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Strengthening Chevra Kadisha
Every Jewish community has a group of people who have taken upon themselves the responsibility of caring for the deceased.
This group, known as the Chevra Kadisha, Jewish Burial Society, performs the tahara, ritual purification of the deceased, washing them, immersing them in a mikvah, clothing them in burial shrouds, and overseeing their burial.
The term Chevra Kadisha literally means, “Sacred Society,” a designation unique among organizations dedicated to chesed, kindness. Its sanctity stems from the fact that its work is considered chesed shel emes, the truest form of kindness.
Chesed shel emes is a mitzvah of the highest order. So important is it that Moshe Rabbeinu himself took care of the body of Yosef during yetzias Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt; and as a reward, his body was cared for by Hashem Himself.
The work of the chevra is both physical and spiritual, and is performed in an atmosphere of reverence and prayer. They treat the body as befits its status as a tzelem Elokim, an image of G-d, and the earthly home of an eternal soul. Like a Torah scroll, it is uncovered only when necessary.
Moreover, there is perhaps no other mitzvah in which the connection of body and soul is made as clear as tahara. Although the soul leaves the body at the moment of death, it remains near the body until burial. (In fact, it lingers in this world even longer than that.)
The soul is aware of how the body, its longtime partner, is handled, and feels pain if it is mistreated. At the conclusion of their work, the chevra asks aloud for forgiveness from the deceased for any insult to its honor they may inadvertently have caused.
Not everyone may feel capable of participating in a tahara, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be involved in chesed shel emes. The work of the chevra kadisha includes activities that take place outside the tahara room, as well.
People are also needed to make phone calls, arrange minyanim, set up the shiva house, and provide meals for the mourners. In addition, people can help advocate for better communication between hospitals, funeral homes, and chevros. Doing outreach to expand awareness of Jewish burial ritual and organizing continuing education for chevra members are also important aspects of chesed shel emes.
The gemara in Moed Katan makes it clear that the responsibility for burial falls on each member of the community. Through assisting the chevra kadisha — in whatever way is possible for us — we are able to play our part in this holy task.
May our dedication to chesed shel emes and kavod hameis, respect for the deceased, bring us speedily to the time when the work of the chevra is no longer required; a time when, as Yeshaya prophesied, bila hamaves l’netzach, Hashem will destroy death forever.