Speech from Chevra Kadisha Dinner | Tribute to Burial Volunteers
Updated: May 7
Thank you Rabbi Fox for such a warm introduction which I appreciate very much; and Honoured Rabbonim, ladies and gentlemen it’s a great honour to be able to address you on this special occasion of the Zion Adar dinner.
Zion Adar is the day which has been mentioned has been set aside by tradition to honour those, in particular, who work to perform the mitzvah of looking after the dead and the burial and all of the mitzvahs associated with koved hameis, with the dignity that the Torah requires us to treat a body in order to prepare it for burial and then the burial itself. And its that work in particular, we know the Chevra Kadisha does tremendous work of chesed and tzedokah looking after so many people who are in great need. But, in particular, this evening we pay special tribute to that part of the work of the Chevra Kadisha which involves the mitzvah of burial (Hebrew) which as a community we are so grateful to you. Because every Jewish community has a (Hebrew) an obligation to look after and to be able to perform this mitzvah.
And those who perform the mitzvah on behalf of the community relieve us all of a responsibility in a sense that it is a responsibility that is shouldered by the whole (Hebrew), and the fact that you carry that responsibility means that the rest of the (Hebrew) can stand before Hashem and say that as the Johannesburg Jewish community we discharge this mitzvah with great dignity and with great care to all of the details.
So on behalf of the Johannesburg Jewish community I wanted to express our gratitude to you for the tremendous work that is done. Work which is done at times which is often very inconvenient. Work, itself, which on the surface of it is work which is very difficult and work which is painful and work which is not glamorous. Although we know that in the eyes of Hashem it is the most glamorous work that a person can do. Because the work of looking after those who have passed onto the next world is described as holy work, and that’s why of course it is called the Chevra Kadisha.
I am sure that the point has been made many times before that if you think about the name of this organisation, that it bears the name of Jewish tradition. Chevra Kadisha means the holy society – that is the name that is given to the society that helps a community look after those that have passed onto the next world. So Chevra Kadisha indicates our Jewish tradition and Jewish society and Torah values regard this to be sacred work, indeed, G-d’s Work.
As Rabbi Fox mentioned in his opening remarks, the Gemorah, the passage in the Talmud which is well known – the passage in the Gemorah in Sorta where the Gemorah describes the mitzvah, one of the 613 commandments to imitate Hashem (Hebrew) to walk in the ways of Hashem which the Gemorah holds to be the source for the mitzvah of chesed, of loving kindness. The Chevra Kadisha does chesed, this great mitzvah of loving kindness in many dimensions of it’s work. Because the Gemorah defines what is the mitzvah of loving kindness – we learn that from Hashem – to walk in the ways of Hashem. So the Gemorah elaborates and says, that in the general sense (Hebrew) in the same way that He is compassionate, so too should we be compassionate.
The Gemorah also says practically speaking, what are the acts of kindness that G-d has done? We look from the beginning of time, (Hebrew) he clothed the naked, (Hebrew) so too shall you. And where does G-d clothe the naked, that was Adam and Eve. He provided them with clothes and remember he gave them clothes at the moment where they had just sinned. They were only aware of their nakedness because they had sinned. And, in spite of that G-d’s kindness and compassion – He provided them with clothing in a non-judgmental fashion – providing them with the clothing that they only needed because they defied His Word. He clothed the naked, so too we have a mitzvah to clothe the naked. It says that He visited the sick, and so too must we visit the sick. Where did He visit the sick? After Avram Aveinu, Abraham went through the very painful operation of a bris milah, of a circumcision, at the ripe old age of 99 – Hashem came to visit him. We can indeed say that Avram was old at the age of 99, because normally you have to be careful when you say someone is old because age is a very relative thing. One person’s old age is another person’s youth. But I think I can quite comfortably say that at 99 we can describe Abraham as old and no one will take offence, because anyone who has (Hebrew) to live to the age of 99 would graciously acknowledge, indeed, that they are old. So Abraham was very old at 99. He went through the painful operation of the bris milah and he was in pain and G-d came to visit him. It says at the beginning of parsha (Hebrew) and Hashem appeared to him, and we see from the Chumash it doesn’t explain what Hashem did and what He told him. He just came for a visit, to visit him in his state of sickness and illness. So we learn that (Hebrew) the source for the mitzvah of chesed is to imitate what G-d does. And so we learn, the Talmud learns all of the acts of kindness G-d did and we imitate it.
