Friday, April 26, 2013

Emor: Don't cut yourself off for fear of mortality

Emor Leviticus 21:1-3

1. And the Lord said to Moses: Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none [of you] make himself tamei for a dead person among his people        
2. except for his relative who is close to him, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother,        :
3. and for his virgin sister who is close to him, who was not [yet] with a man for her, he shall make himself tamei.

I am at a hospice conference this week, and am once again inspired by the vision that hospice has of facilitating the "sacred space" at the end of life. One large hospice (Hospice of Michigan) uses language about "sacred space" in their mission statement, saying:
  • Honor life to the end
  • Be witnesses to the spirit of life
  • Recognize the sacredness of leaving; honor the feelings of loss
  • Ensure patients and families achieve their quality-of-life goals while under our care
At first reading, the instructions in Emor seem to be telling us the opposite - that being around a dead person leads to a state of tamei. And if being around a dead person can make us tamei, then we might "put a fence around the torah" and not want to be around someone who is very close to dying, for fear of being present at the moment of death and thus becoming tamei.

But I think there is a different way to read the text's instruction to us. Instead of meaning "don't go near a dead person (or someone close to being dead), the text can be seen as telling us: "don't make yourself tamei because there is death among the people." If we understand tamei as the state of being closed off (and tahor as the state of being open to the flow of life), then the text is telling us "don't close yourself off from the fact of mortality."  The text is actually saying - "go, be with people near death, help them stay connected, don't let the flow of holiness be cut off. You can go with them up to the edge, don't make yourself cut off from them and from holiness." However, there is an exception for  one's own loved ones and close family. With our own family, we may make ourselves "tamei" - we may close off, retreat, pull back from the flow. The reality of the pain of personal grief is acknowledged, and we are not expected to stay fully connected to holiness in that circumstance. At a time of personal grief, we must rely on others to keep the holy connection present; we cannot do it for ourselves.

Here is an article about a hospice doula program that describes how volunteers help to keep this "flow" of communication, of love, of sacredness, going, even up to the very edge of life.

May we have the strength to stay connected to holiness, even in the face of mortality. And when that mortality comes close enough to touch our own families, may we have the wisdom to retreat, reflect and accept the help of others.

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