When Called to Guard

(Letter to Temple Emanu-El Providence community, June 2010)

By now you have probably received an email from Temple Emanu-El calling for “Shomrim”. You might already know that it involves signing up to spend an hour or two sitting with the body of a member of our community who recently passed away in the days before he or she is buried. It has come to my attention, though, that many of our members don’t really know what this mitzvah entails.

In the coming paragraphs I hope to give you a bit more insight into what “Sitting Shmirah” means, and I hope to encourage you to sign up when we are looking for shomrim.

Judaism considers the body to be a gift from God to man, to house the soul that lives inside it. Each morning we recite a blessing thanking God for allowing all of our bodily functions to work properly followed by a blessing praising God for “restoring the soul to the lifeless, exhausted body,” i.e. when we’ve woken up in the morning (these blessings can be found on p. 4 of the Weekday Sim Shalom Siddur).

There is a sense in the Jewish afterlife tradition that as relatives say Kaddish for loved ones over the eleven months after they have passed on, the soul gradually rises toward the Throne of God. Since the soul is closest to the body just after he or she has died, and, tradition tells us, that the soul is most aware and most frustrated until the body has been interned in the ground, we keep the body, and the recently released soul, company until it reaches its final resting place.

When you sign up for Shmirah, you will be directed to the location where the body is being kept. Generally in our community Shmirah is served in the basement of the Sugarman-Sinai Funeral Home, but there have been instances where Shmirah has been served elsewhere. At Sugarman-Sinai Funeral Home, you will enter through the door in the back (facing the parking lot) and go down the stairs to where shmirah is observed unless there is a notice on that door indicating that Shmirah will occur somewhere else in the building. In some cases the body is in the same room but in a casket, in other instances, the casket is kept in the refrigerator to delay decomposition, but you would sit outside. In most circumstances, the body is not in a place where you can see it.

Once you arrive, there are a number of things you can do while you are “guarding.” It is customary either to read or discuss Jewish-themed texts or to recite Tehillim, from the Book of Psalms. Some suggest that you should only read those psalms which are appropriate to somber mood and the end of life. When I sat Shmirah for the first time, I learned from Cantor Brian Mayer that funerals are a “celebration of life, and hurt like hell.” He explained that because we direct our attention to the celebration of the person’s life we can say all of the Psalms because Tehillim, by nature, represent the whole spectrum of human emotion: fear, contentment, happiness, sadness, anger, resilience.

Here is my offer to anyone who is willing: If you are willing to serve as a Shomer this time around or in the future, I’m happy to sit with you or to find you a buddy who will sit with you. I understand if it’s not an experience you want to have alone the first time.

Keep in mind the following Gemara (based on Shabbat 127a and found on page 5 in the Weekday Sim Shalom Siddur):

Here are the things that yield immediate fruit in this world and for which a fund is established for him in the World to Come: honoring mother and father; doing acts of lovingkindness; attending the House of Study punctually in the morning and evening; welcoming guests; visiting the sick; welcoming a bride; attending to the dead; probing the meaning of prayer; making peace between one person and another, and between husband and wife. And the study of Torah is the most basic of them all.

In our tradition, attending to the dead in our community is considered one of the highest mitzvot one can do since there is no expected return from the person toward which the mitzvah is directed. It is one of the highest but also one of the most important, since, as we know, it is not easy.

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