And it says where do we learn the mitzvah of (Hebrew) of comforting the mourners? Says the Talmud because G-d comforted Yitchak after the death of his mother Sarah. When she died G-d came and gave him extra blessings. So we learn from that the mitzvah of (Hebrew) of comforting the mourners.
And then the Gemorah says where do we learn the mitzvah of burial of the dead? That we learn from Moshe Rabeinu, when Moshe Rabeinu passed on Hashem came to bury him in the same way that Hashem was involved in the mitzvah of burial of Moshe Rabeinu, so too we have a mitzvah to imitate G-d and to bury the dead as well. Because that’s part of imitating G-d, to fulfil all of these dimensions of chesed.
So if there is one mitzvah, more than any other mitzvah, that the Chevra Kadisha is predicated upon and that is the mitzvah of chesed in all of its dimensions. And tonight we are here, in particular, to celebrate and to pay tribute of the mitzvah of burial of the dead – that part of the mitzvah of (Hebrew) to walk in the ways of G-d, to do that sacred work, the holy work, the work of the Chevra Kadisha, of the holy society and all of the holy work that all of you are involved in.
A Great Mitzvah
I was thinking that it even goes perhaps one step further. There’s a very interesting verse as the Jewish people leave Egypt. We are just now in the Book of (Hebrew), the Book of Exodus which describes the Exodus from Egypt. And in this sefer, in this book we learn as they left Egypt it says a very interesting posuk in the beginning of parsha (Hebrew), it says (Hebrew) and Moshe took with him the bones of Yosef. Moshe was the one who took the bones of Yosef with him. Moshe was, in fact, involved in the burial of Yosef. He was the one who buried Yosef. And the Gemorah in Sorta actually says, that was reward because Yosef fulfilled the mitzvah of burial. He buried his father. And so the Gemorah says, in reward for Yosef taking care of the burial arrangements for his father Yacob, Moshe was the one who buried Yosef so that he would be given the great kavod of getting buried by Moshe Rabeinu. But then says the Gemorah, how was Hashem going to repay Moshe Rabeinu? If Moshe Rabeinu buried Yosef, there is no other Moshe Rabeinu who can bury Moshe (Hebrew), there is no one as great as Moshe, no one has ever arisen as great as Moshe. So this was the great dilemma. Who could bury Moshe Rabeinu? And so the Gemorah says only Hashem, because that was his fitting reward. So Yosef is buried for having buried his father by getting Moshe to bury him, and Moshe is rewarded by Hashem Himself burying.
We see what a great mitzvah it is and Hashem is so grateful to give the reward. And as we know the main rewards for the mitzvah of chesed is the reward which is a little bit of a reward in this world (Hebrew) but the main reward in Olam Haba for this holy work, and I think it’s very important to realise, because the measure of reward. It’s not that we do the mitzvahs for the sake of the reward, but the fact that G-d is so careful to reward this mitzvah is an indication to us how important this mitzvah is. How important it is that these great figures in our history are acknowledged by Hashem as having fulfilled this mitzvah.
