When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O God! May Your enemies be scattered and may Your foes flee before you…– Numbers 10:35
Each Shabbat this pasuk (verse) is recited as the ark is opened and we anticipate the reading of the Torah. Just as Moses declared these words as the Israelites set out with the Ark of the Covenant, so too we mirror this image as the Torah is taken from the ark and we carry it on its journey through the community. However, this pasuk has never had the same meaning for me ever since I heard it for the first time in a very different context: at the conclusion of a tahara, the ritual washing of the body prior to a funeral and burial.
After the body has been cleaned and then ritually washed, the person who died is dressed in linen garments and placed in the aron (the casket) and the aron is closed. The word aron, the Hebrew word for ark as used in Numbers 10:35 is also the word for casket in Hebrew, implying the preciousness of what it is the ark holds. Those who have performed the ritual washing ask for forgiveness for any mistakes that might have been made during the tahara. Then this famous verse is recited as the casket is wheeled out of the room where the tahara was completed and into another place in the funeral home. Then, the priestly blessing is recited and the mitzvah has been completed.
I participated in my first tahara while I was in rabbinical school. Never having had contact with a dead person before, I vividly remember lifting up my hand from my side and reaching out to touch this body for the first time. It was a stretch. But once I got over the initial hurdle of reaching out to the unknown, I found myself as part of a dance of women (E. M. Broner z”l, of blessed memory, might say, “A Weave of Women”) attending to this body that once was animated by a treasured soul that was unknown to me.
I was serving with a hevra kadisha, the committee responsible for fulfilling the two mitzvot connected with death — kavod hamet (honoring the one who has died, which includes the tahara) and nihum avelim (comforting the mourners). Few words were spoken and some niggunim (melodies) were sung, as we undressed the body, delicately removed nail polish from the woman’s fingers and toes, and cleaned her with careful attention. There was never a moment when we left the body exposed (we kept her covered with a sheet), and we always referred to her by her Hebrew name. We followed the proscribed order of tasks, step by step, working as a group: the cleaning and washing of the body, the actual mikveh (the ritual bath in which the deceased is declared ritually clean three times), the dressing in white linen shrouds. We never passed anything over the body as if she were a mere object but quietly and respectfully took care of her, and I was taken care of too. I was brought into this sacred circle of women ushering this body that lived a life to its final resting place.
How beautiful you are, my love, my friend; doves of your eyes looking out from the thicket of your hair. Your hair like a flock of goats bounding down ... Your breasts are two fawns, twins of a gazelle, grazing in a field of lilies. You are beautiful, my love, my perfect one.
– Song of Songs, Chapter 4
As the washing was taking place, we recited these words from Song of Songs. It’s been about 13 years since that first tahara. Still, every time I speak these words at a tahara, they feel so true, regardless of the age of the deceased or the illness that she suffered. (Just to be clear, while others might do a tahara for bodies that have suffered tragic accidents, our group does not as we don’t yet have the experience.) The body is finally at rest and I have never seen a woman at a tahara who does not look beautiful. And these verses, so meaningfully spoken in the moment, teach me that my eyes are meant to see that beauty and to cultivate that love.
I left that first tahara and walked into the dark night with a sense of profound gratitude and awe and relief. I had made it through, and surprisingly didn’t feel uncomfortable once I engaged. I felt brought in and moved by the process, by the women, by the mitzvah. I felt quieted in a way that even the noises of the streets of New York were not able to disturb. The next day, as a learning experience, I attended the funeral as part of my rabbinical training. As the hespedim (eulogies) were spoken, I was overwhelmed with tears. All of a sudden, that vessel that was beautiful and cared for so beautifully the night before was enlivened with the story of the woman’s life and her loves.
As the years have passed, I have participated in many taharot. In the earlier years I was fulfilling this mitzvah as a community member. Now, often, it turns out that I have served as a rabbi to the deceased. It is one thing to speak words of praise at a funeral or shiva as a rabbi; it is another to have the honor of saying goodbye to a beloved congregant in the sacred space of the tahara and to help hold that space for the women gathered to perform this mitzvah.
Tahara has taught me to be less afraid of death. It has given me comfort to know that when my own grandmother died, that the hevra was caring for her with the utmost dignity and respect. That is true for all who go through this final ritual, even for me when it is my time. Tahara has taught me the profound difference between body and soul, for as the body — that beautiful body — lies before me each time, it is so profoundly clear that the essence of the person is no longer there. Tahara is the living embodiment that, regardless of what our story in life is, no matter how rich or poor we are, that we are all equal in death. We all are washed in the same way. We are all given our final mikveh in the same way. We are all dressed in the same garments, and once the aron is closed the same words are spoken.
When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Advance, O God! May Your enemies be scattered and may Your foes flee before you…
Each life is ushered out of this world as if it were the Torah, for it is — a sacred story that we carry on, that we continue to read and learn, that we grapple with, that has a beginning, a middle and an end but is also eternal. And just like whenever the Torah is taken out of the ark, someone has the honor and privilege of holding this sacred scroll, so too have I had the most humble honor of holding these women with women as they make the transition from the end of their lives, to life eternal and for that, my Torah will never be the same.
Rabbi Felicia L. Sol is a spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She serves on the board of the Jewish Funds for Justice-Progressive Jewish Alliance.