Today is Zayin Adar, the 7th day of the month of Adar and, it is said, Moses’ yahrzeit. Zayin Adar is also the traditional date to honor the Hevra Kadisha ("holy society"), a group within a community or synagogue dedicated to helping at the time of the death of a loved one. With sensitivity and speed (since tradition demands that burial take place immediately after death), Hevra Kadisha members perform difficult rituals like taharah (washing of the body), shmirah ("guarding" the deceased until the time of interment), and organizing shiva minyanim (services in the family's home), as well as equally important tasks like sitting with the mourning family at services and arranging for food to be sent to their home during shiva. Yet, traditionally, its members rarely speak about their duties. The deceased can't thank them, either. The Hevra Kadisha insures that death in the Jewish tradition remains dignified and intimate even as it must be a public event.
Tonight my synagogue, like many others, held a dinner in honor of those who participate silently in this mitzvah. Our speaker shared the story of her son's sudden death in Israel and how the Hevra Kadisha stepped in and took care of details when she couldn’t arrange an immediate flight from the U.S. Yet she was also critical of some of our traditions, particularly one popular in parts of the Orthodox world: the prohibition against organ donation. Our bodies are sacred vessels, and some interpret this to mean that every single bit of flesh and blood must return to the earth as God commanded. Others believe that one day, if we’re lucky, the Messiah will come and raise the dead, who will need their bodies. So woe to them if others happen to be using their kidneys or corneas at the time.
I listened to these words and thought about Parashat Tetzaveh, a chunk of which I’m chanting this coming Shabbat. Two years ago I wondered how to find meaning in its overwhelming flood of details; the broad strokes of Bereshit conjure the creation of the universe in my mind’s eye more readily than long lists of jewels, colorful threads, and bells and ornaments help me comprehend the astonishing task of building a mishkan (tabernacle). I concluded, as Mies van der Rohe wrote, that “God is in the details”—and humanity, in our ability to see the bigger picture that God wanted us to find.
Our bodies are also a temple of intricate detail, as we celebrate each morning with this prayer:
Blessed are You, our Eternal God, Creator of the Universe, who has made our bodies in wisdom, creating openings, arteries, glands, and organs marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be difficult to stand before You. Wondrous Fashioner and Sustainer of life, Source of our health and our strength, we give you thanks and praise.
God told us to build the mishkan in God’s honor. It was our gift to God; it belonged to God. And we belong to God as well: we are God's gift to this planet, to live and grow and then return to the earth God created. We are on loan to the universe. So what better way to acknowledge a gift than share it with others in the form of organ donation, and extend the miracle? Our physical beings are easily as intricate and marvelous as the jewels of the tabernacle--there just doesn’t happen to be a parasha about them. Or maybe there is, and the breastplate of decision is my ribcage and the two gold rings, my lungs. As I sing this Shabbat, I will imagine I am offering my gifts in thanks for God’s and, with every breath, helping to create a sacred place just as the Israelites did.