understanding of life and death and of Judaism. Jewish law expects us to live the most noble and dignified lives while in this world, and even in death, we must remember who we are: a noble and kingly nation. Everything was crystal clear to me at that moment.
In Parshat Bereisheet, we have the story of Creation. When we come to Day 6, we learn about the creation of man. “So G-d created Man in His image, in the image of G-d He created him…” (Genesis 1:27).
“And Hashem G-d formed the man of dust from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life; and man became a living being.” (2:7)
I can’t just read these passages casually anymore. Our bodies were created in the image of G-d. They are beautiful as they are, meaning we must accept and love our bodies. They are the greatest gifts from G-d! We need to take care of the gift we are given, love every part of it.
If that were not enough, G-d also gave us a soul, our eternal soul, breathed into us lovingly by our Creator. But this precious soul cannot do its work here in this world without the body, and the body cannot exist for even one minute without the partnership of the soul. They are a magnificent and G-dly team.
The high holidays have just ended. Now real life begins. Now we must apply all the changes we contemplated and prayed for during the past month of introspection. It’s a new year full of potential and opportunity. This Shabbat is a new beginning as we start over again from the top of the Torah with Bereisheet. But it’s different this time around. We are different. Things will never be the same.
This article is written in the merit of Penina bat Avraham. May her soul be elevated in heaven. I never had the privilege of knowing her in her lifetime but she has touched me and changed me forever.
Eve Levy is a JWRP City Leader from Portland, Oregon.