March 19, 2018 – Rabbi Susan Leider

The ancient rabbis were deeply insightful when they envisioned caring for the dead and guiding those mourning the loss of a loved one.  Before the dawn of modern psychology, the rabbis uncannily addressed these existential human needs: naming the loss of a human being in the world, creating concentric circles of time in which to grapple with a loss (onenut, shiva, shloshim, yahrzeit), and crafting rituals of dignity to escort a loved one to a final resting place. 

The gift of Kol Shalom

Here at Kol Shofar, we are blessed by those leaders who came before us, who made it a priority to designate Kol Shalom, our very own Jewish burial area.  The last time I was at Kol Shalom for a funeral, I actually heard someone whisper, “This is so beautiful here – I wish I could be buried here!”

Located in the Tamalpais Cemetery, Kol Shalom is an idyllic and beautiful area in the hills of San Rafael.  Many of the beloved of our community have been laid to rest there. 

The millennia-old tradition of escorting the dead

According to Jewish tradition, we would once bear the coffin of a loved one on our shoulders to the cemetery. The entire community joined in this procession, for the mitzvah of accompanying the dead to the grave supersedes all other mitzvot, including Torah study.

In our day, the long distance to the burial place makes this difficult, but the rabbis still tell us to walk behind the coffin for some distance – either before it is driven to the burial site, or at the cemetery when the coffin is carried from the hearse to the gravesite itself. Doing this allows us to perform the mitzvah of halvayat ha-met, “escorting the deceased.”

But fulfilling this mitzvah can be challenging at Kol Shalom.  There is a narrow road leading up to Kol Shalom and this can make it difficult to escort the dead to their final resting place.   Many who arrive at Kol Shalom proceed directly to the gravesite before the casket arrives at the gravesite.

So, how do we best realize this particular mitzvah at Kol Shalom?  I encourage mourners, family, and friends to gather near the hearse at Kol Shalom.  When the pallbearers step forward to carry the coffin to the gravesite, mourners, families and friends may follow.   In this simple way, we can maintain our focus on the mitzvah of escorting the dead to his or her final resting place.

In our 21st American culture, there is so much emphasis placed on turning away from death.  In our rush to emphasis joy and happiness, we can easily be deterred from allowing ourselves to be fully present in the face of death and loss.  These rituals have stood the test of time.  Jewish communities for thousands of years have been engaging these spiritual practices to honor our dead and to comfort the mourners.  

From escorting the dead, to attending a shiva minyan at the home of a mourner to planning for your own funeral, Judaism encourages us all to be engaged with our mortality in an honest and open way.   The Kol Shofar rabbis encourage you to consider providing for your own advance needs too.  Purchasing a cemetery plot in advance helps family and friends, as does preparing your will and advance directives.  Dedicated Kol Shofar congregant Steve Sockolov is available to help you with questions you may have about Kol Shalom. And, the Kol Shofar rabbis are available to meet with you to address questions you may have about end of life rituals in the Jewish tradition.  Rabbi Leider’s Judaism 101 class on March 25 is “A Time to Mourn: Traditions for Death, Grief, & Healing” – please attend and learn with us. 

These acts in and of itself are a way of showing gratitude for the life we enjoy, while acknowledging that we will all eventually return to the dust.  This is what the ancient rabbis wanted: for us to grasp these rituals that support us through times of loss and to ultimately to embrace the life we have.

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