“Quit while you’re ahead” is one of the simple but wise rules of life. But for David Kime Jr., the rule was a bit different, it went something like this, “Don’t quit even when you’re dead.” David, a longtime resident of York, PA, had a lifelong love of cheeseburgers and he didn’t let death stop him from consuming his favorite food. David went down to the grave with a Burger King Whopper on top, extra mayo and pickles on the side.
David Kime Jr. was a lot of things. He was a father, a grandfather, a husband, a World War II vet, and a Purple Heart Recipient, but the way he chose to leave take his final journey on earth was not with a military funeral, not with a quiet family-focused funeral service, but rather with one last trip to the local Burger King. His hearse pulled up to the drive through window, he got a Whopper Jr. (the full size Whopper had too many calories), and so did everyone in his funeral procession. And while everyone ate theirs in the car, he had his placed above his casket as he was lowered into the ground.
His daughter Linda Phiel eulogized him saying that “He always lived by his own rules,” she said. “His version of eating healthy was the lettuce on the Whopper Jr.” She spoke of his lifelong love of fast food, and how he chose to live his life his way, despite the attempts of his family to get him to eat healthy. “But he considered us health freaks because we ate things that were green, like broccoli.” And now he can spend eternity with the thing he loved most, a toasted white roll, burger patty, mayo, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion, and cheese.
Jews have had a similar but also totally different custom for thousands of years. When a great rabbi dies, his funeral often stops at the yeshiva or study hall in which he spent thousands of hours studying Torah and counseling people to live a more exalted life. It too is a way of commemorating the way that person chose to live his life. However, it seems that not all funeral stops are created equal. One speaks of a moral choice to dedicate their life to a higher purpose, and one speaks of a choice to never eat broccoli.
It used to be that funerals were the time when people could move away from the frivolous, when the resounding finality of death would “wake” people up to the value of life. It was a time when people would overlook the mundane parts of someone’s life, and focus on the things that were more elevated; the deceased’s kindness, love, charity, volunteerism, dedication to family, and spirituality. It was a place and time to celebrate how a loved one fulfilled life’s mission of “Leave this world a little better than you found it.”
But more and more, funerals are becoming venues to highlight areas of life that did not make the world a better place at all. Themed funerals are a growing trend in the USA, with sports, food, and hobbies taking the focus away from kindness, love, and giving.
Caskets licensed by the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL, with logos and team colors, are growing more common, but that is where only where the sports theme starts. At the recent wake of a Pittsburgh man, his body was reclining in a Lazy Boy, covered in his favorite Steelers blanket, propped as if he was watching the TV in front of him, which played a loop of great moments in Steelers football. A Dallas woman was recently buried in a Dallas Cowboy’s coffin of silver and blue, dressed in a custom made Cowboy’s jersey, Cowboy’s socks, and Cowboy’s pants (Cowboy’s tennis shoes were not allowed as the dead are not buried in shoes…?) Everyone at the funeral wore Cowboy’s clothes, and even the minister wore a Cowboy’s jersey under his blazer. “It was such a big part of her life, why not be part of her sendoff too?” explained her daughter.
Aggie Field of Honor is a burial place for Texas A&M football fans. The graves are pointed to the nearby stadium and the deceased can hear the roar of the crowd and “participate in the sports activities even after death.” One family asked for a memorial service on the 18th green of their father’s favorite golf course, “because that’s where dad was instead of church on Sunday mornings, so why are we going to church,” Mr. Duffey, the funeral concierge service operator explained, “Line up his buddies, and hit balls.”
A New York Times article titled “It’s my Funeral and I’ll Serve Ice Cream if I Want To” highlighted that it is not only sports that are celebrated. People today are looking for novelty in their sendoffs and want to highlight what was important in their life. They look to control every aspect of their funerals, from waiters passing out chocolate covered marshmallows on silver trays to elaborate parties at country clubs or favorite restaurants.
