What is behind the Jewish custom to bury someone almost immediately after they pass away? Other religions wait a few days or sometimes weeks before laying their dead to rest, yet we seem in a hurry to get them buried, often within 24 hours of death. What is the rush?
A speedy burial has benefits for the living and for the dead. And delaying a funeral unnecessarily is no good for either.
Between death and burial, the soul of the departed is in limbo between two worlds, neither fully on earth nor ready to be admitted into heaven. The soul no longer inhabits the body after death, but until the body is laid to rest, the soul cannot fully leave the body either. So it hovers around the body, in a state of disorientation at its sudden expulsion from the body that was its home for a lifetime.
Once the body returns to the dust from whence it came, the soul can return to heaven from whence it came. And so only after the burial does the soul begin its climb to higher realms. The soul's onward journey can't begin until the body is interred. We do not want to delay this process, so we hasten the funeral to the earliest opportunity.
This is not just for the good of the departed soul. It is also for the benefit of the mourners.
Just as the soul is in a state of confusion after death, so too the bereaved family go through a stage of uncertainty immediately after the death, as they grapple to absorb what has happened. For many who experience loss, it just doesn't seem real. They feel that they are dreaming, that the person is about to walk in the door, as if nothing happened.
But reality hits at the funeral. That painful sound of dirt hitting the coffin evokes the raw pain of bereavement like nothing else can. It hurts, but it is needed. Just as the soul cannot start moving upwards before burial, so too the mourners cannot start their long journey from grief to consolation until the grave is filled in.
This pain cannot be avoided. Only after we have allowed ourselves to grieve can we allow ourselves to heal. Only when the finality of the body's death is accepted, can the eternality of the soul be experienced. The body returns to dust, the soul returns to
The problem with rabbis like you is your narrow view of the world. You always talk about the Jewish future, Jewish continuity, Jews marrying Jews, having Jewish children. What about the rest of humanity? Why do we have to always divide between people? Can't we speak of humans rather than Jews?
Rabbi Moss answers:
You have a good point. Maybe I should broaden my perspective and be concerned about more global issues and not so pre-occupied with Jewish particularism. So if you don't mind, I would like to hear your point of view on one such issue: The hairy-nosed wombat.
I have been approached by an organisation that is dedicated to saving endangered species. They are campaigning to save the hairy-nosed wombat of northern Queensland, which is on the verge of extinction. They say if we don't do something soon the wombats will be gone forever.
Do you think this is a good cause? I could write about it in my weekly article but am not sure if it is worthy of promotion. This is not a Jewish issue. Should it really bother me if there are no more hairy-nosed wombats?
Now you're talking. I would love to see a rabbi promote conservation and eco-awareness. And by the way, it is a Jewish issue! If the hairy-nosed wombat is lost, we all lose. Every species is an integral part of the whole ecosystem. I would much rather you wrote about something like that than the usual myopic Jewish stuff...
Rabbi Moss responds:
I have no doubt that the hairy-nosed wombat makes an important contribution to the world - otherwise G-d would not have created it. But I happen to think that the Jewish people are at least as worthy of preservation as the hairy-nosed wombat.
While the contribution wombats make to the world may not be obvious, the Jewish contribution is. From Moses to Maimonides to Marx, from Philo to Freud to Forbes, Jews as individuals and as a community have given much to the world, and I don't think we have run out of ideas. I think we have more to give.
This is not to put down any other nation and their achievements. Just as the attempt to save the hairy-nosed wombat is not insulting to any other animal, so too the desire to continue the Jewish legacy of four thousand years in no way belittles the gifts of other people.
My work is to try to keep Jewish souls Jewish, because I believe Judaism is an idea that is yet to have its time, and you can't have Judaism without Jews. So I will continue to try to preserve Jews, whether or not they are hairy-nosed.
I saw you are putting on a comedy night for Purim. I have never understood the connection between the two. I know it is a festival of miracles, but then again, so is Pesach, and we don't do comedy acts on Pesach. So why jokes on Purim?
Humour is a funny thing. What is it that makes us laugh?
There are many forms of humour, but all of them have one thing in common- they are the fusion of opposites.
When two things that don't belong together come together, it is funny. When we hear a child speak with the maturity of an adult, or an adult act childishly; when we see animals seeming human or humans act like animals; when an absolutely ridiculous statement is said with a dead-pan straight face - we can't help but laugh. The lead-up of a joke takes us one way, and then the punch line takes us by surprise.
