This week I had the opportunity to engage in a new mitzvah: shmira, sitting with the body of someone who has died, keeping watch. In the traditional Jewish understanding the soul remains near the body until interment. In order for that soul not to feel abandoned, we arrange for people to sit with the body. I took the 2:30-5:30am shift last night.
On Wednesday I had gathered with six other members of the chevra kadisha to do taharah, the ritual cleansing, blessing, and dressing of the body. This was only my second time doing this work (I wrote a long essay about my first experience, just over a year ago) and it was both like and unlike the first. This time I knew the woman who had died, which made it harder in some ways; this time I had nine months of hospital work under my belt, which made it easier.
Shmira is another of the tasks carried out by the chevra kadisha. Traditionally the shomer or shomeret spends the time reading psalms. I did begin by reading psalms, quietly aloud, first psalm 23 in Hebrew and then others in English. I spent some time also studying tomorrow's Torah portion (I have taken on a slightly more ambitious reading than I usually do -- all of Leviticus 18 -- and I should be able to translate it as I go, which is gratifying.)
I am far from a night owl, as those who know me well can attest. The hours before dawn are not my finest ones. So I spent part of the night reading a novel (my friend Naomi Novik's second book, which is easily as marvelous as her first). Since the man who was shomer during the shift before mine told me that the widower had left word that he wouldn't mind if we napped, I imagine he won't mind that I read a little fiction during the wee hours to keep myself alert.
I talked a little bit to the woman whose soul I was accompanying. I thanked her again for her kindness to me during the years I've been a part of Congregation Beth Israel, and assured her that she is well-loved and will be missed, which I think she knew even as she made the decision to eschew heroic measures in the hospital on Monday. The atmosphere in the room was sweet and peaceful, though a little bit charged.
My replacement ran late, so I sat a while in meditation. My thoughts turned to the realization that someone, I don't know who, did this for my grandparents (of blessed memory.) I know that one of my cousins serves on the chevra at his synagogue in Dallas, which means he has done this, too. There's a deep comfort in knowing that so many others have done this, as I do it now, and that someday someone will do it for me. Not because it makes sense, but because it has meaning.
There's more I'd like to say about that, but words aren't coming as smoothly as they might. (I'll blame that on the sleep debt.) What matters is, this feels important to me, and I'm glad I did it.
I drove home at seven as the glorious light of early sun gilded the newly-greening trees and hills. The words of the morning blessing for gratitude rang even clearer than usual in the face of how I had spent my night. I am grateful to You, Eternal; you have returned my soul to me this morning; great is your faithfulness!