Monday, August 23, 2010

Chevra Kadisha Seminar - The Knowledge

By Susan Esther Barnes

Below is Part Two of a two-part post about a seminar I attended. I'm posting it in two parts since each post looks at the seminar from a different perspective. The first post includes some things I learned that were incidental to the seminar. This post is about some of the things I learned that the seminar intended to teach. The first post also explains what the words “Chevra Kadisha” and “taharah” mean.

While I expected to learn the technical aspects of how to perform taharah at the Chevra Kadisha seminar I attended on Sunday, I was surprised to find it included information on Jewish beliefs about what our soul does after we die. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. The seminar was, after all, being taught by a rabbi.

I was fascinated by what the rabbi said happens when we die. Of course, there’s no way to know whether his description is accurate, but it appeals to me in many ways, so I can hope the tradition got at least some of it right.

He described how, while we’re alive, we can only think of a certain number of things at once. There are a lot of things going on all around us, but we can only focus on one thing at a time, and we usually tune out everything else. Similarly, we can’t remember every single detail about everything in our past; we can just remember certain things.

He says when we die and our soul separates from our body, we suddenly lose our previous limitations. Suddenly, we can perceive everything around us at once. We can remember every detail of our lives, including the joy of every single thing we ever did right and the shame of every single thing we ever did wrong.

The separation from our body and the sudden knowledge we gain about ourselves is a big shock. A soul in this state wants to move on, but it isn’t ready yet. It is distressed and confused. So it clings to the thing that is most familiar, its former home, its body.

The soul is fascinated by the experience of being outside its body and is concerned about what will happen to its body now that it has left. Thus, as we perform taharah we should be aware the soul is still there, hovering nearby, watching everything we say and do.

This is why, when we do taharah, we apologize to the person we’re washing, for any indignities they may suffer during the process. We’re not just talking to a dead body; we’re also talking to the soul who used to be in the body and who is in the room with us. This is one reason why, when we talk about taharah, we use the term “dead person,” not “dead body.”

The seminar also conveyed quite a bit of useful information about the technical aspects of taharah, such as the best way to turn and hold the person on his or her side so they don’t slide across the table while washing the back, how to remove a tube from them with a minimum of bleeding, what to do if we find a prosthetic limb or a cast, etc. He even showed us the best way to put on the traditional garments after the washing is done.

There are certainly a lot more details to consider than I would have thought. The seminar also helped me see how various unexpected things could come up during the process, and why it’s important to handle those issues in a calm and resourceful way. I think I could be helpful with that. If I ever get over the whole squeamishness thing.

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