My first Taharah, ritual purification, was a trial of courage for me. I stepped in with little preparation, and it was new to me.
We met as the sun was going down, to prepare the metah (Hebrew for a deceased female) for burial the next morning. The difference between someone very ill, yet alive, and the shell that once had housed life is startling.
I didn’t know why, exactly, we were doing what we were, but followed the instructions of the team leader. We shared an intimacy with the metah, as we undressed and washed her, poured many quarts of water over her (bringing the mikveh or ritual bath to the metah), dried and dressed her in simple white garments, held her in our arms as we placed her in her aron, casket.
I felt as though I was getting to know her, and in caring for her in this way, I became attached to her. At the same time, I was frightened, and in a mild state of shock---continuing to function with the guidance of the team leader until our job was complete. And when we were done, she looked so peaceful, clothed in white, bonnet on her head, snug in her aron.
Afterwards, I walked out into the fresh air of the night, looked at the stars, noticed that my arms could lift all by themselves…. They didn’t need someone else to lift them! I cried for the preciousness of being alive in this dear world!
I recognized that I did not know or understand what we had done, though it felt important. During the ritual, together with the actions we performed, we paused at times to recite a liturgy unfamiliar to me. In its newness, and in my shock, I couldn’t absorb it. I felt I needed to know more about it, and now, through classes with the Gamliel Institute I have been taught why we do what we do, and learned this liturgy and find it exquisite.
What I learned is that the prayers for the Taharah ritual are a conversation between God, the team, and the deceased. The team asks God to help us in the difficult task ahead, to forgive any mistakes, omissions, or errors. We also entreat God to forgive the metah for the transgressions in her life.
We address the metah as a lover might when we wash her, reading to her from Song of Songs. We dress her as the high priest Joshua (Zechariah 3:4) was dressed as he prepared to go into the Holy of Holies (Isaiah 61:10, Zechariah 3:5), in the Temple in Jerusalem to meet God. Just so, we are preparing this soul before us to meet God. Many words of Torah are said to the deceased to comfort her (Isaiah 61:11, 58:11). We call upon sixty angels to surround both the casket and the soul on their journeys: one to the grave, the other to The World to Come.
The words of the liturgy raise a scaffolding to carry us over the liminal abyss, bringing us safely to the other side. They give us courage. They structure deep meaning into our actions and connect us with the timeless.
Rabbi Me’irah Illinsky graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2007. Both a rabbi and an artist, Iliinsky is the illustrator of National Jewish Book Award Winner, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, published by the URJ Press and the Women of Reform Judaism. She has served as a board member for Kavod V’Nichum, and been a student and instructor for the Gamliel Institute.