Of all the mitzvot we are called on to perform, which are the most sacred?
In truth, there is no easy way to answer that question. There are many mitzvot—sacred, commanded acts—that the Jewish tradition calls on us to perform. Some are easy and fun, while others are complex and even burdensome. Some are meaningful to us, while the meaning and relevance of others are difficult to comprehend. And how would one go about measuring the sanctity of a particular act, given that people understand the idea of holiness in different ways?
Still, the Talmudic Sages expressed the idea that the most sacred of the mitzvot are the ones that call on us to treat the dead with respect and honor. We learn this from many sources, including this week’s Parasha, Chayei Sarah, where we find the story about Abraham, grief stricken at the death of his wife Sarah, goes about the task of finding a suitable burial place for her. That place turns out to be M’arat Ha-Machpela, the Cave of Machpela, located in Hevron. The site is still there today, revered as the ancient burial place of our patriarchs and matriarchs.
Jewish burial and mourning customs are important, since everyone, at some point, must face the end of life. Who among us has not encountered, at some point, the grief that results from the passing of a loved one and the challenge of bereavement? Our traditions concerning burial and bereavement are rich, deep and meaningful. They fall into two categories: K’vod Ha-Met (paying honor to the deceased) and Nichum Aveilim (comforting the mourner). Comforting the mourner is a crucial aspect of our burial and mourning practices, as the Jewish tradition places a heavy emphasis on moving forward with one’s life in a positive manner after going through a time of bereavement. And we place a great deal of emphasis on honoring the deceased for several reasons. First, the body is a gift from God, on loan to us during our earthly journey, and we have a sacred duty to return this gift to our Creator at the end of physical life. And honoring the deceased is of crucial important in Jewish tradition because it represents what we call a Chesed Shel Emet, a truly righteous act, something done for another person that they cannot possibly do for themselves, a kindness that can and never will be repaid by the individual to whom it is directed. Our tradition teaches that such an act, one done without expectation of reward, is among the highest forms of righteous behavior.
How can we fulfill the mitzvah of Kevod Ha-Met, of honoring the deceased? At the most basic level, we follow customs such as rapid burial (ideally within 24 hours of passing), keeping the casket closed and having someone be present with the deceased from the time of death until burial (the person who does this is called a shomer). At the time of death, the deceased are prepared for burial through the ritual of Tahara, or ritual washing of the body. This is done by a group of people, called a Chevra Kadisha (Holy Burial Society), who are have learned how to fulfill this sacred task and who embrace the mitzvah as a meaningful spiritual act. A communal Chevra Kadisha is now being formed and you will shortly receive an invitation to be trained in performing Tahara and serve on a Chevra Kadisha that will accommodate the needs of the congregations in South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn.
The mitzvah of Kevod Ha-Met can also be fulfilled by supporting the Hebrew Free Burial Association, an important group that has been providing free burial for indigent Jews who are alone or have no family and cannot afford the costs of burial. The HFBA has been active since the 1880s and has provided Jewish burial services at no cost to over 60,000 people since its inception. Each year on Parashat Chayei Sarah, the HFBA reaches out to the Jewish community with an invitation to support their work. Click here to learn more about the Hebrew Free Burial Society and to offer your support.
Which is the holiest mitzvah? We each may have a favorite Jewish practice, but it can surely be argued that honoring the deceased and taking care of those in mourning are among the most sacred acts we can perform as Jews.