I was called to perform an emergency Taharah – the ritual cleansing and preparation of a body for burial. I was the rabbi of a large congregation, and although I had participated in Taharot in this funeral home, I had never been summoned for an "emergency Taharah."
The manager of the funeral home, a friend, walked me to the door of the Taharah room but refused to enter with me. I peeked in and saw that there was a tiny body under the sheet, and assumed that the man, who had suffered the terrible loss of a son-in-law and grandchild in an auto accident, could not bear to see a dead baby.
I prepared everything I would need and uncovered the body. Whatever it was under the sheet barely appeared to be human. I was horrified by what I saw. I couldn’t perform a Taharah on a body that horrified me. My job was to honor the body, and I would not be able to honor a "thing" that I could not even bear to look at. I pulled the sheet back and tried to refocus myself so I could pay honor to the person, not "thing".
I recalled Chapter 16 of Ezekiel, in which God describes the beginning of His relationship with the nation of Israel: "As for your birth, in the day you were born your navel was not cut, neither were you washed in water to cleanse you; you weren’t salted at all, nor swaddled at all. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you, to have compassion on you; but you were cast out in the open field, for that your person was abhorred, in the day that you were born. When I passed by you, and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you, Though you are in your blood, live; yes, I said to you, Though you are in your blood, live."
I checked the record of the deceased and learned that the baby was male and had lived for six weeks. I uncovered the boy, and began to speak to him. "Your soul has been perfected and is gloriously beautiful. Although others may not appreciate your beauty; you are now with God, Who sees you as gorgeous." I spoke to him each step of the Taharah, explaining to him what I was doing and why.
When I finally placed the baby in his coffin, I stepped from the room. The funeral director was waiting for me, and without looking at me in the eye, informed me that the parents were waiting to speak with the rabbi who had performed the Taharah. I assumed that they wanted to thank me, and I assured him that it was not necessary. "It is," was all he said.
We walked into a room and he introduced me as the rabbi who just completed the Taharah. The mother leapt at me and began hitting me; "Why? Why? Why would God do this to me? Why would He place such a horrible thing inside of me?" Her husband and the funeral director wanted to pull her away, but I signaled them to stop.
By the time she collapsed on the floor, my glasses were broken and I had a black eye. The mother was on the floor in front of me, and I sat next to her and said, "I told your son how beautiful he is to God. I told him that his soul was perfected during his short and painful life and now was shining as the brightness of the highest heavens before his Creator." "My son?" "Yes," I answered, "your beautiful little boy."
"No one ever called him a person before. Everyone described him as an ‘it.’"
"He wasn’t an it. There are verses in Ezekiel that describe him," and I read the verses to her.
The experience shook me to the core. The baby was difficult to see and touch. The mother’s pain was palpable. But I was most shaken by the realization that when I chose, I could see the ugliest person as beautiful. Why can I not do so when dealing with those who are living?