The Washer and the Washed: Bound in Sacred Duty

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September 1, 2003
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By Lynn Greenhough

I am a member of a Chevra Kadisha because I believe we are with God in life and in death; that we are with God in this life, Olam HaZeh and in the next, Olam HaBa. While our very existence is testament to God’s generous intention, it is hard for most of us to acknowledge such generosity in the face of death. The mitzvah of kavod hamet, honoring the dead, grounds this intention by binding us to our community through shared ritual. In doing so, we not only bind our faith through that ritual, we recreate a stance of renewed optimism and trust.

As we begin the rechitza, the physical washing, we acknowledge God’s dwelling amongst us, even as the metah, the dead person, has begun her journey from this world. We feel God’s presence as we wash her hair, rinse, and then gently comb it free of knots. We hold her in transition between two worlds.

Judaism constantly challenges dualistic theology, emphasizing the profound connectedness of the spiritual with the material, the emotional with the physical. As we witness the changes in the body of the metah, her limbs now leaden, so too do we sense her diminishing yet still sacred presence. Even as death brings tumah, this ritual of taharah brings about purification, through poured water, prayer, and our collective attentiveness to death.

We proceed, first along her right side, and then her left, washing the body from head to toes. We enter into a scripted liturgy and ritual that acknowledges the sacredness of each life. These tangible rituals alert us to our sacred interdependence. Together, the dead and the living fuse in a cleansing ritual that is at once mundane and utterly holy.

The mitzvah of taharah purifies not only the person who has died, but also us, the washers. As we pour water, as we gently wash fingers and toes, we too are wet with the mayim chayim, the living waters of cleansing. Into this room we bring the elements of life: candle, water, shards of clay to be placed over the eyes and mouth, and our own breath. We sense the holiness of our actions, the sacredness of each fingernail, stretch mark, and stitched incision. We approach each person as if he or she were a Sefer Torah inscribed by the Divine. Each time we touch death we are renewed. These ritual gestures intimately bind us to each other.

Death demands. There is no argument, no procrastination. Death demands our presence and death demands this ritual of physical and spiritual purification. Death demands we remember we are a tribe dedicated to gemilut hasidim, acts of lovingkindnesses – attending the dead but once. Each time I participate in a taharah I am reminded, yet again, to show such kindnesses to the living, to not wait for their death to open my heart.

One of the texts that teaches our ritual relationship to the dead is called Tractate Semachot. In a telling textual conundrum, death and simcha, joyfulness, are blurred. Through these rituals, we encounter life and death, joy and grief. In facing death we find the spark of holiness that binds us to each other and to God and, in the sharing of that spark, we know that what was shattered can be healed.

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Lynn Greenhough has been a member of her Chevra Kadisha for seven years. She is a member of Congregation Emanu-El in Victoria BC, Canada. Her master's thesis, "We Do the Best We Can," chronicles the history of taharah rituals and documents the experiences of contemporary Chevra Kadisha members in small Jewish communities across North America. Lynn was a coordinator of the first International Chevra Kadisha conference held in Rockville, Maryland in June 2003. She is also on the Board of Kavod V'Nichum.

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