My son Jonah has figured out that people like it when you ask them about themselves and their day. When Jodi walks in from a day of teaching, Jonah will ask, “How was your teaching 11th and 12th graders?” When his sister Gabi comes home, he asks, “How was your 10th grade at Summit High School?” When I return from a meeting, a lesson, a service or any other job-related responsibility, Jonah is there to ask how it went. Then, he patiently waits to hear if it was “fine” or “okay” or “great.”
And 99% of the time, I love it that he asks. However, when I walk in from a funeral or a shivah call, I never quite know how to answer. Somehow, the typical answers of “fine” or “okay” or “great” don’t cut it. Even if I feel that the funeral was meaningful for the family or the shivah call was comforting to the mourners, I just don’t know how to answer that question.
It occurred to me that even when we are not the main actors – the direct mourners – death sticks with us whenever we get close to it. No matter how much I turn up the heat, the chill of the cemetery stays with me. Even when I eulogize someone whom I did not know in life, I feel a sense of loss. And it stays with me for a while.
Our ancestors sensed this also. They had a different way of describing it, though. They referred to it as “Toom’ah – טמאה” or ritual impurity. Whenever someone came into contact with death – whether it be the loss of a loved one or the slaughtering of an animal – that person was considered to be in a state of ritual impurity. There is a lot of material in both the Bible and the Talmud dealing with this issue. It’s easy to dismiss this concept as being part of the sacrificial system. After all, a person in a state of ritual impurity could not enter the Temple. But, there’s something to it – even in our modern world.
This coming Shabbat is called Shabbat Parah because we read the passage from the Bible describing the “Parah Adoomah – פרה אדומה” or red heifer. It’s a strange ritual (click here for more details). At the end of the day, it’s a ritual that was created to help people who have been touched by death to somehow remove the remnant of death’s touch that stays with us. Today, it is the supportive presence of friends and family coupled with the rituals of mourning and shivah that help us do the very same thing.
I was thinking of all this as I read about the death of Fred Phelps – the founder of Westboro Baptist Church. He and his church are best known for their protests of social issues at funerals. He – and his followers – took that awful, cold feeling that comes over all of us at funerals and made it even worse. They made it even more difficult to shed the touch of death.
I am not a vengeful or spiteful person. However, I hope that as this congregation mourns its leader, the members of the community come to realize how harmful their actions have been.
And as I type these words, I’ve come to realize that finding the right word to answer to Jonah’s questions “How was your funeral?” or “How was your shivah call?” isn’t all that important. It’s his asking the question that really matters.