People are dying for innovation, so creatively shaped and painted caskets have seen a surge in recent years. Caskets that resemble shoes, iPods, guitar cases, chocolate truffles, couches, and Nintendo Gameboy’s are only the tip of the iceberg (and yes, you can get the iceberg coffin too!). Even the largest and most staid casket maker has turned to themed services: “Batesville now helps undertakers offer theme services, such as “Cool Jazz” funerals, gold plated caskets, or the “Outdoorsman” package which includes a coffin outfitted like a hunting lodge, complete with gun rack, bear skin rug, and elk antlers.”
In a way, you can’t fault people for wanting these services, if the theme of the funeral is truly what defined the life of the person who passed. But we have to wonder, is it something to be proud of when’s someone’s life was defined by love of a sports team, electronic gadgets, shoes, or hunting? Where is the “Leave the world a better place than you found it” in that? Shouldn’t a person’s family play a larger role in their legacy than a cheeseburger?
The Talmud, (Shabbos 153A) records a teaching from Rabbi Eliezer, “Repent one day before you die.” His students asked him, “Does a man know the day of his death?” He replied that what he meant was that a person should live their life repenting for and fixing previous mistakes because we never know when we’re going to die. Rabbi Eliezer was telling his students that we can’t know when our legacy is going to be sealed, so we need to live our entire lives acting out the legacy we want to leave behind, a legacy of integrity, sincerity, giving, and a constant striving for betterment.
Henry David Thoreau encapsulated this idea in his enjoinder not to live life “As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.” This is not to say that one can’t enjoy sports, hobbies, shopping or electronic gadgets, but more a question of how much of our lives it consumes. Every day we build our eternity, every day we create another stone in the monument to our lives.
If we begin each day asking ourselves “What will my monument look like?” we will decidedly live our lives more fully, more focused, and more fruitfully.
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s Pasha, Ki Tisa, tells of one of the darkest moments in the Jewish people’s history, the serving of the Golden Calf. Many questions abound, with the most pressing: how could they fall to such a low point a mere 40 days after seeing G-d reveal Himself? Let us focus on another question, and through that we can bring some clarity to this dismal event in Jewish history.
When Moshe saw the people serving the Golden Calf, he took the tablets he was holding and dashed them to the ground. Why? Granted, the Jews weren’t ready or deserving of them, but why take tablets with G-d’s writing on them and destroy them? Wouldn’t that be analogous to a rabbi whose congregation is going astray, taking the Sefer Torah out of the ark and burning it?
The third of Maimonides Principles of Faith states, “I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, is not physical and is not affected by physical phenomena, and that there is no comparison whatsoever to Him.” This is one of the hardest principles for human beings to relate to, because everything we see, feel, and relate to is physical. The idea of G-d being totally divorced from physicality is something we struggle to comprehend.
This challenge is what drove the Jews to worship the Golden Calf. They weren’t trying to serve another G-d, a different G-d, but rather were trying to find a way to capture some of G-d’s essence in a physical being. That is why after creating the golden calf, they proclaimed, “This is your G-d, Israel!” They weren’t refering to a new god, rather they saw this as the G-d of Israel, the one who took them out of Egypt, but in a tangible physical package. They wanted a concrete, corporeal edifice that would rule the physical world. But, of course, this defeats the reality of G-d, and the purpose of man. This was an attempt to bring G-d down into the physical lower world, rather than trying to climb from the physical world to the loftier spiritual world.
When Moshe came down the mountain, he immediately ascertained the people’s mistake. To prove it to them in the strongest terms, he took the tablets and dashed them to the ground. This was his way of showing the people that real holiness, all of which emanates from G-d, is not physical, and can’t be bound by the physical. Even the tablets with G-d’s own writing can be destroyed because they have no inherent spirituality. The only spirituality they have is when it is infused with G-dliness, but in and of themselves, they have nothing.
Furthermore, Moshe was afraid that if he were to destroy the calf but leave the tablets intact, the people would transfer their mistaken ideology, and try to put G-dly powers and holiness into the tablets. Thus, it was imperative that Moshe destroy the tablets for the dual purpose of not leaving the Jews a stumbling block and teaching them that nothing physical has inherent spirituality. To this day, that message still resonates, reminding us not to give powers to anything physical, not money, good looks, or physical strength. On Wall Street, money is worshipped, in a gym, muscles are venerated, and in Hollywood good looks are divine, but in the Jewish home, we serve G-d and G-d alone!
