Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My First Experience of Shmira

By Susan Esther Barnes

This week, I had my first experience of shmira, guarding or watching over someone who has died. The Jewish tradition is not to leave a person alone from the time of his or her death until the time of their burial. A shomer (male) or shomeret (female) is the person who stays with the dead person during this time.

This case was a bit unusual. Because of the circumstances of his death, an autopsy had to be performed. Also, the person’s family said the deceased would not have wanted anyone to lose sleep watching over him. As a result, we only had people sit with him from the time he was placed in his coffin after the autopsy until the time I left to go home to bed that evening. We had three people do the shmira, in shifts.

I arrived early, so I had time to walk around the mausoleum. It is a large building, that appears to have been expanded over the years. Most of the dates on the markers showed they were for people who died in the 1900’s, but a couple were from the 1800’s. I imagine those may be for people whose remains were moved, because I don’t think the building is that old.

I was surprised to see that some people’s ashes were stored in containers in glass cases, which also contained other personal items, such as photographs, eyeglasses, and, in one case, a CD of the person’s memorial service.

At one end of the mausoleum are a couple of small chapels. The person with the shift before me was in one of them, with the met (the body of the deceased), who was in a plain wooden coffin with a Jewish star on it.

I let the person with the shift before me know I was there, and I allowed her a moment to say goodbye to the met. After she left, I greeted the met, and introduced myself. I thought it would be creepy to be in a big mausoleum by myself at night, but it wasn’t creepy at all.

The only thing even mildly creepy was the music playing in the background. It was like bad elevator music on Quaaludes – the very worst of what stereotypical funeral home music can be. The person with the shift before me said they tried to find a way to turn it off, but couldn’t, and decided against trying to disconnect the speaker.

Traditionally, people doing shmira read Psalms. The good news is that once I started reading the Psalms out loud, I could barely hear the awful music. I soon realized I should have brought a bottle of water. After only 20 or 30 minutes of reading out loud, my mouth started to dry out.

Other than that, the evening was uneventful. When it came time to leave, I felt bad about leaving the met there all alone, especially with that awful music playing all night. If I were him, that music would be driving me crazy - if dead people get crazed by things like that.

On the way home, I began to wonder why it wasn’t creepy at all being there. Maybe it’s just because of my experience with taharah and the time I spent in the adjoining morgue helped the surroundings to be more familiar and comfortable to me. Certainly, once you have washed and dressed a dead person, just sitting in a room with one you can’t even see is less of a formidable experience. But when you’re doing taharah, it isn’t in the dark of night, and you’re with other people, which helps to cut down on any potential creepiness.

I thought maybe it wasn’t creepy that night because the place isn’t haunted because all the spirits were long since chased away by that awful music.

It also occurred to me that if I had just been sitting there, and not reading out loud, it would have been easier for me to hear odd noises and to start to think about them. Also, by concentrating on my reading, I didn’t have time to dwell on the possible source of any odd noises, even when I did hear them.

Then I thought, maybe there is something to reading all those Psalms about “God will protect me” and “God’s love is steadfast.” Maybe reading Psalms actually does provide mental strength and comfort. Maybe it helped me. I hope the Psalms, and/or my presence, helped the met.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Overthinking Tzedakah

By Susan Esther Barnes

My beloved husband sometimes says I overthink things. I’m pretty sure this is one of those times.

Let me start by explaining that “tzedakah” is the Hebrew word for “justice” or “righteousness.” When we give money to a person who needs it, it is not an act of charity; it is an act of justice. All Jews are commanded to give tzedakah. In fact, the first thing a person is supposed to do when they receive tzedakah is to turn around and give tzedakah to someone else.

There is a wonderful story about two beggars in a little town. They were both having a bad day, and each one only had one coin to his name. When they passed each other on the street, the first beggar gave his only coin as tzedakah to the second one, and the second beggar gave his one coin to the first one. As they continued on their way, they each still had only one coin, but they were both richer for the experience.

So, here’s my story: There is a large strip mall near where I work. I often go there for various reasons, including to shop at Safeway or Costco, to get lunch, to do some banking, or to pick up something at the dry cleaner’s or the drug store. Often, there is a person holding a sign asking for money, standing at the parking lot exit.

My first bit of overthinking involves the sentence above. In this post I could call these folks “homeless people,” but I don’t know whether or not they are homeless. Sometimes they have a sign saying they are homeless, but often the sign doesn’t specify their living arrangements.

