13 January 2017

Parshas Vayechi – “TO DUST YOU SHALL RETURN”

By Roy S. Neuberger

For those raised in a Torah environment, it is difficult to imagine the struggles of baalei teshuva. One of the most challenging areas is “end of life” issues.

I speak from personal knowledge. If it had not been for a certain hero named Rabbi Elchonen Zohn Shlita”h, head of the Chevra Kadisha of Queens and founder of the National Association of Chevrai Kadisha (NASCK), I do not think the outcome would have been so good. Rabbi Zohn held my hand and (figuratively) my wife’s hand as we dealt with these issues in our own family.

Rabbi Zohn saves neshomas.

Mankind was not originally created to die. Death was introduced into the world only as a result of the rebellion of Adam and Chava. At that fateful moment, Hashem told Adam “you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Beraishis 3:19) That means, in order to return to the pure state in which we were created, we must “return to dust” in accordance with halacha.

Adam and Chava, in their egregious error, perhaps imagined that they were more than dust, as if they were near Hashem’s madreiga. And so, with their “knowledge of good and evil,” they poisoned their own future and the future of their children. In order to save mankind, Hashem gave us a Torah which reminds us that only He determines the rules of the universe which He created. If we refuse to understand, then we have condemned our own souls. The obsessive inclination to flout the halachos of Jewish burial is a suicide wish which is the final self-inflicted punishment of the Jew who rebels against Hashem.

I recently attended a shiva at which a son emotionally described his successful efforts to convince his half-siblings and his late father’s wife of the imperative of Jewish burial. Because this young man is a baal derech eretz, respected by his late father’s extended family, he was able to overcome their objections and secure Jewish burial for his father. The father himself respected his observant son, and, in the – literal – end, the father realized that his own Eternity was at stake. (Incidentally, Rabbi Zohn was also involved in this case.)

The often-fierce desire of assimilated Jews for cremation – bitterly ironic after the events of the Shoah at the hands of our most hateful enemies only a few decades ago – is a reflection of a terrible fear that there is a G-d who created this world. Yes, “fear.” Because, if G-d is real, than I have to change my life! What is the lure of cremation? Basically, those who rebel against halachah are leaving this world with the brazen statement that they are going to try to continue their rebellion forever, as if they are going to fight Hashem in the Next World.

In this Parsha, we bid farewell to our Avos and Imahos. Readers know that I am inconsolably sad at this time, as we say goodbye to these incomparable parents who are forever watching us, their children, from Shomayim. They are crying and pleading for us before the Kisai Hakavod. Avraham Avinu paid an exorbitant sum to give proper burial to his beloved wife. And, this week, Yosef “will place his hand on [his father’s] eyes,” and lay him in the holy soil of Chevron. They showed us the way.
And what’s wrong with us?
Do we believe that we can do better than our Avos and Imahos?
Appropriate to the theme of this parsha, which describes the petira of Yaakov Avinu, the National Association of Chevrai Kadisha is conducting its second annual nationwide Shabbos dedicated to raising awareness about “end of life” decisions. More than three hundred shuls and communities throughout the United States are expected to participate in programs dedicated to understanding and implementing these incalculably important decisions and helping Yidden ensure the eternal life of their beloved ones.

By my father’s matzeiva in warmer weather: (l. to r.) the author, Rabbi Zohn, and our son-in-law, Rabbi Osher Onshul Halevi Jungreis.

Rabbi Zohn is the general in the battle against the forces within Am Yisroel who are trying to bury the halachos of Jewish burial. He is the hero for those who are trying to send their parents Home at the end of their lives to Olam Ha Emes. Rabbi Zohn literally does not sleep in his constant service to Klal Yisroel. He is available at all hours, even to Jews he has never met before. It is no exaggeration to say that, without him, many thousands would not have had Jewish burial.

My father’s kvura in bitter cold. Rabbi Naftali Jaeger Shlita”h, Rosh Hayeshiva of Sh’or Yoshuv, is standing in the center.

Six years ago this very week, Rabbi Zohn braved a howling blizzard to ensure the proper burial of my father of blessed memory. Among other things, he had the foresight to have the grave opened before sub-zero temperatures froze the ground solid. He was there the entire time, pulling strings behind the scenes.

I want to tell you a story. On my mother’s first yahrzeit, almost twenty years ago, I went to the cemetery. I was alone. As I left, I had a conversation with the Ribono shel Olam. This is what I said: “Hashem, I feel sure that Mother is in Your World with You. If she is, I believe I can say that it was at least partly because of my efforts. Therefore, G-d, I would like to know whether You could … uh … give me a little report of what’s happening there!”

Talk about chutzpa! I returned home and did not mention my conversation with G-d to anyone.

The next morning, our daughter Miriam greeted me. “Abba,” she said, “I had a dream last night. Grandma came to me and she was so happy!” G-d answered me! The next morning!

May Hashem grant eternal life to Klal Yisroel, and may we all soon see the day when He “will eliminate death forever and … erase tears from all faces!” (Yeshiah 25:8)


Note: You will notice from the picture that my father’s name was Roy R. Neuberger. My name is Roy S. Neuberger. (My father’s middle name is “Rothschild;” mine is “Salant.”) It is unusual for an Ashkenazic Jew to have the same first name as his living father. This will give you an idea of how assimilated we were! We simply did not know anything about Jewish law or traditions. But I could not find peace of mind in this lifestyle. After thirty years, my search for truth led me to the Torah.

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Roy Neuberger, author and public speaker, can be reached at roy@2020vision.co.il.

© Copyright 2017 by Roy S. Neuberger

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