But what’s also interesting is that posuk by (Hebrew), he took the bones of Yosef. And the Gemorah says that why was he the one that took the bones of Yosef? Because it says (Hebrew) and the Gemorah in Sorta Dafu Gimel (Hebrew) come and see (Hebrew), come and see how precious are the mitzvahs to Moshe Rabeinu. Why? (Hebrew) all of Israel (Hebrew) everyone was getting the spoils of Egypt. (Hebrew) and he was involved in mitzvoth should (Hebrew) quoting the verse in Proverbs that the wise at heart will take mitzvahs. So the Gemorah acknowledges how come Moshe Rabeinu was left, here Moshe Rabeinu was in charge of the whole liberation from Egypt, so why was he the one that was busy with this? Surely he could have delegated that to someone? He has got to worry about the whole exodus from Egypt. Can you imagine looking after, there was 600,000 men between the ages of 20 and 50 – it would be roughly 3 million people, can you imagine looking after 3 million Jews on their way out of Egypt with all of their needs, and all of the trials and tribulations, dealing with Pharaoh? He has all of this to worry about, an entire nation with all of their issues. And as we read in the Torah, the people were not afraid to complain from time to time. As we know that Jews are not afraid to complain – not our community of course it never complains, its always very happy and content and there are never any issues – but there are other Jewish communities who will from time to time complain. And as the Jews, I see Dennis is in full agreement on this, as the Jews were leaving Egypt, Moshe Rabeinu is in charge of everything. And he is the one who personally goes to find the body of Yosef. And it wasn’t easy to find because his body had been hidden.
The Egyptians didn’t want him to leave Egypt. He had iconic status in Egypt. They didn’t want him to leave Egypt. In fact, they didn’t even want Yakov to be buried in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, they didn’t want him to leave. It was only through the oath that Yosef had been made to take that he managed to take his father’s body out of Mitzraim. But Yosef’s body was hard to find, the Gemorah shows how Moshe Rabeinu had to go find it. It wasn’t just that it was available, that he could go and bring it. He had to find it. So in the middle of the whole tumul of the (Hebrew) exodus, in the middle of all that chaos, Moshe Rabeinu is worried about going to find the body of Yosef.
But what the Gemorah points out is that at the same time he gave up a huge financial opportunity. Because realise at that time that Pharaoh and the Egyptians were handing out gold and silver to the Jews in accordance with the promise that Hashem had made, that when you leave (Hebrew) they will go out with great property and much spoils. So everywhere people were going around and collecting gold and silver in accordance with the instructions of Hashem. It was an opportunity to really do very well on the markets. Everyone was doing very well, it wasn’t like the current financial crash. There was money to be made and there was no risk involved because Hashem was handing out the gold and silver. So people were busy collecting it. Can you imagine? They have to leave Egypt, the clock is ticking, Hashem says its time to get out, go and get as much gold and silver as you can in the next few moments before we have to leave Mitzraim. So everyone is running around. And that’s why as well the Gemorah points out there was no one to find the body of Yosef, because who is going to take the time to go and find the body of Yosef ha’tzadik – in the amount of time they are going to take to find Yosef’s body and bring it out and find a way of dealing with it – how much money are they going to lose in the process? How much money, the lost opportunity of going to collect all that money? Only Moshe Rabeinu, and that’s what the Gemorah says (Hebrew) come and see how precious are mitzvahs to Moshe Rabeinu. (Hebrew) says the verse in Mishlay, the wise at heart grabs mitzvahs.
And you know when looking around the room this evening, these are the chachma lei, the wise at heart are gathered around these tables this evening to go and take mitzvahs. I know that many people take off time from work in order to be able to attend to these mitzvahs, and everybody whether they are taking off time from work or not taking off time from work – everybody has other things to do at that time. But around these tables, the members of the Chevra Kadisha, those who are devoted to this mitzvah of burial are the chachmeila – those who are wise at heart (Hebrew) who realise the most precious commodity on earth is not money but mitzvoth. And it makes sense because mitzvahs have a currency, not only in this world but in the world to come. It’s the eternal currency. It’s the only currency which is a sure investment.
There is no guaranteed investment in this world. And if anyone thought ever that there was once a thing as a guaranteed investment, the recent financial crisis would show and direct people that there is no such thing as a guaranteed investment. In fact, one of the things that has emerged is that if any financial advisor tells you it’s a guaranteed investment, then you know that he is either a fool or a liar – one of the two because it doesn’t exist. And many of the places that fell into those financial traps was because they believed people who told them this is a risk free investment. There is no such thing. Only an investment in mitzvahs. An investment in mitzvahs is a currency that accumulates to a person’s credit in this world and in the next world. Nobody can touch it. Its guaranteed. Hashem guarantees to pay the reward. It is a merit and a credit to a person for all times and for all places and it’s the most precious commodity that exists. That’s why it says chachmeila. It’s the wise at heart that grab the mitzvahs. Its not someone who says, well I could be advancing my own self-interest, but I will sacrifice my self-interest in order to do the right thing.
