For dust you are, and unto dust you shall return – Genesis 3:19
A friend in her
mid-eighties, who still manages to be the life and soul of any party she
attends, gave a speech at a function where I was present.
remember the context, but she was relating an exchange she had had with her
children, who were planning to reserve a burial plot for her beside her late
“Do you want to lie on the right side of Poppa, or the left?”
they asked her.
“You know what,” she told them, “surprise me!”
According to news reports last week, the two sons of a haredi man who died eight years ago
were firmly opposed to any surprises or uncertainties.
father’s grave in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria cemetery – where he had expressed a wish
to be buried – they “suddenly saw that alongside their father were buried people
[who might have been] Sabbath observers, but were certainly not strict as
regards religious commandments” (quoted from the Be’hadrei Haredim news
The sons requested and subsequently received permission from
“several leading rabbis” to exhume their father and rebury him on the Mount of
Olives, acts which were carried out on August 2.
The late Rabbi Yosef
Shalom Elyashiv, who was one of the consenting rabbis, apparently based his
opinion on the laws of burial as codified in the Shulchan Aruch, which rules
that a righteous man should not be buried next to an evil one, or even one of
“According to the family,” read the report in The
Jerusalem Post, “their father, who died at a young age, was renowned for his
acts of charity and modesty.”
This news item left me with a strange
mixture of incredulity, laced with outrage and a wry, black amusement at the
mental image it conjured up of bodies being exhumed all over the place as a
consequence of their descendants’ religious snobbery.
feeling on attending a Jewish funeral, aside from the inevitable sadness, is
always one of deep appreciation of the level of respect, care and even
tenderness shown the deceased during the funeral – which here in Jerusalem is
held under the auspices of haredi burial societies.
That respect for the
dead – called kvod hamet
– begins with death and continues at every level,
through the laying out of the body all the way to the cemetery and the
Particularly touching for me is the traditional public appeal
to the deceased for forgiveness for any hurt or offense, or if any part of the
funeral arrangements was inadvertently lacking.
To then dig up a body
that is resting in peace for the reason that those lying alongside might, when
alive, have been less pious than the deceased... however meticulous the
exhumation, isn’t there an indignity here that makes a mockery of the respect,
care and tenderness shown in conducting the deceased to that original – as it
turns out, not final – resting place?
His family lauded the father for his
modesty (definition: “the quality or state of being unassuming or moderate in
the estimation of one’s abilities”). Would a modest, unassuming Jew, even if
morally and ethically elevated, have considered himself “too good” for the
Jewish company his earthly remains kept? As for the level of righteousness of
his cemeterymates, is this something we mortals are really capable of judging?
In Ethics of the Fathers (2:1), we are reminded that it is not given to us to
know the scale of reward for performing any mitzva
(commandment), large or
Those Jewish neighbors-at-rest, whatever their religious
observance, may have led exemplary lives in relation to their fellow men,
thereby meriting a significant heavenly recompense.
wrote to the paper’s Letters column expressed my feelings rather
“It is bad enough when people look down on others when they are
alive,” she opined, “but to do so when the person has died is
Imagine the bewilderment and hurt felt by the living
families of those “less observant” dead originally interred on either side of
this deceased, who saw their dear departed ones deemed unworthy of lying beside
Let's call a spade a spade. It seems to me that the inescapably
ghoulish act of digging up dead bodies must be reserved for extreme
One such case became necessary in 2005, when Israel disengaged
from the Gaza Strip, leaving behind what had been 21 civilian Israeli
settlements, including a 48- grave cemetery.
Going on the behavior of
those who then took possession of these areas, one shudders to think of the fate
of any Jewish dead left in their hands, and so it was right and proper – indeed,
essential – to bring up those dead and reinter them safely in Israel.
To gain a broader view of the present case, I turned to a long-standing friend who
is an orthodox rabbi.
“I don’t know what the fuss is all about,” he
responded bluntly. “What lies in the cemetery are the now-discarded bodily
remains from which the soul has departed.
“Presumably the soul is already
sharing the afterlife with all sorts of other souls who may or may not have been
involved in halachic and/or moral shenanigans in their earthly
“Any sinfulness is not likely to be inherent in the soul itself,
but influenced by earthly temptations and considerations.”
“I know that whilst on earth people prefer to choose where to live, and this
applies to some extent even after death, in cases where the body is not in kever
[a Jewish resting place], including the Land of Israel – but whether
there is a case for moving a body to a ‘more observant’ cemetery in Israel is
When I asked him to comment on the fact that “several leading
rabbis” had approved the reinterment, he answered tersely: “In today’s world,
it’s hard to be a leading rabbi if you aren’t haredi.”
What this story
chiefly says to me is that many of us pay too much attention to what our
neighbors are doing, and not nearly enough to our own behavior. I guess it’s a
human failing – coupled with the conviction that our way is the only right way –
but it’s one we need to struggle with on a daily basis.
One of the
essential aspects of living a true Jewish life is the constant tension, in our
dealings with others, between doing what is tempting or expedient, and being a
mensch. The challenge is constant, and it is a hard standard to live up
It’s difficult to avoid the impression that for some Jews, the
commandments bein adam lehavero
– between man and man – take second place to the
mitzvot bein adam lamakom,
our relationship with God as expressed by observing
the stringencies of Halacha, or Jewish law.
When our scrupulousness in
business dealings; our determination not to damage anyone’s good name via gossip
or a rush to judgment; our consideration for our fellow Jews and our cheerful
readiness to help others where needed – when these and similar efforts attain
the level of zealous attention to religious ritual... then, perhaps, the Messiah
It seems fitting to end with a quote from his son about
another deceased father, the legendary Reb Aryeh Levin (1885-1969), known as the
“Tzaddik of Jerusalem.”
“I asked myself,” wrote Rabbi Haim Yaakov, “what
did he do to earn so much respect, such considerable esteem?... At last I
plumbed the heart of the matter: My father had one basic quality which was both
the foundation and crest of all his good deeds and acts. It was simply
humility... my father was humble toward everyone” (from A Tzaddik in Our Time
Simcha Raz, 1972).
In exhuming and reburying their father earlier this
month, were his two sons showing a misplaced respect for him and, concurrently,
a lack of humility, or even disrespect, toward their Creator, who made everyone
– including the non-observant – in His image?