There is something about Purim that seems to make Jewish people die. Or perhaps the team from our synagogue has just drawn the short straw several years running. In any event, I am usually sufficiently intoxicated by the time I get the call to beg off. This year, Rabbi S. caught me early. Apparently, he has learned.
Why Purim Matters To Me
First, a word of explanation about me and Purim. Growing up, no one in my community did a Purim seudah (a festive meal with much food and alcohol), except maybe when Purim happened on Sunday. Purim night we went to Megillah reading, and from there (if one was a teen) to various Purim parties to celebrate. Purim day usually had school, but as a Purim carnival or some such. Parents worked. Purim day was go to early minyan, hear Megillah, deliver shaloch manus (frequently exchanged at morning minyan), then off to regular daily routine. I think I went to maybe 2 or 3 Purim Seudahs before going to college.
In college we had Purim Seudah, but it was kinda indistinguishable from any other college party. Also, the official Yavneh Purim Seudah, as a function of a university affiliated student group, was officially dry (or, as we say in the SCA "discretely damp"). Again, most of the traditional Purim celebration was Purim night.
So my Purim experience in Israel was something of a revelation to me. It was actually an incredible fusion of celebration and spirituality. I know most people have difficulty understanding how a party with serious drinking is a spiritual experience, and I am not going to try to explain it here. As our sages used to say about particularly mystic bits in the Bible and commentaries: "Those who understand, understand. To those who do not understand, it will remain incomprehensible on further explanation as well."
I was also angry at the Jewish community back home. It seems like the vast majority of people have no problem being meticulous about what is forbidden during the Three Weeks and the Nine Days, extending out the fast days to the latest possible time 'just to be safe,' and driving themselves crazy with every chumrah for Passover cleaning. But the holiday God says "I want you to get together with friends and celebrate with feasting and drinking and rejoicing," everyone has a leniency to rely on to show that the plan language of the Talmud isn't really what is required.
So when I got back from Israel, I promised myself I would make as big a deal about Purim and the Purim Seudah as is made for Tisha B'Av and the other days of sadness. As Kohelet tells us, there is a time for all things, and one is as important as the other. In the time of mourning, mourn. But in the time of rejoicing, rejoice with the same energy and enthusiasm devoted to mourning. Over the years, I have done my best to keep this pledge -- whether it was Rebecca and I and a handful of friends with a pot of stuffed cabbage in our tiny first apartment or some of my more massive celebrations of 40+.
This year, I have been extremely busy, so nearly all my Purim cooking and preparations were done on Purim day. That meant waking up at about 4 a.m. to begin the cooking and cleaning the house. (As always, I am indebted to the help of my visiting in-laws, Becky, Aaron, and the numerous friends who either come early to help with set up or stay late to help with clean up). I was not only looking forward to Purim for the usual reasons, but looking forward to collapsing after we ended and getting a decent night's sleep.
Then at 2 p.m., and hour before our scheduled start time, I got the call from Rabbi S. Could I do a tahara tonight? To make things worse, it was at one of my least favorite local funeral homes. The equipment is old, the space is crowded (and I am getting way too fat for crowded spaces), and I always get lost going there (there is a complicated intersection where I invariably take the wrong choice of several possible turns). The tahara was scheduled for 9:30, which would mean not getting home until 10:30-11 p.m. at the earliest.
Needless to say, I really, really didn't want to do it. I generally welcome the opportunity to do a tahara as a necessary mitzvah and spiritual exercise. For me, it emphasizes the holiness of the human person and the continuation of our tradition. Every time I do a tahara, I meditate on the fact that some day, God willing, a similar group of people will tend to me with respect and reverence for no better reason than we are all part of Klal Yisroel. But not this time.
It is not just that I was already exhausted and looking forward to an early night. To perform the mitzvah, one must be sober. Knowing that I would be going from a Purim Seudah to a tahara would require moderating my usual observance of the mitzvah to become intoxicated so that i could be confident that I would be completely recovered by 9:30.
But I reminded myself that I had no excuse not shared by every other eligible team member in the Washington Metro Area. The Talmud tells us the mitzvah of preparing the dead is so great that even the High Priest on the Day of Atonement would be required to fulfill it if no one else were available to do so. So I agreed to go. I then called one of the other members Rabbi S. said was also going to beg a ride. Not because I expected to be unfit to drive -- since that would render me unfit for the mitzvah -- but because I knew in my exhausted state I would certainly get lost both coming and going if I had to drive it myself. Arrangements complete, I turned back to my Purim Seudah preparations.
I will save the report on this year's Seudah for a separate post if I can find time. The short version is that it was on the small side this year for a variety of reasons (approximately 25 people), but very freilich and enjoyable. It was a very musical crowd this year, with much singing and making of a joyful noise before the Lord.
It was a tahara that seemed intent on maximizing the inconvenience factor, which severely challenged me in my desire to find spiritual meaning in fulfillment of the obligation. There was a team in ahead of us with a number of new members, so we couldn't begin until 10 p.m. The meis (translation: the deceased) was an elderly fellow (thank God) who had died in a hospital, which necessitates a great deal of work to remove bandages. (Hospitals are instructed to do nothing if the person has requested Jewish burial and to turn the body over to the Jewish burial society; this is extremely important for a variety of reasons I will skip for now.)
Worse, and please excuse the graphic detail here, the meis was singularly the dirtiest in terms of excrement I have ever dealt with. All excrement must be removed from the body, which includes a reasonable effort to clear out the easily accessible portion of the anus. This fellow had been in a diaper, and when he expired a great deal was released and captured by the diaper. I shall elide over further details. Suffice it to say it creates a further significant challenge to finding spiritual meaning.
Unsurprisingly, my first feelings were irritation and resentment. I did not want to be here. But if I had to be here, why couldn't things go smoothly? So I focused on my feelings and asked myself: "Do you think your death will be so convenient? Unless you lose about half your body weight, you are going to require at least one extra team member just to lift you. And will you take care to die at a convenient time, with an empty bowel, so that those who will perform the mitzvah are not as inconvenienced? This person would not chose to be here, if he could have avoided it. God choses the time and manner of a person's death. It falls to us to give it final dignity.
"Consider, the team before us had done the tahara for a wealthy fellow, a well known (in our community) millionaire in real estate. This meis, while not a pauper, was not wealthy. Yet both have come to the same rest. In the end, all we have is this flesh which the Lord has lent us for a brief time. It is deserving of respect, this flesh made in the image of the Most High. And in tending to the end of all flesh, we rediscover our common humanity.
"You are inconvenienced for a night. It is a little thing, in the course of a lifetime. This man has come to the end of his life. This tahara and his funeral are all that remains to him. Consider and be glad that you can fulfill the obligation. 'For the dead do not praise you, nor do those who go down to the grave, but we shall bless you forever and ever.'"
When we finished, one of the members of the team remarked. "You know, in many ways, it is a good thing to do a tahara on Purim. It puts things in perspective and reminds you about some essential truths." Indeed.
My thanks, therefore, to David ben Baruch, whoever he was, for the opportunity to perform the mitzvah and for the lesson.