Thursday, September 12, 2013

My Service on erev Yom Kippur

Two years ago on erev Yom Kippur I had the unfortunate merit to perform the greatest mitzvah of all - the burial of a met mitzvah.  The following is an excerpt from my blog from 2011.
Today I also had a funeral.  I do many funerals unfortunately, but not like this.  The woman who died was born in 1937.  She was institutionalized at the age of 5 years old and remained there for the rest of her life.  Yesterday we received a call from an attorney who was placed in charge of her.  The woman died late Wednesday night.  She had no known relatives.  No friends.  Nobody in the world even knew she was there.  I had never heard of or met this woman before and I found that according to whatever instructions were left by her last family member, I as the Rabbi of beth Israel synagogue was responsible for taking care of her burial.  This was a true met mitzva - the greatest of all mitzvot that a person can do.  The Talmud says that if the high priest is going to do the Yom kippur service on the holiest day of the year and  the opportunity arises where he has to perform a burial for a met mitzvah he is supposed to abandon the Yom Kippur service and take care of the met mitzvah.  It is the most important of all mitzvot. 
To bury a met mitzvah is a great mitzvah, but one that you hope you never have to perform.  2011 was my first and last time - until now.

By some incredible coincidence, today I received a call regarding a Jewish man who passed away in his home and has no friends or relatives to speak of.  The funeral will take place tomorrow, erev Yom Kippur, at 3:00 pm at Golden Hill cemetery in Omaha and as of now I think I will be the only person at the funeral.

Tomorrow is a big day for any Rabbi.  I have sermons to finish writing, and unfortunately our great chazzan Ari Dembitzer could not join us for Yom Kippur, so in addition, I will have to prepare the davening as well.

So I can't help feeling like the proverbial Kohein Gadol going to do the avodah and encountering the met mitzvah - again.

But there is another ceremony performed by the Kohein that also comes to mind.  The kohein was involved in the ceremony mentioned in parshat shoftim called the eglah arufah.

If a corpse was found murdered in a field in Israel and the murderer was unknown the elders and the kohanim of the closest city would come out to the scene of the crime and perform a ceremony where they would declare - yadeinu lo shofchu et hadam hazeh - our hands did not spill this blood.
Rashi asks, who would think that the elders and the kohanim had anything to do with the murder?
He answers that if a person passes through a town, the leaders are responsible for that persons well being.  If something happens it was probably because they did not take care of him properly.

A Jewish man in my community died and he did not have a friend in the world.  We are not such a large Jewish community.  How did that happen?  As a Rabbi do I bare some of that responsibility?  Could I have reached out to this man while he was alive?  Are there other people who I could be reaching out to?  Is our community doing all it can for its members?

I don't know.

What I do know is that this is the second time that this happened and both times it happened on erev yom kippur.  I am generally not a superstitious person, but this coincidence has given me much to think about going into the day of judgement.

Yom Kippur is the day where all the Jews come out and go to synagogue.  I urge everyone, look around you this year.  If you see someone who does not look familiar, say hello and introduce yourself.  Maybe there are lonely people who could benefit from coming to shul regularly if only someone would give them a kind word.
I wish everyone a meaningful fast and may Hashem answer all of our prayers.
Next year in Jerusalem.


  1. May you be able to reach out to all the Jews and comfort them.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to post this at this busy time. It is an important reminder to all of us, and beautifully written. G'mar Chatimah Tovah
    Arie & Sheryl & family from Rochester

  3. You have provided an invaluable lesson. The greatest gift we have is the connections of o those around us: family , friends, co-workers, community, etc. When we loose our connections, it is often difficult to rekindle them. As one ages , sometimes our networks become smaller, and the ability to reach out to others more limited and takes more effort. For others it is the opposite. You have rekindled the idea that just reaching out with caring and concern for another, can exponentially enable greater networks and connections. A smile, a simple greeting, a phone call, a lift in the car to a doctor's appointment, or just holding someones hand- not waiting for the Tahara or levaya. Thanks so much for this spiritual food for expanding my mission in this world.

  4. Thank you for posting. That truly puts things in perspective on a day like today.