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.

What’s a Minyan?

You receive e-mails from the synagogue asking you to come and participate in the morning or evening minyan. If your first inclination is to ask, “What’s a minyan?,” know that you are not alone in your puzzlement. (I cannot stress enough – if you have questions, please feel free to ask me! As they say, there are no stupid questions…)

A MINYAN (as defined by the Conservative movement) is a quorum of ten people above the age of bar or bat mitzvah, i.e. men aged thirteen or older and women aged twelve or older, who join together in prayer. While it is permissible to pray on one’s own, it is preferable to pray with a minyan because there are pieces of the service that can only be performed within this framework, such as kaddish and kedushah.

The concept of ten people unified as a minyan comes from the Talmud, one of the earliest Rabbinic law texts, composed roughly between the second and fifth centuries C.E. In Tractate Megillah, page 23b, the Rabbis explain that these “holy” parts of the service, like kaddish and kedushah, cannot be recited with fewer than ten qualified individuals. Why? Because in the book of Bemidbar, when Moses sends twelve spies into the land of Canaan, ten of the spies come back unified in their negativity against the Children of Israel entering the land. According to the Rabbis, Numbers 14:27, in which the reference to this “wicked congregation” appears, is talking about a congregation. Therefore, according to the Rabbis, it is ten individuals unified who constitute a “congregation,” and thus in order to pray in a congregation, a group must have ten individuals. Another suggestion comes from Tractate Berachot, which tells a story in which God shows up to a service in the shul and discovers that there are fewer than ten. God is immediately angry – it is as if no one has shown up!

At Temple Emanu-El, we generally hold minyanim (the plural of minyan) on weekday mornings at 7:00 A.M. and on Sundays at 8:00 AM for Shaharit, the morning service. We also hold minyanim at 5:45 every weekday evening for Minha, the afternoon service, and Ma’ariv, the evening service. If the schedule is changed, it will be marked in your Temple calendar. It is important that we have at least ten people present at each minyan so that our fellow congregants can say kaddish for their loved ones who have passed on. Please join us when you can – once a week, once a month, twice a month – to ensure that we have a minyan for those who need one.

More “Shul 101: Ask the Ritual Director” columns will be coming out to our congregational family on a weekly basis by e-mail. If you have questions that you’d like to be addressed, please send them along to Hinda Eisen, heisen@teprov.org.

Rofei Cholim, u’Matir Asurim

While I was davening this morning, September 6, 2007, I had an epiphany. Sometimes it happens that during davening, a word, a phrase, an idea, will jump out at me. Generally, something I’d never noticed before.

Today, it was in the Amidah. In the first section of the Amidah, we describe God as “Somech noflim, v’rofei cholim, u’matir asurim,” meaning that God (although in Hebrew all in adjective form) “picks up the fallen, heals the sick, and frees those who are imprisoned.”

How are these three ideas connected? Quite frankly, the question has never occurred to me before. As of right now, I haven’t looked at any other text that may have already answered this question, although I’m sure there is one somewhere. In fact, I’m sure that, even if it was never written down, the author of the avot section of the Amidah probably had some rationale in his own mind; but that isn’t what davening from the siddur is all about. Davening is about finding and imposing your own personal meaning on someone else?s universal composition. As I stumbled over these words this morning, I stopped cold in my tracks. Lately I’ve just been blowing through davening as more of a chore than a spiritual experience. Sometimes you have to do that to get the “lo yadati” moment once in a blue moon.

But I digress. What is the relationship between God’s three aforementioned attributes?

The relationship between the first two is easy. Somech noflim, picking up the fallen, and rofei cholim, healing the sick, have an apparent correlation: someone who falls may get hurt. God is the healer of those who are hurt. I relate these not only in a physical sense but also spiritual: someone who has spiritually “fallen” may also need healing. But let us think about the correlation between the second couple: rofei cholim and matir asurim, freeing the imprisoned.

For the last few weeks, I have personally been struggling with the question, “When do we pray for a person to live and get better, and when do we begin praying for him to have an easy death, so that he no longer lives in pain?” Sure, we have his name on the mishebeirach list so that the community prays for his and others’ healing on the days that we read from the Torah; and I add this also to my own personal prayers every time I say the Amidah. But is it in his best interest for us to pray for his healing? Or is it selfish to ask God to keep him here just for us?

Perhaps a person in that state of life — in which people are praying for him and in which doctors are helping him, but in which he is in so much pain that his quality of life will never renewed to the level at which it was and at which he was truly happy — has the status of a prisoner. We are not in a position to make the judgment call about whether or not someone is worthy or wants us to offer our prayers. From this progression in our standard Amidah, and in accordance with our liturgy fro the upcoming High Holidays, we learn that ultimately it is God’s decision: God picks up the fallen, and God heals if the fallen needs healing. Then, if the individual in need of healing is not in need of physical healing but rather is trapped and in a position of true bodily failing, leading to spiritual and emotional failing, God might choose to release him from the prison of This World, and allow his spirit to go happily into the World to Come.