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Parashat Behar: Advance Planning

Having some logistics in place can alleviate some of the anxiety surrounding a loved one's death.

Commentary on Parashat Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2

Among the laws the Israelites receive in this week’s Torah portion is the requirement to provide for a sabbath every seventh year for the land they will one day inhabit. This practice of is called shmita, and it continues to this day in the land of Israel. Six years the Israelites may sow, prune and plant, but work stops in the seventh year, just as diverse forms of work cease for individuals on the weekly seventh day. This practice is understood as both a sacred discipline and good land stewardship, allowing the earth to rest and reinvigorate. 

I imagine that this was a source of anxiety for our ancestors. How would they ensure that they and their livestock had enough to eat in the seventh year? The plan Moses communicates comes with an assurance: Every sixth year, there will be a miracle of sorts. Through divine intervention, Moses promises the people, there will be an exorbitant harvest sufficient for three years. 

A divine promise was surely comforting, but in practice, the Israelites did plenty of advance planning of their own to be sure they had enough to sustain them in the seventh year. In Israel, archeologists have unearthed remains of ancient materials — sacks, storage jars and storage pits — which indicate how busy they were in their preparations. They were drying fruits, pickling fish and vegetables, drying grains and legumes, making grapes into wine and storing honey and oil.

These extensive preparations remind me of how advance planning before death can alleviate the intense burdens of planning for a Jewish funeral and the subsequent mourning period. This isn’t always possible of course. Sometimes deaths are untimely, or drained emotional and mental resources don’t allow for advance preparations. And for some, planning for death can be uncomfortable and even unlucky, as if, through some kind of magical thinking, having no plans might keep death at bay.  

Given all that, I am grateful that some planning was already in place by the time my mother died. It meant that at the time of our greatest grief, my sister and I weren’t additionally overwhelmed by needing to look for records. My mother had already made lists of all the important financial information for us. She had a funeral plot already selected in a Jewish cemetery.  All of this was an enormous relief when she passed away. 

For families that practice Judaism in traditional ways, the logistics of planning are streamlined, for much that will transpire ritually can generally be assumed. You give yourself over to the mores of the community. You know the body will be washed and prepared for burial by a chevra kadisha, or Jewish burial society. You know it will rest in a plain pine box, obviating the need to choose a casket. The particulars of the ceremony are largely prescribed. Your rabbi will probably officiate at the funeral. There will be a meal of consolation at the home of the mourners, followed by seven days of shiva, when mourners remain home and are fed and comforted by their community.

Not all families can consider such practices as givens. Secular families, interfaith families, or those with any number of complicated scenarios — it can make it hard to know which rituals would most honor the wishes of the deceased, let alone whom to turn to. When the paths ahead cannot be taken for granted, all the more so, it will come as such a relief if even some decisions have been made beforehand, or at least discussed. This might include researching which Jewish cemeteries will allow for Jews to be buried alongside an interfaith partner, or which rabbis are willing to hold a funeral service before or after a cremation. If preliminary contacts can be made, all the better.

Just as it was a blessing to receive an abundant harvest before the sabbatical year, and just as our ancestors were blessed with the common sense to set food aside, it is a blessing when we have the time and emotional capacity to make some plans before a death. We cannot know in advance of a death if our grief, or the complex family dynamics that might emerge, will impede our ability to make decisions. But having any logistics in place can alleviate at least some sources of anxiety and can help the mourners move forward. 

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on May. 25, 2024. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.

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