This week, we will be reading from two different Torah portions, the standard portion as well as Parshas Parah. This week’s Parsha, Ki Tisa, begins with G-d commanding the Jews to take a census by having each Jew donate a half-shekel, and then counting all the coins. This teaches us that we are never whole until we join with other Jews. We are then instructed to make a laver (a receptacle that holds water and has faucets used for washing) for the temple, so that the Kohanim can wash themselves before going in to serve in the Temple. We can relate to this by remembering that service of G-d is sacred, and there should be both a mental and physical sanctification before beginning services. This translates into not rushing into prayers with our minds still on our business or our hands greasy from that pastrami sandwich we just had for lunch!
Next, we are commanded to make special anointing oil used to consecrate vessels and Kohanim for temple service. We are also told to make a unique incense that was burned in the Tabernacle twice daily on its own dedicated golden altar. Both the oil and incense were not allowed to be made for laymen’s purposes.
Now the Torah focuses on the building of the Mishkan, the tabernacle. Ha-shem commands Moshe to take Bezaleland Oholiav as assistants to aid him in building the Mishkan and in making the priestly vestments. After that, the Torah repeats the Mitzvah of keeping Shabbos. The Sages learn from the juxtaposition of these two ideas that one cannot desecrate Shabbos even for the purposes of building the Mishkan. They also learn that the actions we are not allowed to do on Shabbos are related to the types of labor involved in building the Tabernalce, which the Sages delineated as the 39 Categories of Work.
Finally, the Parsha turns to one of the darkest moments in Jewish history. Moshe ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Tablets, and tells the Jews he will be back in forty days. The Jews miscalculate when the forty days ended and, when Moshe did not return, they assume him dead. In a state of panic, confusion, chaos, and fear, the Jews buildthe golden calf and worship it. Moshe comes down from the mountain, sees the wanton sinning of the people (which had degenerated from idolatry to other sins, such as immorality) and dashes the tablets to the ground.
He then forces the Jews to drink from water containing the ground up golden calf, which causes those who served the calf to die. There is a lengthy dialogue between Ha-shem and Moshe in which Moshe pleads on behalf of the Jewish people that Ha-shem should forgive them, which in the end He does. Moshe moves his tent away from the camp, and proclaims that those who want the word of G-d should come to him.
Soon after, Moses ascends the mountain once again and this time G-d tells him to carve the second set of tablets. G-d also teaches Moshe a special prayer called the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy which will never return empty from before G-d, and tells him to teach it to the people (it is the focal part of our prayers on fast days, and especially the Ne’ila service on Yom Kippur).
G-d renews His covenant with the Jews and finally, on the first Yom Kippur ever, G-d gives His full forgiveness for the sin of the Golden Calf, and Moshe descends with the second set of tablets. After having spent 120 days on Sinai (40 getting the first tablets, 40 in dialogue to get level one forgiveness, and 40 to get the second tablets and full forgiveness), Moshe came down with such a bright radiance that people couldn’t look at him. He had to make himself a special mask to wear when he was not teaching the Jews. That concludes this week’s parsha.
This week, we will also read Parshas Parah, the portion in Leviticus that deals with the laws of the Red Heifer, the Parah Adumah. The red heifer was brought as a sacrifice and its ashes were mixed with water and a few other ingredients to create a liquid that could be sprinkled on people to remove spiritual impurity from them.
We read it at this time of the year, because it was at this time of the year that they would bring the red heifer sacrifice and because we are in middle of a cleansing time of the year, cleaning our houses for Pesach. The physical cleansing we do on our houses is supposed to remind us of the spiritual cleansing that we should be doing concurrently. Reading about the spiritual cleansing powers of the red heifer waters reminds us of that all-important job! That’s all Folks!!!
Quote of the Week: Wear a smile and have friends, wear a scowl and have wrinkles. – George Eliot
Random Fact of the Week: India has fifteen official languages.
Funny Line of the Week: If “con” is the opposite of “pro,” then what is the opposite of progress?
Have a Wondrous Shabbos!
R’ Leiby Burnham