Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How Threads Become Cloth

By Susan Esther Barnes

This story is a composite of stories that really happened. The names have been changed for the sake of privacy.


It is Saturday morning. Rabbi Sarah is at home with her family. It is her day off. The synagogue’s other rabbi is performing services this morning, when Rabbi Sarah’s phone rings. It is about Leah, a congregant.

Leah’s mother Keren had minor surgery yesterday. They were supposed to take her home today to recuperate, but somehow, during the night, she died. Can you go?

“Of course,” says Rabbi Sarah, and she heads out to the hospital.

It is Saturday evening. I am at home, thinking about the Super Bowl party I will attend the next day, when the phone rings. It is about Keren, may her memory be a blessing.

The funeral will be on Monday afternoon. Can you help with the taharah Monday morning?

“Of course,” I say, and I send an email to work to let them know I will be in late on Monday.

It is Monday afternoon. Joan, this month’s Nichum (comfort) Captain receives an email. It is about Leah.

Leah’s mother died suddenly over the weekend. The funeral was today. Can you make sure some meals are delivered to her over the next couple of weeks?

“Of course,” replies Joan, as she turns to her computer to send an email to a list of volunteers who live near Leah.

It is Monday evening. Iris receives an email from Joan. It is about Leah, but the email does not include any names or addresses.

A woman’s mother died suddenly this past weekend. She lives in your area. Can you bring her a meal? You don’t need to cook. Anything, even just a chicken and salad from the grocery store, would be fine.

“Of course,” replies Iris, “I will be happy to help.”


At the hospital, Rabbi Sarah hugs Leah. “If you like,” she tells her, “we have volunteers from the congregation who will watch over your mother’s body, who will make sure she is not alone, who will wash her and dress her, and prepare her for burial.”

“Do people still do that?” Leah asks.

“Yes, there are people who still do that.”

“I would be so grateful,” breathes Leah.

Later, Rabbi Sarah watches as the coroner puts an identification tag on Keren’s toe. It is a sign that she is really dead.

At the mortuary, we talk about how this is a person we are about to wash and dress, a member of our community, not just a body. We will refer to her as “Keren” or as “she;” never as “it.”

After we enter the room where Keren is lying on a table under a sheet, we check the tag on her toe. This is important, because we will be the last people to see her face. Once we place her in her coffin and seal it, the coffin will not be reopened. The tag is a signpost to ensure we are doing this for the right person.

At home, Joan contemplates the year gone by. Within a six month period, she had two major surgeries, one on one leg, and one on the other. During her two separate month-long stays in a care facility, and during each recovery period, members of the congregation delivered meals to her and her family.

She is grateful to be the Nichum Captain this month. She is grateful to be able to give back to the community that helped her when she was in need. It is a sign that she is well on her way down her path of healing.

Iris is thinking about the recent passing of Keren. Although they didn’t know each other well, the two of them used to work at the same company. Iris regrets that she was unable to attend Keren’s funeral, and that she was unable to tell her daughter Leah how sorry she is that Keren is gone.

While she is thinking these thoughts, she receives a follow up email from Joan, giving her the name and address where she is to take the meal she has volunteered to deliver. It is for Leah, Keren’s daughter.

Outside Leah’s home, Iris is about to double check that she has the right address, when she sees the mezuzah on Leah’s front doorpost. It is a sign that in this house dwell members of our community.


During a shiva visit to Leah’s home, Leah can’t tell Rabbi Sarah enough about how much she appreciates the fact that members of our community sat with her mother and cared for her from the time of her death until the time she was buried. She never expected the outpouring of love she has received, from meals, to phone calls, to cards and notes.

As we seal Leah’s coffin, light the Yartzheit candle, and leave her in the company of the Shomeret who will watch over her, we feel grateful to have been given the chance to do this holy act of taharah. On some level, we understand the family probably feels we have done them a favor, but we know, in fact, it is they who have done us the favor by allowing us this opportunity. After spending two hours with death, we are changed, and we cannot help but notice the abundance of life around us.

As her time as Nichum Captain comes to a close, Joan is grateful to have been given this opportunity to give back, and to help make connections in her community. She appreciates how much she received when she was ill, and is aware that in giving back in this way, she is still in the process of receiving.

Iris delivers her meal to Leah, and is able to take the opportunity to speak with her about her connection to Keren. She tells Leah what a special person Keren was, and how sorry she is that Keren is no longer with us. Leah thanks her for her words, and Iris feels grateful to have been given this chance to express what she was unable to say at the funeral.


This is how we gather loose threads, each which, by itself, would lie alone and underutilized, and weave them into the fabric of our community. This is how we take threads that, by themselves, could be easily broken, and create a material with a strength far beyond that which any individual thread could provide alone. This is how threads become cloth.

1 comment:

  1. I tried to post on the carnival, but it didn't go. Here is my post for next week's carnival. Thanks.