I could call them “beggars,” but that seems a bit derogatory. I assume these folks are just doing this temporarily – it’s not like it’s their vocation. What they are doing now shouldn’t become a label with which we define them. The term “beggar” seems to lessen their humanity. So, what should I call these people? I don’t have a good answer.

When I see a person asking for money, there is no question about what I should do. I know that no matter what I intend to buy that day, it’s going to cost me some extra cash if there is a person waiting at the exit.

I used to automatically give the person a dollar. But then I thought, “I’ve been giving people with signs a dollar for years.” During that time, the price of pretty much everything has increased. As a result, the value of the dollar I have been giving by rote has decreased quite a bit since I first started giving them out. So recently, everyone got a raise. I upped it to two dollars.

At any rate (yes, that was a bad pun – sorry about that), I noticed that every time I give some cash to one of the people at the exit, it’s a different person. There never seems to be the same person there twice. They seem to be on some sort of rotation. Why is that? I started to wonder if there is some sort of schedule that they have worked out.

Then, I started thinking, maybe it’s an experiment. I can imagine some professor dreaming up a study, and having different types of people with different types of signs standing on different days in the same place.

An unobtrusive observer would be taking notes about how many people stop and how much money they give, and then do an analysis based on the receiver’s race, gender, clothing, sign, etc. They could even do a cross-correlation based on the giver’s race, gender, clothing, type of car, etc.

The above scenario is probably just another object of my habit of overthinking.

The next bit of overthinking comes in when I use the second entrance to the strip mall instead of the first one. This is the entrance that goes by Costco, but also leads to a number of other destinations.

If I’m going to one of the other destinations, I have to pass by the exit from the Costco parking lot, where there is also often a person asking for money. The question arises (in my mind, anyway), if I’m not going to Costco, is, “Am I obligated to go out of my way to drive into the Costco parking lot anyway, so I can drive back out and give the person there some money?”

After all, even though it would be a bit out of my way, I can see the person standing there. They need money. I don’t think we’re only supposed to give tzedakah when it’s utterly convenient to do so.

Yesterday, it got a little worse. I actually was going to Costco, and as I drove by the guy at the exit and parked, I was thinking I would give him some money on the way out. But then I thought, “What if he isn’t there any more? What if he leaves while I’m in the store?”

We are told that we should run, not walk, to do a mitzvah, lest we lost the opportunity. I wrote a whole story about that a number of years ago. So, I actually got out of my car, walked over to the exit, and gave the guy some money before I walked back through the parking lot and into the store.

But then, as I got ready to leave the store, I kept thinking, “I already gave him money. I’m not obligated to give him more on my way out. But if I just drive past him on the way out without giving him anything, and he doesn’t recognize me (and why would he?) then he may think, ‘There goes yet another uncaring person who won’t help me out.’ Ugh.”

I suppose, if I were a better person, I would have just given him another buck or two. But instead, I went out of my way to drive out another exit. And now I’m still thinking about it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

"Eternity Utters a Day" at TCJewfolk

Read my latest post, "Eternity Utters a Day," at

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Haveil Havalim #359

Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish and Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by Jack.

Opinions expressed in the posts linked below are those of the respective bloggers and not necessarily endorsed by me.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink writes about the upcoming rally against the internet, and some of the corresponding media coverage, in I'm Quoted in the Wall Street Journal Regarding the Asifa posted at Fink or Swim.

Carla Naumberg gives her perspective on the "Who is a Jew" question in Actually, I'm Jewish Even if You Don't Agree posted at Raising Kvell.

Shira Salamone presents some great food for thought in Both Sides Against the Middle posted at On the Fringe - Al Tzitzit.

Here's a handy tip you might want to consider before you write your next email: Rabbi Avi Weinstein presents A Public Service Announcement: "B'shalom" can mean "drop dead"! posted at Scorchin Torah and Strange Thoughts.

The Yiddishe Cup presents Shidduch Myth #2: Same Language, Same Age, Perfect Match! posted at The Yiddishe Cup. Warning: You may not want to pull up this site in a place where you would find it embarassing for anyone (including yourself) to see athletic cups on your screen.

Rae Shagalov presents How Will You Make Your Soul Shine Today? posted at Holy Sparks.

