Vaysechvoos was a town without an official” undertaker, yet when the Malach Ha-Moves did visit the little shtetl, it was Yacov the Shammes who saw to it that all arrangements were made.
When a person was dying, Yacov made sure that there were enough people to stand watch. For once it is known that someone is in the grip of death, they should not be left alone. And, it was Yacov, who, when death came, went to the home and placed a small mirror near the mouth so as to be sure that the person was no longer breathing. Yacov arranged for there to be a basin of water and a cloth left outside the home, so that those who came in contact with the dead body and were therefore made unclean, could wash their hands upon departing.
Yacov also took care of the Taharoh ceremony. He arranged for the white linen burial shroud to be sewn, carefully inspecting to see that the ends of the thread holding the garment together were left unknotted; for the shroud was designed to last only as long as the body would.
Yacov arranged for the funeral and the cemetery plot. He also dug the grave. He would even secure the wooden crates the bereaved family would need for the week of sitting shiva. Yes, Yacov thought of everything.
But then one day, Yacov himself (not a young man anymore) became ill and many thought that the Malach Ha-Moves was knocking at his door. The townspeople were concerned for Yacov, yet they were also concerned for themselves:
“What will happen if our Shammes goes to meet the Almighty, blessed be His Name,” they cried. “He’s always taken care of such matters. Not only will we have to arrange for Yacov’s burial, but we will need to plan for the future as well!”
And so, a Chevra Kaddisha was formed. Now the people of Vaysechvoos were known in their province for having many societies or brotherhoods. They had a Bridal Society for marrying off girls without dowries and a Free Lodging Society for men and women. Then there was the Drama Society, the Free Loan Society and the Fire-Fighters. Even the coppersmiths had a guild and there were only two of them in all of Vaysechvoos. Oy, one could go on and on about all the societies in this one little shtetl!
At last, they had a Burial Society as well. Almost immediately, however, a problem arose; most of the men of Vaysechvoos wanted to be its president. For everyone knew that whoever devoted himself to the burial of the dead was performing a sacred duty. The Talmud teaches that one could even interrupt the study of the Torah to attend to the dead for it is an act of hesed shel emet. After all, one cannot expect reciprocation from those no longer living. Therefore, only the most holy men and women in a community were part of the Chevra Kaddisha. “So it stands to reason,” the people reflected, “that the president would be the holiest man in Vaysechvoos.”
They decided that the Sage of Vaysechvoos, who was known for his wisdom and impartial judgments, would choose the man who was to hold this most honored office. The poor Sage consented to make the choice, but he had no idea of how deluged he would be with applicants:
Velvl the Cabinet Maker reasoned, “Were you to appoint me dear Sage, I would see to it that the pine boxes I make for coffins would be without flaw, even the ones for the most poor.”
The Sage nodded his head and said, “Velvl, that is your duty whether or not I appoint you as president of the Chevra Kaddisha!”
Menachem the Milkman offered to supply the bereaved family with some cheese and even a little butter for the shiva period.
The Sage listened, then told the milkman, “It’s a mitzvah for you to help!”
The only inn to be found in Vaysechvoos was run by the widow, Golda Moshka. Her only son, Ezra, stood at her side as she, too, approached the Sage about the presidency: “As you know, dear Sage, everyone in Vaysechvoos has sampled my hearty barley soup and herring and potatoes, not to mention my bean soup and latkes. I would certainly be able to attend to all the needs of the Chevra Kaddisha with my Ezra as president. We could even have the monthly meetings at the inn, at no cost, of course.”
“It is good of you to offer this hospitality, dear widow Moshka,” the Sage replied, “but just be aware that it will have no bearing on how I decide who will be president.”
And so it went with everyone from the rabbi’s son to the blacksmith, insistently volunteering, no even more, imploring, possibly even demanding that they be appointed. No election was possible for everyone would have voted for himself.
As they continued to bicker and campaign, dying Yacov was held to the present world by tangled threads of pain. He prayed that he might depart and the people of the town who loved him most, beseeched God that he be relieved from the agony.
The Sage felt much pressure from the town to decide who was most worthy to head the burial society but he refused to appoint any to the honored position in spite of the clamor.
It was now six months since the Chevra Kaddisha had been instituted and still it was without a president. And still, Yacov lingered, but in quiet agony.
Yacov had a dream. He didn’t recognize it as a dream, for he thought he had died when he found himself dressed in white linen with his tallis wrapped around him and his siddur in his hand. Yacov approached what looked like the gates of a palace that was more magnificent than anything the Czar himself could have imagined. But the gates were closed. On the other side were many old departed friends from Vaysechvoos. Yacov knew he was standing before heaven’s entrance and he shouted out, “Why won’t you let me in? Why are these gates closed to me?”
There was some embarrassment in their manner as the former residents of Vaysechvoos explained, “Each desires to be gatekeeper and until it is decided who is most worthy of the honor, no one is allowed to open the gates of heaven.”
Yacov couldn’t believe his ears. He screamed a scream that was one of such a magnitude he woke himself from the nightmare. The Sage was sitting watch with Yacov that evening and he rushed to the dying man’s bedside when he heard the blood curdling geschrei. “What happened my dear Shammes?” asked the startled Sage. Yacov recounted his dream as the Sage’s eyes widened and his face turned ashen in color. When Yacov was finished he closed his eyes and lapsed into exhausted sleep.
Next morning when the Sage was relieved from the watch he wearily trudged to each of the would-be presidents. He told Yacov’s dream and each hearer lowered his head and wept.
After dinner, the townspeople met in the shul. They prayed with tearful repentance that God would forgive them the sin of pride which had consumed them. It was unanimously decided that instead of a president, they would have a society of servants where each would have a duty to perform. The Sage then appealed to the Almighty on behalf of the society:
“Yacov was a gift to us from You, O Lord. He never wanted honor for the service to the dead. His was honor enough in serving others. If You will only forgive us and bring our brother to Yourself, we will try to make our Chevra Kaddisha a society which honors Your Name, not ours.”
That very night, Yacov’s face took the appearance of peace and serenity for he was now in a place where pain and tears were not admitted, a place of warmth and laughter. He was with his Maker, blessed be His Name, and he was content.
And so were the people of Vaysechvoos who built one of the finest burial societies in the entire province. And, it was thought by those who know such things, that if indeed there had been a problem in appointing a gatekeeper for the doors of paradise, it had been solved after Yacov entered heaven. After all, who was more qualified to welcome the righteous into life evermore?