Most of life is a balancing act. There are many different obligations and interests competing for our attention, and we try to balance all of them. We do our best, planning, prioritizing and managing our time. Sometimes, we realize what our true priorities are when our plans fall apart.
When I lived in New York, I was a member of a chevra kadishah, a Jewish burial society. Members perform the taharah, a ritual cleaning of the deceased prior to burial.
Four years ago, on Super Bowl Sunday, I was planning to spend the evening relaxing and watching the game. It had been a difficult week, and I needed a break. That afternoon Nina, a chevra kadishah member, called. She desperately needed a volunteer for a taharah and wasn't taking no for an answer. Well, there are only so many excuses I could give before finally saying yes. I reluctantly agreed, realizing I would have to miss a full hour of the Super Bowl. I joined the other volunteers in a side room at Riverside Memorial Chapel, preparing a fellow Jew for his final journey.
Walking home from the taharah, I thought about how odd it was to go from the Super Bowl to a taharah, and how different these two events are. The Super Bowl is a celebration of human power and might. Winning is everything. The members of the winning team, after endless training in the weight room and on the practice field, are now declared champions. The losers are forgotten. As former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden once said: "The only yardstick for success our society has is being a champion. No one remembers anything else."
The perspective of a taharah is very different.
Rabbi Moshe Sofer explains that the main purpose of the taharah is to preserve the dignity of the deceased, because each person is made in the image of God. During a taharah, the dead body is meticulously cleaned, with great care taken not to move the body in a demeaning manner. Afterward it is placed in a mikvah, ritual bath, in order to achieve a spiritual purity and dressed in a modest white shroud. The taharah is a final act of respect given by the community to a fellow Jew, because even the lifeless body of a dead person deserves our respect.
The Super Bowl and a taharah offer two very different views of power. At the Super Bowl greatness is only for the powerful and the strong; the losers are relegated to the dustbin of history. At a taharah, there are no losers. All human beings, even the weak and unknown, are treated with great respect because they are in God's image.
As I got home that night, I sat down to watch the end of the Super Bowl. My plans for the day had changed, but so had my priorities. I can't remember anything about that Super Bowl, but I will always remember that taharah.