NOT ALL MITZVOT TURN INTO ghost stories — but when doing holy work, it’s always a good idea to expect the unexpected.
Ann and I are members of the Sonoma County Chevre Kadisha, which literally means “holy fellowship;” it’s a centuries-old Jewish institution committed to preparing the dead for burial. Doing this is considered to be the most selfless of all mitzvot (commandments), partly because there’s no way the beneficiary can pay you back.
In 2002, we joined a crowd of about 50 at Cotati’s Congregation Ner Shalom where, over the course of an afternoon and under the tutelage of Rabbi Elisheva (Sachs) Salamo, we learned — as one participant put it — to “gift-wrap people for sending them back to God.” We practiced on each other the intricacies of “taharat meit” (washing and enshrouding the “meit,” or body), and learned to act as “shomrim” — guards who stay with the meit between tahara and burial. We heard some amazing stories from people who had done both of these mitzvot, and when the contact sheet came around at the end of the session Ann and I eagerly added our names and phone numbers.
Since then, we have acted as shomrim twice, sitting in shifts of two to three hours, sometimes late at night, and never yet for anyone we knew well. But the third time, I went alone — and that’s when it happened.
I arrived at Santa Rosa Memorial Park’s chapel slightly ahead of time on a warm afternoon. Other chevre members were still performing tahara, behind the closed door of the adjacent preparation room, for a female member of the county’s Jewish community. I entered the chapel, sat down in the front pew, then stood up when three women — one reading from a Bible — rolled the plain pine casket into its temporary resting place for the next day’s funeral. We exchanged quiet nods before they left me alone with the meit and a copy of Rabbi Samson Hirsch’s commentary on Psalms.
And the tapping began.
I looked up from my book. Had I really heard three quick, sharp raps from the vicinity of the casket? No. Couldn’t be. I grunted, and re-engaged with Rabbi Hirsch.
A horrible thought struck me, but I trusted that the tahara crew had bade this woman good-bye in the most scrupulously decisive manner. Still …
I got up, quietly laying the Psalms on the pew. I walked over to the casket. I bent down.
“Hello?” I asked.
“If you can hear me, please rap.”
Only the sound of air conditioning, and my pounding heart. I stood poised, alert, scarcely daring to breathe.
From the bottom of the floor-to-ceiling frosted window behind me — three quick raps.
I smiled, sheepishly, thinking of tree branches, then frowned. The day was windless, and no shrubbery grew near the window. But at least I had localized the source of the rapping, which intermittently continued during the next two hours. If this was God trying to get me to add some kavanna — intention — to the mitzvah, it certainly worked. Tradition teaches that only mitzvot performed with kavanna really count, and I was doing exactly that — guarding my charge either from untimely internment or from unexplained intrusion.
At last, the next shomer arrived, flustered and apologetic and out of breath for not having found the chapel sooner. I reassured her that everything was okay, left the chapel, and unsuccessfully scanned the exterior for noisemakers before driving away.
I don’t know why I didn’t mention the rapping.