It is the power of the unexpected, out-of-the-blue, caught-off-guard badda-BAM that tickles us. Our minds are conditioned to expect things to turn out a certain way, so when our expectations are pleasantly defied, when the exact opposite of the predictable happens, it is funny.
And so the Purim story is the ultimate comedy. The lead up pointed toward tragedy - the entire Jewish people were under threat of annihilation. The punch line took us by surprise - the Jewish people were saved, their enemies vanquished, and we have another Jewish holiday to eat and celebrate.
So we celebrate Purim with jokes. Our history has shown us that no matter how bad things seem, it can all turn around in an instant. The biggest punch line is yet to come.
PURIM PARTY - stand-up comedy, catered dinner, Sunday March 20 - see below
Question of the Week:
Why do we eat Hamantaschen on Purim? I have heard that they are the same shape as Haman's hat. But Haman was the man who wanted to wipe us out. Why would we immortalise him by eating cookies that bear his name?
This may be a cake of mistaken identity. These Purim cakes were originally called mohntaschen, which means 'poppy seed pockets'. Today most hamantaschen are filled with jam, but poppy seed used to be the more popular filling. It was a short linguistic jump from mohntaschen to Hamantaschen, as people assumed there was a connection between the food eaten on Purim and the villain of the Purim story.
The real reason for eating Hamantaschen is that they symbolise the very nature of the Purim miracle. If you read the story of Purim you notice that it was a string of seeming coincidences that saved the Jewish people from annihilation. There were no open miracles, no seas split, no plagues, just some twists and turns of history that, when viewed as separate events, seemed quite natural. Only at the end of the story was it revealed that a miracle had occured.
Jews can always find a food to tell a story. In this case, it is the Hamantasch. The outside of the Hamantasch is just plain dough. The true flavour is concealed inside. Beneath the very ordinary veneer, the heart of the Hamantasch is bursting with sweetness.
Our lives are much the same. At times it seems that we are being pushed and pulled by accidental forces. Things happen to us that seem haphazard and random, there seems to by no system in place, no direction to this cold and harsh universe. This is not true. There is a system. But it is hidden. Below the surface there is a sweet hand and a warm heart that directs the universe.
Rarely do we get to see this hand. Purim is one day when it was revealed, when a crack opened in the outer shell of nature and we glimpsed what lies beyond. Purim reminds us that all those coincidences are no coincidences, and nothing is random. We are still in the middle of our story, so it is hard to see the full picture. But in the end we will see that it's all one big Hamantasch.
PURIM PARTY - stand-up comedy, catered dinner, Sunday March 20 - see below
Question of the Week:
My girlfriend is Jewish. I am not. I just want to know what crime I have committed by being a non-Jew. All her friends and family are trying to convince her out of this relationship. I think I am a nice guy. What do they have against me?
Let me tell you a story that happened just last week.
My children were waiting to catch the school bus in the morning. But the bus never arrived. Apparently the bus driver missed a turn and didn't go past my kids' stop to pick them up. They are usually the last ones to get on the bus, but today he was going straight to school without them.
All the other school kids on the bus realised what was happening and started screaming at the bus driver. "You missed the turn! The Moss kids! You have to turn around! Go back and pick up the Moss kids!"
The driver, feeling somewhat helpless, called back to the busload of screaming Jewish kids, "I can't turn back in this traffic. It will be an hour before we get to school. There's nothing I can do."
The school children were not satisfied. "But the Moss kids!" they shrieked. "You left them behind!"
One quick thinking girl pulled out her phone and frantically called her mother. "Mum, the bus made awrong turn and missed the Moss kids. Call their parents to tell them!" And so she did, which is how I heard the story.
My wife and I later reflected on what a special little episode this was. That's what it means to belong to a community. People know who you are, people care if you miss the bus. Within minutes of the wrong turn, we heard about it and were able to look after the situation. We felt very much cared for.
That bus represents the Jewish people. We are an extended family on a big bus of history that has been travelling along for four thousand years. And if a Jewish child might miss the bus, the whole nation starts screaming. We can't allow even one Jewish soul to be lost to the Jewish family.
My friend, you have done nothing wrong, and no one has anything personal against you. But there are a lot of people out there who sincerely care for the future of the Jewish people. And for that future every soul counts. Your girlfriend is a part of a community that spreads over the globe, she is the next link in a chain that spans generations. We can't just stand by and let her miss the bus.
Ever since that incident, the bus driver has been extra careful to make the right turn and never leave behind a Jewish child. He had better. He is driving bus number 613.
Good Shabbos, Rabbi Moss
Note: 613 is the exact number of commandments in the Torah, the portable Jewish homeland, our national bus