May 11 2017 Dvar Torah

Hazzan Avraham Alpert

In our age, everyone seems to be calling themselves “spiritual” rather than “religious”. It is in vogue to search for spirituality. Some choose to meditate, others to be attuned to spiritual powers while hiking in nature, still others look to mystical texts like kabbalah.

Jews are just as active in searching for spirituality as anyone else. Perhaps Jews are more involved in these pursuits (Proving this theory would be too timely and beyond the scope of this message.) For our people one catalyst for spiritual searches is the lack of spiritual satisfaction in Jewish upbringing. Ironically, we have deep deep spiritual practices that many American Jews seldom or never have experienced. We miss these opportunities and then feel spiritually empty.

An incredible example of a potent spiritual practice in traditional Torah living, that has fallen by the wayside, involves a simple shovel. No, I am not referring to gardening or planting trees! There is a constant occurrence that every human is confronted with which can become a gold mine to dig for spiritual energy. This is a different kind of mining; the type where dirt is piled up rather than shoveled away. This spiritual practice is a response to death.

For hundreds even thousands of years Jewish people have gently placed their dead brothers and sisters in the ground and burnt many calories shoveling dirt over and around those dead bodies. (Traditionally) When a Jew hears that a fellow has died, he or she changes previous plans and goes to the burial and truly participates in that burial until the ground is level again. This is not only an act of true kindness (hessed shel emet), this is an action which is deeply spiritually fulfilling to those who take this opportunity.

These days we see an overwhelming number of American Jews who go to funerals only for people they knew. We see rabbis and cantors who respond to unfamiliar funeral attendees by expecting less participation. Typically at American Jewish funerals there is a chance to place a symbolic handful or shovelful of soil on the casket, and the real work of filling in the grave is left to the cemetery employees after the funeral is done. (This is appropriate for extenuating circumstances or harsh weather.) There is no community present to lovingly and rapidly fill in the entire grave. Is this how we really want to proceed? Are we spiritually fulfilled after confronting death?

Conversely, I have had so many people who have participated in burials along side me who said they “have never been a part of such a tremendous act before.” They tell me how cathartic it was to shovel and shovel until the ground is level again, noticing the spiritual side of the physical act. Especially for those who knew the deceased, there is a feeling that they truly did something to help their loved one. This is earthy. This is real spirituality.

So if you want to find more spirituality in your life you don’t have to call yourself “religious” and you don’t have to go on long fasts or treks in nature (those can be beautiful as well). You don’t even have to become a student of kabbalah. Discover the abundant spiritual rush that can nourish us, by shoveling at a Jewish funeral. There is no shortage of these chances. Maybe this is what we were missing in our Jewish education… Help your rabbi by spreading this ancient truth and encouraging your friends to join you in this wondrous act.