This Shabbos, in which Parashas Vayechi speaks of the passing and burial of Yaakov Avinu, has been designated as” TEAM Shabbos” by the National Association of Chevra Kadisha. TEAM stands for Traditional End-of-Life Awareness Movement. This Shabbos provides a teachable moment, the opportunity for Rabbis and lay people to focus on crucial end-of-life issues. Circumstances of illness, death, last will and testament and burial are hard to bring up and discuss topics and they benefit from the impetus of a special Shabbos designation.
For adults, there are a myriad of issues that require forethought, awareness and knowledge and you are urged to look into some area of the spectrum of end of life issues. These include but are not limited to: Sanctity of Life v. Quality of Life, Halachic Living Wills, Traditional Jewish Burial and Caring for Elderly Patients.
What about children? Do we mention end-of-life issues to them, or is it too scary? Do we risk exposing them to information they don’t need (G-d willing for a very long time) or is an understanding of the life cycle part of a well-rounded Chinuch? Is there one answer that fits all, or is it a matter of personal choice?
I am not aware of any source that insists that young children be made aware of issues surrounding dying, death and burial, but we should consider the following. Children are getting exposed to information and awareness of life and death at younger and younger ages. They probably (think they) know things about topics we would prefer waited for several years into their future. Misunderstanding and misinformation can potentially do more harm than we realize.
On the other side of the coin, our Halacha and tradition is so rich and full of Chesed and sensitivity when it comes to all matters pertaining to the end of life. Focusing on events recorded in Tanach dealing with the passing of our forebears can be a meaningful and reassuring lesson for our children. Making sure to let our children know when we go to a Levaya, pay a Shiva call or visit a sick person, brings the chesed side of Yiddishkeit into sharp focus for them. If we are members of the Chevra Kadisha, Bikur Cholim or Hatzala, it’s important and helpful for our children to know that we are doing Chesed , that sick and even deceased people are very much a part of our circle of life, and that Hashem has given us mitzvos to do that can help. We can and should do something meaningful when confronted with these difficult circumstances.
Children have a natural curiosity and fascination with death. They see insects and animals die, they hear and read about wars and crime and terrorism. We can and should emphasize the concept of the Neshama and eternal life, and find opportunities to point out the respect and care for the physical remains of a human being that are so central to the Torah perspective of the dignity of the human.
By having some knowledge and awareness of the more technical, halachic and ritual aspects surrounding death, our children will also be better equipped when death strikes close to home, R’L. When children have a context and familiarity with what is potentially very frightening and upsetting, it is calming and comforting. This is an area that requires knowing each child, reassessing as they grow and always seeking guidance from others whenever a doubt arises. As Jews we should feel rightfully proud to be part of a nation that cares deeply for every minute of life, and respects and upholds the dignity of the physical body that was the Neshama’s repository for 120 years on earth. Sharing this aspect of Yiddishkeit with our children to the degree their young emotions can handle, is a great gift that we can provide for them.
Have a meaningful and wonderful Shabbos,
Rabbi Kalman Baumann
P.S. This Shabbos has traditionally also been a time for reaching out to recruit new members for the Chevra Kadisha. If you feel ready for this incredibly inspiring mitzvah that reinforces concepts of appreciating life, kavod hamais and techiyas hameisim please contact firstname.lastname@example.org