Death of a Drive-through

Friday, 13 January, 2017 - 1:12 pm

Earlier this week I read a news report about the “Pioneer Cabin Tree” in California, better known as “the drive through tunnel tree”, that fell down after a storm rocked the area. Though I grew up in Israel, I heard about this tree – that is presumed to be well over 1000 years old – in my childhood and I was “going to get there” one day. I did make it to Yosemite in 1999, but never to the tree. Now, it’s a part of history.

I always like to learn a lesson from current event, and there are many we can take from this story, but there is one unconventional one I would like to focus on today: Every one dies, even a 1,000 year old giant tree.

Though we all know that – until Moshiach comes – we are all going to die one day, death is not something we like to speak about. Most people shy away from the topic and shift uneasily if they absolutely have to speak about it. I, for one, am not afraid to discuss this topic when needed; perhaps it’s because of dealing with my mother’s passing when I was 13, or maybe another reason; but it’s still not a favorite topic of conversation.

The reluctance to discuss death leads to situations, whether because someone died suddenly or just didn’t get around to discussing it, that family members aren’t aware of what the wishes of the deceased are.

Judaism is very clear about end-of-life rituals and traditions and they are spelled out at length in Halachic texts. The most important rule in my opinion is that after our long life, our bodies must be buried in the ground and not cremated. This is stated as early as the first portion of the Torah in Genesis, through countless references in Talmudic and Halachic sources.

The reluctance to discuss death, however, has led many to simply not be aware of this fact or not discuss it with their children. Over time, the rising rates of cremation in the USA have trickled into the Jewish community and tragically, many Jews don’t merit to “die like a Jew”.

This is why the National Association of Chevra Kaddisha (NASCK) has created TEAM (Traditional End-of-life Awareness Movement) to educate and encourage others to discuss the traditional approach to end-of-life matters and encourage people to make the proper choice and be buried. In addition to their year-round efforts, they have designated this Shabbos, where the Torah discusses at length the death and burial of Jacob our patriarch, as TEAM Shabbos, a weekend to encourage rabbis and lay leaders alike, to overcome the natural shyness to discuss this topic and begin the conversation. Let everyone be aware of Judaism’s approach, and the more knowledge there is out there, the more Jews are going to make the right choice for end-of-life.

I intend on addressing this topic in Shul tomorrow, and I encourage you, whether you are twenty years old or a hundred years old, to have a conversation with your family and friends on the subject. While this platform is not one suitable for a lengthy discussion on the topic, you can find a lot of information here and here. I will be glad to set up a time to discuss this subject with you and your family.

Collectively, we can all make sure that every Jew is not only born as a Jew, but lives a long healthy life as a Jew and after their long, happy life, will also die as a Jew.

To end with a positive note, I wish each and every one of you a gut Shabbos and may we all have a happy and healthy long life, full of meaning and growth.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Mendel Greisman 


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