Eighteen years ago last month, Matthew Eisenstadt and his girlfriend Sarah Duker, students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, were murdered by a Palestinian terrorist who blew up the bus they were riding. I was thinking about them recently. It was not their yahrzeit that specifically reminded me. It was not the horror of their deaths. It was not anger nor a desire for revenge that brought them to mind. It was peace. I was standing at the Pardes Shalom cemetery beside an open grave. We had driven out ahead of the procession and arrived early. I stood there, contemplating the quiet peace of the cemetery and the burial that was about to occur. I thought about the weight of the mitzvah of burial. When Matthew and Sarah died, the Seminary community rallied. There was support for the mourners, both friends and family, but there was an interesting sense of obligation. We, their peers, would do this last deed for them.
I have spent many years working in interfaith environments. I have come in contact with rituals and practices from many other religious groups. I cannot say Judaism is perfect, nor is it the right religion for everyone. I can say that this is one area we do best. The requirement of burial, not just by ensuring it will happen, but by physically wielding the shovel is beautiful. It is a selfless deed we can do for someone who can never repay us. It is like a final embrace for the person we loved, the person who is no longer with us.
I remember standing at Matthew and Sarah’s graves. They were buried side by side. Dozens and dozens of fellow students and friends stepped forward to do this last deed for them and for their parents. Some knew them well. Some were mere acquaintances, and others knew them not at all. Still, each person was anxious to help in whatever small way possible.
There is no sound more final than that of the first shovelful of soil hitting a coffin. It’s a push to begin the business of mourning. It’s a final goodbye. It changes us. It’s the moment when, even for the most stoic, the tears begin to flow, and it’s the moment the business shifts from taking care of the deceased to taking care of the mourner. We talk of this mitzvah as being totally selfless, but it isn’t. There is also beauty in the filling of the grave. It is the beauty that comes through the expression of love. It is a beauty that can lead to peace.
There is a trend in the Jewish world to limit how much we do. It’s not a new trend. Long ago we shifted from tearing a piece of clothing to wearing a ribbon. Many chose not to fill in the grave but only to cover the casket. The rules of Shloshim and Shanah are barely known, let alone observed. Shiva hours and private shivas are becoming commonplace. Each of these things damages the process. I have long wondered about the cause. Are we so afraid of death or of showing weakness that we shy away from anything that may show us in a difficult moment? Are we so determined to appear stoic that we cannot let others do for us? Death and Shiva require us to let others do for us. We are not the hosts of a party. We are there to be comforted and carried on the shoulders of our family, our friends, and our community. For just a short blink in the years of our lives, we are to put pride and ego aside, and allow ourselves to be supported by others rather than being the support of others.
It is a gift of Judaism to cause us to learn this, for ourselves and for those around us. It’s a lesson I have learned many times. Not yet as a primary mourner, but as a secondary mourner, as a rabbi, and as a comforter. And it is a lesson I will be grateful to learn many more times in my life.