In fact, what the Gemorah is teaching us is that the right thing is in our interests. The greatest thing that we can do for ourselves is to pursue mitzvahs because that is the most precious thing in our lives and for all time. Not that we pursue mitzvahs for the sake of the reward, but again its part of a philosophy of appreciating priorities, appreciating what is precious and appreciating what is special in the eyes of Hashem. And that was defined by Moshe Rabeinu (Hebrew). He was the one who personally, himself, went to go and find the bones of Yosef ha’tzadik. And the Jewish people actually carried the body of Yosef ha’tzadik for the whole time of the 40 years in the desert. This was not a mitzvah that was done easily. They had to take it with them, schlep his coffin around with them wherever they went throughout the 40 years in the desert. They were only able to finish the mitzvah when they went into the land of Israel and Moshe Rabeinu himself wasn’t given that opportunity to finish the mitzvah because he passed away before they entered the land of Israel. The Jewish people had to complete the mitzvah of the burial of Yosef.
So this mitzvah of burial, of kvura, accompanied them on their way out of Mitzraim, it accompanied them throughout the 40 years in desert and it accompanied them all the way into the land of Israel. That was the merit that went with them every step of the way. And part of that merit is the sea split, it says (Hebrew), the sea saw the people coming and (Hebrew) and it ran away. And the Gemorah says, what did it see? What did the sea see? The ocean viewed the coming of the body of Yosef ha’tzadik, and it made way for the body of Yosef ha’tzadik – because of the great merit of Yosef that he lived such a life of righteousness; but also possibly because in the merit of the mitzvah of chesed. Chesed in general, but chesed in particular by looking after the dead because it is that mitzvah that the Talmud says is the chesed (Hebrew), it’s the chesed of truth. It is a mitzvah of the chesed that one doesn’t get repaid by the person for whom one is doing the chesed because that person can never repay. And, therefore that is defined as the ultimate chesed (Hebrew). And that’s why Jewish tradition has it that this is the Chevra Kadisha. The society of holiness, the holy society because it is involved in the holy work of chesed and, in particular, the holy work of kvura of burial, and its something which Hashem regards to be very precious. Our Sages teach us, as we’ve seen from all of these sources, how precious Hashem regards this to be.
On behalf of the South African Jewish community, I want to thank all of you – all of those who are involved at every level of the Chevra Kadisha and in particular in this mitzvah. And to thank you on behalf of our community for the wonderful work that is done. So many people participate in this work on so many different levels and we thank you – all of those who are involved in the Board of Directors, at that level to Steven Adler and to Gary Herbert and to Colin Datnow and all of those who are involved at that level of directorship level. And then, of course, to the CEO of the group – Dennis Levy; to Rabbi Jonathan Fox and to all of those who are involved at every level of this organisation for everything that you do. The entire Jewish community, the Johannesburg Jewish community, the South African Jewry thanks you. We are grateful to you for the work that you do. But more importantly than our thanks is the deep gratitude that Hashem has, and the reward that He promises for this and the value that He holds your work.
This is, indeed, the holy work of Hashem that all of you are doing. It is, indeed, G-d’s work itself and may it be the will of Hashem that in the merit of the chesed that you all do, that we should all benefit from that chesed; that the chesed that you do should be a (Hebrew) for all of you and for your families for a life of brocha and it should be a (Hebrew) for all of us, for our whole wonderful Jewish community that your (Hebrew) merit should stand in stead for us to protect us, to give us the blessing that we need and in particular the special blessings that are needed for our brothers and sisters in our beloved state of Israel who are going through challenging times, and Jews all around the world. The (Hebrew) because one should never underestimate the (Hebrew) of chesed. If the sea can split for it and Hashem can give all this reward and Hashem goes out of his way, then we should realise the enormous reward and merit and may it be truly a merit for us all.