Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Chesed and Emes of Burial

Below is an excerpt from the newly published Divine Footsteps: Chesed and the Jewish Soul by R. Daniel Z. Feldman. The book is "an exploration of the quality of chesed – kindness in all of its manifestations – from a halakhic, thematic and structural perspective." Like the author's previous works, it is a tour de force of lomdus and clarity, offering a view of rabbinic perspectives throughout the ages on interpersonal commandments.

Here is an excerpt relevant to this week's Torah portion (pp. 107-109):

I. Kindness and Truth

Fulfilling the needs of those who are no longer living is a unique category of chesed. The Torah relates that when Jacob neared the end of his life, he conveyed his desire to be buried in the Land of Israel to his son Joseph, and termed the request a “chesed ve-emet ” (Gen. 47:29), an act of “kindness and truth,” or perhaps a “true kindness.” Rashi, in his commentary, explains the terminology: when one acts on behalf of those who are no longer alive, the kindness is pure and genuine, as no repayment can be expected.

Click here to read moreBurial of the deceased is a two-faceted mitzvah. On one level, it is an independent obligation identified in the Torah as a commandment, with its own goals and requirements.[1] On another level, it is the final expression of dignity shown to a human being, and one that by definition necessitates the involvement of others.[2] As such, the burial, and all that it entails, is firmly rooted within the rubric of the broader command of chesed.[3] Once again, this is a chesed modeled by God Himself, who, the Torah tells us, personally buried Moses.[4]

Some delineate two aspects here: burial is an absolute obligation upon the family members. The community at large, which assists the family or which steps in when there is no family, is engaged in chesed.[5]

R. Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, known as the “Ketav Sofer,” locates in the duality of the requirement another layer of interpretation of the phrase “true kindness.” Indeed, burial of the dead is a fundamental societal need; to fail to attend to this would be a disgrace to the living and an impediment to civilized existence. However, that need may be fulfilled with a minimal, functional burial, one that removes the deceased from the presence of the living. To go beyond that, to strive to honor the departed in a fitting way, and to incorporate their wishes into the arrangements, that is purely chesed. Thus, the “true kindness” was not the act of burying Jacob, but rather acceding to his accompanying request, “do not bury me in Egypt.”[6]

[1] Deut. 21:23; Sanhedrin 46b.
[2] Some suggest that this is actually the intent of the term “emet;” in the other realms of chesed, the act may or may not actually be needed. In the case of burial, there is no disputing the necessity. See R. Yitzchak Kreiser, Ish Le-Re’eihu, Genesis, 469.

Conversely, just as the deceased requires the assistance of others, they need him as well, as the tremendous mitzvot associated with caring for the needs of the departed cannot be performed in any other context. The Koghaglover Rav, R. Aryeh Leib Fromer, suggested in a homiletic exposition (printed in Responsa Eretz Tzvi II, pp. 409–410) that this is the reason for the enormity of the chesed associated with these mitzvot; they provide a final merit to a soul anguished by the loss of further opportunity to accrue merit on this Earth.

Another interpretation of “emet ” in this context is suggested by R. Elyakim Shlesinger, Sichot Beit Av, pp. 66–67, who notes that acts of chesed are often motivated partially by the desire of the giver to avoid witnessing the pain and suffering of others, which diverts focus from the needs of the recipient to those of the giver. In the case of funeral preparations, however, the recipient is not visibly suffering, and thus the service is more purely altruistic.

For a more mystically oriented interpretation, see Ma’avar Yabbok, Sefat Emet, ch. 27.
[3] On differences between the two aspects, see R. Raphael Ha-Levi Schorr, Mishnat Ha-Levi, Bava Metzia 30b, #155. See also R. Meir Yosef Birenstweig, Otzerot Megadim, Genesis, 254–255.
[4] Deut. 34:6.
[5] See, on this point, R. Chanoch Chaim Weinstock, Birkat Hillel, Genesis, p. 95, who analyzes at length Jacob’s request of Joseph in this vein. See also R. Michael Klagsbald, Mi-Yemini Micha’el, Bava Metzia, #147:2.
[6] Responsa Ketav Sofer, Yoreh De’ah 180. Note also the analysis of R. Meir Dan Plotzki, Keli Chemdah, Parashat Ki Tetze 6:6.

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