Friday, November 12, 2010

She is Pure

By Susan Esther Barnes

My day started with the strangest shopping trip I’ve ever been on. The evening before, I had been at the phone bank where we were calling congregants to ask for donations to our annual Tradition of Giving Campaign.

While I was there, Rabbi Lezak called me into a private room to let me know a member of our congregation had just died. She had been suffering from cancer for some time, and I had agreed to be one of the people to perform taharah for her, the ritual washing of her body and preparing her for burial.

I had been preparing for this for about a year, ever since Rabbi Lezak had said we were planning to expand our Bikkur Cholim group, a group of people who visit the sick, to become a Chevra Kadisha, a holy society or group of friends, to perform taharah. Although our congregation was formed over 50 years ago, to my knowledge we had never before had a Chevra Kadisha there.

I read about it, and I attended a seminar on it in San Francisco. I also attended the series of classes Rabbi Lezak offered to us at the synagogue. One evening, Sue Lefelstein, the Associate Executive Director of Sinai Memorial Chapel in Lafayette, came out to give us a copy of the procedure manual they use, and to explain the process.

The night before the congregant I mentioned above died, about 20 to 25 of us went to Sinai Memorial Chapel where Sue led us as we performed taharah on a manikin for practice.

When I first thought about doing taharah, it really freaked me out. It seemed like an incredibly scary thing to do. Then, last summer, my friend Rose died, may her memory be a blessing. I sat with her in the morning on the day she died, and suddenly taharah seemed much less frightening. How could Rose’s body ever be scary? But she had chosen not to have taharah done for her.

As I got closer to actually doing it, it became even less scary. While I stood in the room at Sinai Memorial, watching the washing of the manikin, I found myself feeling completely calm. I was prepared.

Except we as a Chevra Kadisha weren’t entirely prepared. We had only just finished the training the night before when we learned of this congregant’s death. If she and her family had chosen Sinai Memorial, or any Jewish establishment, as her mortuary, they would have had all the taharah supplies available to us on hand.

This family had chosen a non-religious mortuary, however, which meant we couldn’t be sure what supplies they would have available to us. And because our tradition is to bury people within 48 hours of death whenever feasible, that meant we would be doing taharah on her the next day. Thus, my sudden shopping trip for taharah supplies.

Fortunately, Sue, the angel from Sinai Memorial, had given us a list of things we would need. I grabbed my list and headed to Target, arriving just as they opened at 8am. For all I knew, the mortuary might be ready for us as early as 9:30 or 10, and I didn’t want to hold things up.

As I walked down the aisles, I thought about my odd list and how I didn’t want to say anything that might get me arrested. For instance, when I asked a clerk where I could find nail polish remover, I thought, “If she says something like, ‘We recommend this one because it has aloe which is good for the long term health of your nails,’ it would probably be a bad idea for me to respond with something like, ‘Oh, I’m not worried about that. We’re only going to be using it on dead people.’”

As I was at the check-out counter, Rabbi Lezak called on my cell phone to tell me the coffin delivery was delayed due to it being Veteran’s Day, and therefore we wouldn’t be able to do taharah until the afternoon. So it turned out there had been no need to rush.

Although my heart was racing as I drove the last few blocks to the mortuary, as we met with Rabbi Lezak and talked about the woman who had died and what we were going to do, I relaxed.

When we walked into the preparation room (without the rabbi, since only women are allowed to wash women), I found I was perfectly calm. I thought I would feel a jolt of anxiety the first time I saw a real person covered by a sheet, but I didn’t.

So we washed her, and one of us said the prayers, and we poured the ritual water over her while we repeated three times in Hebrew, “She is pure, she is pure, she is pure.” Then we dried her and dressed her. It was all done with deliberate, loving care.

She had been ill for so long and had lost so much weight that we didn’t need to use the electric lift to move her into the coffin. I had the privilege of being one of the three people to move her.

I will never forget the feeling as I cradled her in my arms and gently lowered her into her coffin. The only way I can describe it is it felt purely, wholly right. We covered the coffin and asked her forgiveness for anything we may have omitted, or any error, or anything we may have done to offend her.

I thought, “This is such a beautiful thing. How could anyone who knows about taharah not want it done for themselves and for their loved ones? Why would anyone want this done by strangers, no matter how competent they may be, rather than by their own, loving community?”

Afterward, we spent about 20 minutes talking with each other, as a transition before we hugged each other and got into our cars to leave.

Because we had started so late, it was already getting dark. Usually I equate darkness with lifelessness, but as I drove home I found myself feeling deeply aware of the incredible abundance of life all around me.

As I navigated my way through the rush hour traffic, I found that whereas when I drive I normally think of the cars around me as just vehicles, I was suddenly acutely aware that inside each vehicle was a person. As I drove I was part of a stream of living, breathing, human beings all heading in the same direction down the freeway.

On several occasions I have heard Rabbi Lezak say, “Get close to death. It will bring you closer to life.” I thought I knew what he meant, but now I finally understand.


  1. susan, this was a beautiful piece about something that i admit to not knowing a whole lot about. you words, though? divine! thank you. :)

  2. Galit -

    Thanks. I would suspect a lot of us don't know much about it. Two years ago I had never even heard of it. Which is a tragedy we hope to change, in our community at least.

  3. Knowing this woman as I did, I know she would be deeply grateful for the feminine love and care you blessed her with in this ritual. How perfectly brilliant that she was the first to benefit from your learning. She was a very special woman and cared for others all her life. This was a beautiful gift.

  4. My mother ran our town's Chevra Kadisha for years. Welcome to a very special sisterhood of very special women.

  5. This is a gorgeous post. Thanks for sharing.

  6. That was a beautiful and loving thing you did. Thank you for sharing it.

  7. When a Jew does a mitzvah, it can be for many reasons. It's hard to know if we're doing it "l'shma" (only to serve Hashem) or not.

    Do I want to give a large amount to charity so that people will honor and praise me?

    Am I preparing to give a Dvar Torah this shabbat so that everyone will congratulate me afterwards?

    Often times, we have to search within ourselves to know if we're doing the right thing for the right reasons.

    However, when someone does a met mitzvah (a mitzvah for a dead person), it is obvious that the action is l'shma. Why?

    Because the person can't pay you back for it. The recipient of your mitzvah can't praise you to your friends, or compliment you in public. There's no personal gain (in this world) from a met mitzvah.

    May you always be blessed to perform all of your mitzvot l'shma.

  8. Its wonderful Blog.When Jews have moved out of various apartments in NYC they’ve left their Mezuzah behind. And the goyim, apparently, have been keeping them affixed to their doorways.

  9. Thank you for sharing this lovely account.
    I was reared as a devout Catholic and though I disagree with many of the church views, one thing I do like is the way they honor the Stages of Life. I was present when the Last Rights were preformed for my grandmother and from that experience, I have gained a certain peace towards the idea of death. I believe the Church/Synagogue Fathers were wise to provide ritual to help church members to overcome the fear of death, because when you think about it, the ritual seems like it would be less for the deceased and more for the friends and family left remind us of what the church teaches us of death and what happens to us when we die.
    Again, thank you for sharing your experience.

  10. Hi - I just uncovered and restored some mezuzahs in my NYC apt. Thought you would be interested in my blog post at Thanks and hope you enjoy!