In Memory of RivkA bat Yishaya

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Like so many people I have been devastated by the news of RivkA’s death. I read her blog regularly and was always inspired by the energy and optimism she conveyed. Her numerous friends in Israel have written beautifully about her and I fear I could never express my feelings and gratitude in such an articulate manner.

Instead I prefer to share what I found on Aish. We obviously feel besieged by numerous questions when someone as exceptional as RivkA passes away. Even if we find it hard to act rather than question, Judaism acknowledges our pain and bewilderment and encourages us to live life more fully in the merit of the deceased. The suggestions below concern a parent but apply to any one who has departed this world.

Our Sages have provided us with specific ways that we can help our loved ones gain merit in our daily lives. We can dedicate our actions for the soul through the following suggestions:

• Study Torah or ask a Torah scholar to dedicate his study to your parent’s soul (during the week of shivah, others study Torah since mourners are not allowed to study Torah).

• Tzedakah: Give charity or donate a Torah scroll, prayer books, or holy books in the name of your loved one to an organization, synagogue, or school. It is a good idea to have the name of your parent (or relative) inscribed inside the book.

• Acts of Kindness: Whenever you do a chessed, a kind deed, keep in mind that you are doing this mitzvah as a merit for the soul of your parent. This creates a great impact, for just as you have accomplished kindness, the soul of the departed will now benefit from God’s kindness in turn.

• Prayer: There is, of course, the holy Kaddish prayer that is said, during the first year (12 months) of mourning and on the yahrzeit. Kaddish proclaims our desire that the name of God be sanctified. When one suffers a loss and is then able to recite the Kaddish, he is publicly accepting God’s decree.This is considered to be one of the most awesome mitzvot — Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name. The merit for the soul is real and great.

• Embrace a Mitzvah: Choose a mitzvah and ‘put your signature on it’. It can be a mitzvah that your parent loved doing, or one that you would now like to take on. There are hundreds of mitzvoth to consider; such as helping children with special needs, visiting the sick, driving patients to doctor appointments, offering your professional services to those who cannot afford them, cooking and baking for families under stress,
Saying blessings before and after you eat, keeping kosher, honoring Shabbat, praying each day, and avoiding gossip and shaming others.

• Light a yahrzeit (memorial) candle in honor of your parent’s soul. Four times a year one lights a memorial candle, besides on the yahrzeit (date of passing) date itself. The holidays of Yom Kippur, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot, allow us the opportunity of Yizkor, remembrance. We light the candle at sundown and the flames burn for (more than) 24 hours. The flame of the candle symbolizes the human soul which is never extinguished. While lighting the candle, think about your loved one and say that “I am lighting this flame in the merit that my loved one’s soul find peace and attain greater heights in the heavens above.”
The date of the yahrzeit also gives us added opportunities to help the soul soar higher in heaven because yahrzeit is a day of judgment for the soul. It is a custom to gather together and have a meal, a seudah, where we speak about the fine character of our loved one. We tell personal stories that relay
his goodness, kindness, and integrity. Visiting the grave, giving charity, and studying Torah are all additional ways for us to add to our ‘care package to heaven’.

No Weddings and Too Many Funerals

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I have been rather quiet this week due a busy and difficult end of year. Busy because it was the end of the final exams (the baccaulauréat) so I was away on a commission on Monday which officialized who had passed, who had failed and who needed a last oral before graduating. On Tuesday the results were proclaimed throughout France. The students go to their respective high schools where they are given their results and advised on their choice of subjects if they need to take the final oral.

It was also quite hard as the colleague I had recently blogged about died on Sunday morning and was buried today, as is the custom with non-Jews in France.

Some of you may remeber that another colleague and friend had died in December and a student in September.

It is never easy to come to terms with the death of people you see practically every day. It is also a little odd to be the only Jew at a Christian funeral which means that I don’t go the funeral parlor before the service, I keep silent when people say prayers, I don’t bless the coffin and I wash my hands before leaving the cemetery.

What is more I find that life doesn’t prepare us for showing people that we care for their loss, especially if they are not Jewish and colleagues (as opposed to friends). Yet I have been in the same school for 16 years now and have obviously established good relationships with a number of people.

Since my colleague’s husband is also a teacher in my school, I had sent him an email on a couple of occasions to tell him how sorry I was when I learned his wife was very ill. On Sunday evening, I dropped a note in his (real) mailbox to express my sorrow and support since he had specifically asked that I be told she had died. However I still wonder whether my gestures were adequate in those circumstances.

Organ Donation

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When a non-Jewish friend told me she carried a donor card a few years ago, I decided to investigate and see what Judaism had to say on the subject. Nowadays most Orthodox rabbis are in favor of organ donation while some have reservations or are totally against it. In this post, I have deliberately chosen to present arguments that support it.

In his excellent book, The Jewish Way in Deat and Mourning, Rabbi Maurice Lamm starts by discussing organ donation. The reason behind this is that his book follows a chronological order and organ donation is an issue that needs to be dealt with as soon as someone dies.

Rabbi Lamm notes that in the past forty years Jewish Law has adapted to the medical realities of our time. Most transplantations nowadays are successful and Jewish Law has had to reconsider organ donation in the light of recent progress. Yet it seems that a lot of Jews still believe that organ donation is forbidden by Jewish law.

This misconcetion derives from three prohibitions concerning corpses:
Desecrating a cadaver: Issur nivul hamet is a biblical prohibition that forbids the needless mutilation of a cadaver.
Delaying burial of a cadaver: Issur halanat hamet is a biblical prohibition that forbids delaying the burial of a cadaver.
Receiving benefit from a cadaver: Issur hana’at hamet5 is a biblical (some say rabbinic) prohibitionthat forbids deriving benefit from a cadaver.

Yet in Jewish Law, pikuach nefesh, saving a life, is of primary importance and overrides all other Halachic considerations except for murder, illicit sexual relations and idolatry.

This obligation is mainly based on the Torah verse “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Vayikra 19:16). The Talmud reinforces this prohibition by turning it into an obligation: “Every individual, in so far as he is able, is obligated to restore the health of a fellow man no less than he is obligated to restore a property” (Sanhedrin 73a). Maimonides also underlines this obligation in Hilkhot Rotzeah u’Shmirat Nefesh: “Anyone who is able to save a life, but fails to do so, violates ‘You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor'”

Another major debate around organ donation concerns the definition of death. “An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or(2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain-stem, is dead.”

The second definition is important since for the purposes of life saving transplantation – oragns need to be recovered before the heart stops beating. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Rabbinical Council of America both accept brain stem death as halakhic death and support organ donation. In addition numerous poskim such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach and Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik accept brain-stem death as death and therefore allow and encourage organ donation.

In A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin suggests that one who is ready to donate organs should complete and carry a donor card. He believes it is particularly important in the case of those who die a violent death and whose relatives might not be aware of their opinion concerning organ donation and will thus be relieved of having to make the decision in place of the deceased.

Resources:
Halachic Organ Donor Society, a website. HODS’s aim is to purpose is to disseminate information regarding Halachic issues and Rabbinic opinions on organ donation.
Organ Donation and Halacha, an educational pamphlet by the Halachic Organ Donor Society
Done with Brain Death by Robby Berman, founder and director of the Halakhic Organ Donor Society
The Jewish Way in Deat and Mourning by Rabbi Maurice Lamm
A Code of Jewish Ethics, Volume 2: Love Your Neighbor as Yourself by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Differing views:
The Deceased the Family and Organ Donation
New Thoughts on the Brain Death Controversy

Special thanks to Larry Lennhoff who provided the last two links.