Heshy Fried presents Dvar Torah Emor: Moses and the Blasphemer by Drosenbach posted at Frum Satire.

I use advice from the Talmud to help interpret a fortune from a cookie in Let Reality Be Reality posted at To Kiss a Mezuzah.

The Real Jerusalem Streets presents Lag B'Omer Fire and Smoke posted at The Real Jerusalem Streets.

Batya presents Ariel Building Freeze Thawing posted at Shiloh Musings.

Esser Agaroth suggests we read the excellent idea presented in Instead of Burning All That Wood... posted at Life in Israel.

A Soldier's Mother presents The Politics and Lies of Chosing Death posted at A Soldier's Mother.

Esser Agaroth presents Aviner is At It Again, regarding the Rabbi's drash against protesting the planned expulsion of people from Beit El, posted at Esser Agaroth.

Batya presents Shopping Trip to a Giant Mall posted at Me-ander.

Esser Agaroth presents Settlers AND Do Not See The Real Threat posted at Esser Agaroth.

Rikismom reminds us of who is really in charge, and shares other important insights, in Enhancement posted at Beneath the Wings.

In a related story, Batya presents Just Take Care of Yourself posted at Me-ander.

Ima 2 Seven presents a beautiful story about her amazing youngest son in Shhhhhhh...... posted at Ima 2 Seven.

Ima 2 Seven asked me to pick which of her two posts to include, but with a writer like this, why chose? So here, as well, is Mr. Sendak posted at Ima 2 Seven.

How You Can Participate:If you have a Jewish blog, or have written a post about something Jewish on a non-Jewish blog, we would love to include your work in future editions. To submit your blog post, please go to the Havael Havalim Facebook Page, found here and use the "Docs" tab to look for the current week's host & how to contact him or her. Please don't just post your link on the Facebook page, or it may not make it into the next edition!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Let Reality Be Reality

By Susan Esther Barnes

After dinner with some friends at a Chinese restaurant lastweek (yes, it is very easy to eat at a Chinese restaurant without consumingeither pork or shellfish), one of them, Bruce, opened his cookie and received afortune which said, “Let reality be reality.” He didn’t know what to make ofit, and asked me to write a blog post explaining it.

My first thought was of the book, “Reality Isn’t What itUsed to Be,” which I don’t recommend. It did, however, have some interestingpoints about how reality is a social construct, and therefore is subject tochange over time.

For instance, the reality these days is that if you pull thecord on a public bus, the bus will stop at the next bus stop. There is no lawor mechanical necessity that causes this to happen. It’s just an unspokenagreement between the riders and the driver that this is how it’s supposed towork, and it does.

There is a certain wisdom and comfort in allowing reality tobe what it is. There are people who waste untold time and energy lamentingthings from the past. They can’t seem to get over a broken relationship, or thefact that they were born into certain circumstances, or any number of otherthings that they can’t change. For them, “Let reality be reality” might be good advice. Accept what is, and move on with your life.

On the other hand, our present-day reality includes manythings we shouldn’t just accept. People starving to death. Animals being huntedto extinction. Water and air being polluted. These are things we ought to change.These are examples of circumstances in which we can do something, and shouldnot just allow the past or current reality to continue as the reality of thefuture.

Which brings us around to the Serenity Prayer:

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannotchange; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know thedifference
The Serenity Prayer is pretty good advice, but according to Jewish tradition, it doesn’t go far enough. It implies that if there is something that I, personally, do not have the power to change alone or in my lifetime, I should just leave it be.

In the section of the Talmud called “Pirkei Avot,” (“The Ethics of Our Fathers,”) the rabbis acknowledgethat the task is great and the day is short. There is too much for us to doalone, and, even with the help of others, there is more that needs to bechanged than can be accomplished in one human lifetime, no matter how young orenergetic a person may be.

However, say the rabbis, in that case we are still commandednot to just “Let reality be reality.” Rather, they tell us, “It is not yourresponsibility to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist fromit.” We are all responsible to do what part we can, be it large or small, eventhough we may not live to see the result.

So, Bruce, what I will say to you is your fortune wastelling you to accept things as they are. For things that cannot be changed atall, by anyone, no matter the effort, that may be good advice. But foreverything else, our tradition says to keep doing what you’re doing, and to continuein your efforts to make the world a better place. Personally, I’ll take theadvice of the Talmud over the advice of a fortune cookie any day.