Latest update: May 20th, 2012
To this day, this true story makes the hairs on my neck stand up straight. It’s a story whereby too many “coincidences” just “happened.”
There are some Jewish rites that are practiced by few to benefit many. The many have little if any knowledge about these rites. Literature is scarce, and the topic is usually avoided.
For nontraditional Jews, following Jewish rituals and rites may seem antiquated, useless, or unnecessary. These Jews often forgo our traditions, feeling they do not apply to them.
But it is quite enlightening to learn that practicing tradition may truly affect another soul – observant or not – in a positive way.
A sacred tradition known as taharah (ritually preparing a body for burial) has almost always been done by the Chevra Kadisha, the Holy Burial Society. The society is often secretive.
Chevra members do this work for their love of tradition, Judaism and our fellow human beings, and a belief that we need to tend to the neshamah of the meit.
Miracles, luck, coincidences – everything happens for a reason.
And now my story:
A Chabad rabbi told me by phone that he had just received an odd phone call from a female stranger in Israel. The woman asked the rabbi for help, not for herself but for her best friend from New Jersey. This friend, whose husband was not Jewish, had just died after being very ill.
Both women cherished their Jewishness and traditions. The friend was beside herself with grief and fear, grief for the loss of her friend and fearful that the non-Jewish husband would not provide a Jewish funeral for her.
The caller implored the rabbi to get in touch with the husband of the deceased. Coincidentally, the husband was home and took the rabbi’s call. After their chat, the rabbi called me. Coincidentally, I was home. (I’m usually at work on that day of the week.)
As part of the rabbi’s promise to try to ensure a Jewish burial, and with the permission of the husband, the rabbi asked me for a metaher for the deceased woman. The rabbi was aware that I am a member of a chevra kadisha. It was quite the coincidence that enough female chevra members were home to answer the calls and available to perform this mitzvah on such short notice. We completed the taharah and went our separate ways.
Several weeks passed and, as we frequently do, my husband and I visited my 93-year-old aunt. Our usual routine is to get there in late morning, have brunch, schmooze for about an hour, and return home.
As we were finishing brunch two elderly ladies, walkers in hands, came to wish my aunt a happy birthday as – coincidentally – that day was her birthday. A few minutes later another elderly lady, this one in a wheelchair and with her aide, came to express her birthday wishes.
The small room was now crowded, so we left in order to allow my aunt to spend time with her friends.
Because we left earlier than usual, we were now one hour ahead of schedule. So when I noticed a kosher butcher shop a block from my aunt’s home, I was curious to see if it offered better prices or cuts than the place where I usually shop. I went inside to check it out.
Huge glass windows allowed me to see inside the shop from the street. I could see the woman standing behind the long counter, and she was preoccupied with a computer screen. The screen was tilted in a direction not visible to me as I stood at the entrance.
After not finding anything of interest in the shop, I headed back to the door where I was able to see the computer screen. Various trips, tours and flights were displayed on the screen. Coincidentally, just a few weeks earlier I had turned in my tickets for a trip to Israel because the airport had just instituted the new controversial TSA policies – rules I oppose. Seeing the ads regarding trips on the computer caused me to blurt out, “Oh, I just turned in my tickets for a trip.” When the woman asked me, “Where were you going to go?” I heard her accent and quickly asked her where she was from. After responding that she was from Israel, I said, “What a coincidence, that is where I was to have traveled.”
She looked very sad and I asked her how long she has been here, thinking she was homesick. She told me that a few weeks ago, while she was in Israel, her best friend died. Her friend, who had been quite sick, had confided to her that she wanted a traditional Jewish funeral but was not confident that her non-Jewish husband could or would make that happen. She shared with me that she has trouble sleeping at night, not knowing what actually happened to her friend. Her voice trembled as she told me that while she was in Israel and learned of her friend’s passing, she went so far as to call a New Jersey Chabad rabbi hoping he could help.
The few details she had just shared with me made the hands on my arm stand up. I had to know more, as I couldn’t fully grasp the possibility of what I was thinking. I asked the obvious questions: How old was your friend? Where did your friend live? What did she die from? What was her name?
Through her tearful responses and sad words of concern for her friend, I was honored to put her fears to rest. I was blessed to be the conveyer of comfort to her troubled soul, to assure her that I, as the head of the chevra that cared for her friend, could positively state that her friend had a 100 percent kosher taharah.
Hearing this, she literally jumped over the counter and bear-hugged me, crying uncontrollably that my being there – in this shop and on this day – had to be more than sheer coincidence. She said that she is now at peace with her friend’s passing, and feels her soul is now at rest.
It happened that we went that particular Sunday.
It happened to be my aunt’s birthday that day.
It happened that company arrived while we were there.
It happened that the apartment was too small for everyone to remain.
It happened that we decided to leave earlier than scheduled.
It happened that I spontaneously decided to go shopping.
It happened that my husband was willing to stop and wait while I shopped.
It happened that I went into that particular store.
It happened that I saw the computer screen.
It happened that the content on that screen caused me to make conversation.
It happened that I paid attention to her accent.
It happened that I asked her where she was from.
It happened that I asked her why she was sad.
And everything had to happen in the right order.
Doing taharah did not just bring the chevra a sense of awe and sacredness. It brought peace and comfort to the mourner. This goal is exactly what Jewish burial tradition hopes to attain.
We of the chevra do what we do because of our personal responsibility for one another. Thus we always leave the taharah room with a prayer on our lips, as we never expect to receive more than internal gratification. But to actually see the positive difference it made for another is an experience that will continue to bring comfort to that woman and to our chevra for eternity. Baruch Hashem, I was blessed that day to have been the person that brought peace to that woman.
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