My Uncle Harry died in March of 2002. I had gone to Kansas City to visit my parents and, hopefully, to help them move from an apartment into an assisted-living facility. Between the time I had made my travel plans and the time I arrived, my uncle had been hospitalized for what the emergency room doctor thought was a heart attack. In doing their morning check-in, the nurses at the assisted-living facility to which my uncle had moved in October found him on the floor of his bedroom. Having turned ninety in February, he was used to being in the hospital. Uncle Harry had survived a couple of heart attacks, a car accident, eye surgery in January, and numerous other ailments through the years—all of which were recorded precisely in files he kept in his apartment. When I arrived on Saturday evening and stopped by my parents’ apartment before going to the hotel where I was going to stay, they told me that the hospital had called them in the afternoon to tell them that my uncle was in critical condition. It appeared that—this time—he would not be coming home.
The next morning, at 4:30, the phone rang in my hotel room. It was my mother, telling me that the hospital had called again and requested that a family member come because it looked like Uncle Harry would not last much longer. My dad was not in great shape and my mom wouldn’t leave him alone. So, I said: “Of course I’ll go.” Driving the forty blocks between the hotel and the hospital on a quiet Sunday morning, it didn’t take much time for me to get there. I found my way up to the intensive care unit, introduced myself to the nurses, and was taken into the small room where my uncle was lying in bed, hooked up to machines that told in raw numbers how little of his life was left. For half-an-hour, I basically sat with him, held his hand, talked to him, and watched the monitor tell me that he was about to die. When it happened, I accepted the condolences of the staff and called my parents and my brother to make arrangements, and received a call from the funeral home to set up the funeral on Tuesday.
There is no doubt in my mind that what I have just described is all-too-familiar to some of you who have had similar experiences when members of your family or friends have died. Our tradition makes it clear that there are mitzvot pertaining to the time leading up to death, when the death actually occurs, the various periods after death, and the ways in which we should remember those who have died. In observing these mitzvot, we are doing several things. We are showing respect for the deceased. We are comforting the mourners, or being comforted ourselves as mourners. We are linking to a community of the present and the past. And, we are affirming our faith in God and the great value that life has over death.
The Mishnah provides for us a list of some of the most important mitzvot in our tradition. The list is so significant that it appears in our prayer book—in the Shabbat morning service in the Birkot Hashachar, the morning blessings. That means that, theoretically, we are reminded weekly that doing these mitzvot is an essential ingredient in Jewish life. The list follows the blessing for Torah, with which you may be familiar: “Baruch Ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Haolam, Asher Kidshanu B’mitzvotav V’tzeevanu Laasok B’deevrei Torah. Blessed is the Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, Who hallows us with the gift of Torah and commands us to immerse ourselves in its words.” With that as the frame of reference, this quotation from the Mishnah follows: “These are the obligations without measure, whose reward, too, is without measure: To honor father and mother, to perform acts of love and kindness, to attend the house of study daily, to welcome the stranger, to visit the sick, to rejoice with bride and groom, to console the bereaved, to pray with sincerity, to make peace where there is strife. And the study of Torah is equal to them all, because it leads to them all.”
This message is new for some people, old for others. And I want to tell you why it took on a new level of understanding for me and how it can be the same for all of us. First, the translation of the opening phrase is not really literal, or at least part of it isn’t. The reason for this may be that this phrase alludes to a belief in the World to Come, the Olam Haba, a belief which the early Reform Jews found to be somewhat of a distraction from living the life on earth that has been given to us by God. One literal translation would be: “These are the things that cannot be counted, that a man eats their fruits in this world, and the remainder is stored up for him in the World-to-Come, and these are they.” What does it mean to “eat the fruits” of honoring your parents, being loving and kind, attending the house of study daily, welcoming the stranger, visiting the sick, consoling the bereaved, praying with sincerity, and making peace when there is strife? I think it means that the fruits of your labors, the results of your efforts, are there for you to see and enjoy when you perform these mitzvot. And what does it mean when it says “the remainder is stored up for him in the World-to-Come?” It means that, even after death, you will be rewarded for what you have done during your life.
There are two other translation issues that are crucial to mention. First, the final line in Hebrew only says “the study of Torah is equal to them all.” It does not actually say that it leads to them all. Now, this is not an example of liberal translation for a liberal agenda. In fact, the traditional rabbinic commentaries state that the meaning of the study of Torah being equal to all of them, weighted the same itself as all of them combined, is that knowing them is the essential prerequisite to doing them. Doing mitzvot without knowing they are mitzvot is better than not doing them. Knowing mitzvot but not doing them is worse. And, second, I want to draw your attention to the words that are translated as “consoling the bereaved.” The truth is that the Hebrew words “ulvayat hameit” mean “and accompanying the dead.” From the word “ulvayat” comes the word “halvayah,” which means “funeral.” So, in Jewish tradition, a funeral is about accompanying the deceased to his or her resting place.
That’s what we did two days after my uncle died. With my brother and I there, we had no need for another rabbi. He came in from Topeka with his wife and son, and my wife and daughter flew in from Boston. My parents were unable to attend on that cold and windy March day because my dad was sick and my mom wanted to stay with him. But, we called them on my cell phone and my daughter and nephew held it up to the mouth of whoever was speaking so that they could hear the funeral. The man from the funeral home was there, of course, and we really expected no one else—despite the obituary in the Kansas City Star. After all, my uncle was ninety, had been living alone for many years, and had no friends. Much to our surprise, my dad’s and my uncle’s first cousin arrived for the graveside ceremony. Then, we met a man my uncle had worked with for many years before retiring twenty-five years ago. Finally, one of my parents’ friends from their temple came to support them, and to comfort them as mourners—assuming that they would be attending. With such a small group, almost all of us were pallbearers. And as we walked up the steep hill to the grave, the words “ulvayat hameit” sprang into my brain; we were truly accompanying the dead. Many times, we all let the cemetery workers accompany our dead to their graves, and we walk behind them and whoever is conducting the service. Occasionally, we have the honor ourselves or give to someone else the honor of being a pallbearer. In this case, we all had the honor of performing the mitzvot, the fruits of which were obvious at the time, the memory of which will last a lifetime, and the reward for which may actually be waiting in the World-to-Come.
Having accompanied many people to their graves—many of whom I didn’t know—and having done it for my uncle, I understood why it is included with the other commandments and why it is important in and of itself. Every one of those mitzvot is about community. None of them can be done on a deserted island, and none of them can be done without interacting with other people. The reward of their performance is that you do something positive that affects someone in your community as well as you. They are commandments/unselfish deeds that you can learn about, but it is better that you should do them rather than just talk about them. They are mitzvot that are hard to do, that may require some effort. But they are deeds that link you with others, with your heritage, and with God, and they have lasting significance. As we go through life, may we be accompanied by those who love us and care about us, and may we accompany them even when it is hard to do so.
Rabbi Stephen Karol
Rabbi Stephen A. Karol is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, New York. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati in 1977, and has served at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, Massachusetts, and Temple Isaiah. He teaches at Temple Isaiah and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Stony Brook University, and is a frequent speaker at synagogues, churches, Jewish Community Centers, and various organizations on 15 different topics. Rabbi Karol lives in Port Jefferson Station, New York with his wife Donna.