From The Other Side Of The Bench
By David J. Seidemann, Esq.
Temple Beth Am. Temple Beth El. Congregation Bnai Israel. Beth Jacob. The Agudah of ______ (you fill in the blank). Face it—there are not that many names for synagogues. Every city where there are ten Jews has a place of worship with one of the aforementioned names on its marquee.
There are other names or acronyms that describe various Jewish institutions across the land. The JCC, Federation, the Family Purity Society, and the Jewish Burial Society, also known as the chevra kadisha in some locales and the chesed shel emes, “good acts of truth,” in other cities.
At any rate, the Jewish Burial Society in each city is responsible for the ritual purification of a Jewish body post-death, pre-burial, as well as the burial itself, to ensure that the myriad of laws connected to the proper handling of a Jew who has left this world is maintained.
Not every Jew is familiar with the Jewish laws of death and mourning. Others know but don’t care. Still others, if given the opportunity to learn the laws, would opt to have a halachic internment as opposed to the other options that are available.
Chesed shel emes, a kind, good deed of truth, as it is loosely translated, derives its name from the concept that doing this mitzvah for the deceased is a “true good deed” because the deceased, for obvious reasons, can never pay you back.
But as you are about to learn, a true act of kindness, as it relates to burial, might have another definition.
Recent estimates have the cremation rate amongst Jews at close to 30 percent. That is staggering and painful. Burning a Jewish body upon death is anathema to all we believe, and for a Jewish soul to have its last act on earth anything but a mitzvah places a pall upon the entire experience of transitioning between this world and the next.
For me, having had relatives burnt to death in Nazi Germany, the thought of Jews being burned again is even more disturbing. It makes no difference that the burning might be by choice.
I need to change the names of the players in this story, but the details are true as reported. I heard this not more than an hour ago and decided this was the storyline to go with this week, as opposed to my planned topic of Wolf Blitzer’s repentance (I guess he read my article from two weeks ago) and Geraldo Rivera’s foolish comments this week on the radio, wherein, if I heard correctly, he admonished Israel for taking the bait and firing back at the terrorists. He reportedly said something to the effect that if Iron Dome was working, there is no need for Israel to fire back. Do I really need to explain the utter absurdity of that line of thinking? Maybe next week.
So Sheila passes away and her husband Max informs the family that the cremation will take place the next morning at 11:00 a.m. Upon hearing the news, Sheila’s niece and nephew, who live in our area and are the only observant family members, spring into action. Within minutes, the Jewish Burial Society is in touch with Max and tries to persuade him to forgo the cremation and instead provide Sheila with an Orthodox Jewish funeral. Max insists on carrying through with his former wife’s dying wishes. The niece and nephew pay a personal visit to Uncle Max. They cannot sway him. The rabbi calls. Nothing doing. It soon becomes 10:30 a.m. and final preparations for the cremation are under way.
Finally, at 10:45 in the morning, 15 minutes before the scheduled cremation, the niece and nephew receive a phone call from Uncle Max. Max agrees not to cremate Sheila on the condition that no chapel service is held and that whatever takes place is done graveside. Oh, and one more condition—no rabbis allowed.
The family thought they could sneak a rabbi in, but Max was ahead of their game and he wanted a “guest list” in advance. As soon as he saw a name that he Googled and ascertained was a rabbi, he threatened to cancel everything and proceed with the cremation.
A local businessman who happens not to be a rabbi found out about this matter and agreed to attend the funeral service and officiate at the cemetery. He gave a beautiful eulogy about a woman he did not know, jotting down notes in a frenzy as reported to him by Max. The non-rabbi also spoke of the tremendous mitzvah of being buried according to Jewish law and commended Max for doing what was “right.”
The “non-rabbi” noticed that not more than 100 feet away lay his own parent, and he mentioned that when he returned to the cemetery in a few weeks for his parent’s yahrzeit, he would visit Sheila’s grave and place a stone. Max was moved.
As they were leaving the cemetery, Max turns to our hero and says, “I would never have cremated her.” Our rabbi’s jaw drops and he questions Max about the whole charade and the insistence on no rabbis if there was no intention to follow through with Sheila’s request.
Max answered. “Sheila was a non-believer. She truly had no issue with being cremated. I could not cremate her, but I felt I had to do something to acknowledge the fact that she was a non-believer and a non-practicing Jewess. But on the other hand, I saw something that, years ago, made this non-believer, if not believe in G‑d himself, at least believe in G‑d’s nation, and specifically the people of his nation that do believe.”
“You see,” said Max, “we have a religious niece and nephew in New York and years ago they invited us to their Passover Seder. We were not observant then or now. But the way they carried themselves and the way they treated us made us feel so special and so loved that all these years later, I cannot allow Sheila to leave this world in that manner if my niece and nephew say we can’t cremate Sheila. My niece and nephew have demonstrated the care and concern they have for Jews of all levels and are models to emulate. If they are made in the image of G‑d, then G‑d must be good. Sheila was buried in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law.”
Traditionally, chesed shel emes means an act of kindness for the deceased, after they have passed away. But sometimes it means an act of kindness when they are still living. For Max, it was something as simple as being invited for a Seder that created a kosher burial service years later.
Success is not always visible to the naked eye. Not only is the return on the investment not immediate, sometimes the return isn’t realized till after the recipient is no longer with us. It’s a struggle every day. But the reward, the ability to positively influence others, is always there whether you daven at the Agudah and the other person worships at Beth Am, or whether you worship at Beth Am and the recipient of your outreach davens at the Agudah.
The not-so-faint echoes of “kill the Jews” are heard worldwide. At the very least, we need to give life to the souls of our brethren wherever they might be and however they might believe. ϖ
David Seidemann is a partner with the law firm of Seidemann and Mermelstein and serves as a professor of business law at Touro College. He can be reached at 718-692-1013 or firstname.lastname@example.org.