Posted on November 12, 2017 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
Our tradition teaches us that the deeds we do for the deceased are among the greatest kindnesses possible. Clearly our sages had in mind that such acts are untainted by thoughts of self-service, since there is nothing the dead can do to requite us. A recent experience, however, helped me see a deeper dimension to what the rabbis meant when they invoked the term chesed shel emet to speak of such acts of kindness. Chesed means more than kindness. It is often translated as “lovingkindness,” and its use in the Bible invokes an expression of deeply mutual or covenantal love.
The experience was the funeral of a nonagenarian at which all of her four children and nine grandchildren were present. As a rabbi, this scene is not an uncommon thing to witness. Deep love of family is, thankfully, to be seen in abundance in our community (and beyond). It is often there, but is not often expressed as palpably as it was on this occasion, notably by the grandchildren.
It struck me at the cemetery as I watched each of the grandchildren take his or her turn at taking the shovel in hand and, in keeping with custom, turning it upside down to scoop some earth on the back side of the blade and placing it in the grave, which is meant to reflect our sadness and reticence at the need to be performing this act. Each one did this with strong and clear intention, with what seemed to be a deep knowledge of the meaning of this practice, and, more importantly, what it said about the bond between them and their grandmother. This is how we know that a ritual is alive, when it is a tangible conduit for the expression of meaning. In this case, I saw it speak to the value of l’dor va-dor, the living, vibrant link between the generations, between these young adults and their beloved grandmother.
These grandchildren did not live in the world of their grandmother. They are of this time and this place. But through chesed, through loving devotion, it was possible to witness that something quintessential and beautiful had been successfully passed from one generation to the next for at least three generations, and undoubtedly more.
It was not incidental, I think, that the vessel for the manifestation of this continuity was a ritual, and an ancient one at that. Such acts reflect a humility before the sacred, a willingness to allow ourselves to flow with the tapestry of time by doing that which those before us have done from time immemorial. In so doing, we become a link in a chain that preserves values that transcend time and space, and partake of eternity. We all live and die, but we are part of something stronger than death — an eternal people who embody the holy.
What I am trying to convey here is not limited to the rites and rituals of death and mourning, though there is something especially deep about them that sets them apart. The beauty of continuity of spirit and sanctity flows through the rituals of Shabbat, holy days, and other moments of the life cycle, as well. But what distinguishes the rituals connected to the end of life is the lifelessness of the deceased we are honoring. They are not there to witness what we are doing for them, and yet we do it nonetheless. We do it davka — especially and affirmatively — because they are not able to look over our shoulders and approve or disapprove. This is why it is so poignant to observe a yahrzeit and to come to shul to say kaddish.
There is little, if anything, that says as much about what we have become in relation to those we’ve loved and lost than standing to recite those ancient words, especially if they recited them in their turn, and so on back through the generations.
We Jews refer to the cemetery as beit chayyim, a “house of life,” because when they function as intended, as part of a set of practices that link the living and the dead, they bequeath to us a measure of immortality. Through memory and loving devotion, through chesed shel emet, we live on like those before us, through those who come after us, l’dor va-dor.
Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck
Originally published in the November-December 2017 issue of the Shofar. For more, visit the Shofar archives.