Last month, when I was in Jerusalem, I naturally went to the Kotel, a place I always felt was home, since my paternal ancestors were Kohanim. The Beit Hamikdash and its environs were the “alte heim” for me.
This time, I came as an orphan in mourning, having lost my remaining parent, my mother, after
Pesach. Finding an empty spot by the Wall, I leaned forward and pressed my face against the smooth cool stones and closed my eyes while the sun warmed my back, like a soft blanket. I suddenly sensed my parents nearby, the way a slumbering child, eyes closed and heavy with sleep, senses his parents at the doorway, watching over him, protecting him, loving him. For me, it was like an embrace that comforted me.
The feeling that I had connected with my parents is one that I now experience when I go to the
cemetery. There are so many mitzvot that Hashem has given us, whose reason is not immediately apparent, like not mixing dairy foods with meat, or separating wool from linen in garments. But I now have better understanding of G-d’s commandment to bury our beloved dead, as opposed to cremating the remains – which after all is quick, inexpensive and does not take up land and space that could be used for other purposes.
Whereas adherents of other religions have the option of cremating the remains of their loved ones, or even mandate it, Jews are required to return to the earth those who have passed away and to erect a timely monument that bears witness to their existence. Those who pass by and read the name carved on the stone become aware that a holy neshama (soul) had been sent down by Hashem, had completed the tasks that He had assigned to it, and had finally returned “home.”
And for us who were left behind, the G-d given gift is that burial ensures that we not feel totally cut off from those who were so much part of our earthly lives. For we have a sacred place to visit those whose lives were entwined with ours, and to speak to them – to ask for their help, for a bracha, for comfort.
We humans need to have some sort of a physical manifestation, some piece of solid reality in order to feel connected. Several years ago, a popular movie came out that depicted the fight for physical and emotional survival of the sole survivor of a small plane crash that left him stranded on a deserted island. His extreme loneliness, his overwhelming sense of isolation was relieved when a basketball washed up on shore and using mud and grass, he gave it a face and talked to it. Having something tangible to look at soothed him emotionally.
So too I find that when I am at the cemetery, or the Bais Hachayim – the House of Life as it is called – and see and touch the matzevot that signal my parents’ eternal dwelling place. I feel that I am in a sense “knocking at the door” and I am being welcomed. If I am troubled, or feeling anxious or have news, I can “go” to my parents and share my life’s events with them. I feel linked. No doubt this sense of association is why countless ehrliche Yidden travel
thousands of miles to visit the kevarim of Gedolim – because the physical manifestation of their existence facilitates an emotional one.
Those who have cremated their loved ones and scattered their ashes are truly orphaned and bereft. Such is the sad plight of the generation of Holocaust survivors whose family members were totally physically erased, as if they never existed. When they celebrated milestones like the birth of children, graduations, weddings, the survivors had no place to go to “invite” their loved ones – as was the minhag in many communities. They could only silently invoke
their names. (Baalei simcha would go to the cemetery and invite their relatives to participate and no doubt, many felt the spiritual presence of the beloved family member at the simcha).
How blessed are we that we, through Hashem’s guidance – can always visit “home.”
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