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Each week we feature a different Florida Rabbi.


Rabbi Simcha Freedman
Exec. Dir. Boystown of Jerusalem
Boca Raton

The first part of our Sedra deals with the purchase of burial plots for the Avot and Imahot. Even today the Sepulcure in Hebron where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeka, Jacob and Leah and, according to legend, Adam and Eve (that is why the city is also known as Kiryat Arba- the city of the four couples) are interred, is visited by thousands of tourists in order to give honor to our ancestors. Wherever Jewish people settled thoughout the generations, the establishing of a Jewish burial place was given priority.

According to the Torah it is a Mitzvah- a commandment to bury the deceased in the earth. It is based on the statement- "And bury, shalt thou bury him... (Deut.21:23)." In Genesis 3:19 we read "for dust thou wast and unto dust thou shalt return."

To our dismay fully one-third of Jewish dead are now being cremated or entombed in mausoleums. Rabbi Abner Weiss in his "Death and Bereavement: A Halackhic Guide" writes "Burial means interment-being placed in the ground. Nothing else is acceptable. To do anything else is tantamount to leaving the body unburied".

Why do we insist on burial in the ground ? The first answer is because that is what the Torah says and that is our tradition. But we need not look too far to find a reason for this custom, hallowed by centuries of Jewish practice. There is something very meaningful in visiting a cemetery. One sees the tombstones of family members and friends and what is evoked are special memories that only that place can raise. The custom of "Kever Avot," visiting the graves of dear ones prior to the High Holy Days brings us into confronting our own mortality and helps us to face the future with serious intent and purposefulness. It is a place for contemplation and reflection. It is a holy place, sanctified by tears, prayers and the physical remains of our predecessors.

The concluding portion of our Sedra points out that when Avraham dies, his sons Yitzchak and Yishmael come together to bury their father in the place he had purchased years before and where Sarah had been buried. (Genesis 25:9). Although there was some enmity between the brothers, the Midrash tells us that at Abraham 's grave they were reconciled.

This reminds me of a funeral service at which I officiated some 15 years ago. There were only 3 others individuals present at the grave of a woman in her early 90's who had passed away in Miami. One brother had flown in with his wife from New York, the other, alone from California. When they met with me at the cemetery office I could sense the tension between them. They had not seen one another for many years. The brother from New York was dressed in suit and tie. The brother from California had boots and jeans for attire. They looked at one another warily and although they spoke, you could tell that the distance between them was measured in more than miles.

At the gravesite I recited the appropriate prayers and spoke about how our rabbis teach us about life and life after life. Then I instructed the brothers about the custom of filling in the grave with earth. They had already indicated they wanted to do that kindness for their mother.

The older son took the shovel from the ground and carefully deposited earth atop the casket. He then turned and placed the shovel back on the ground and looked at his brother. It was really the first time they actually "saw" one another and realized who they were and what this moment was all about. They were brothers! This was their mother they were burying! Memories must have flooded into their consciousness because suddenly, simultaneously, they flew to one another and embraced and started to sob.

It was a cathartic moment, very special, very important to both of them. I have seen similar expressions of this kind at the same moment in the cemetery. Somehow the finality of placing the cover of earth over the physical remains of a dear one is most evocative.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech in his book "The Secrets of Hebrew Words" tells us that the Hebrew word for grave (Kever) may have its letters re-arranged to form the word "Rekev" which means, to "decay." Thus the physical remains returns to the earth from whence it came. But the same letters spell yet another work "Bokar" which means "Morning," He says, "What appears as night here is but the morning of a Humankind is composed of body and soul. The body houses the soul and when death occurs it is returned, with respect and dignity to the earth. The soul returns to G-d.

"The righteous even after they are dead are called alive."higher form of existence."

I believe Abraham well understood that idea and the establishment of a cemetery was meant to remind us of that message.

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