We like books. They call us the People of the Book and we treat books, even the Hebrew letters themselves, as sacred.
I find it a beautiful piece of our tradition… but it leads to a challenge.
We don’t throw old books away. Our tradition teaches us that if a page or book contains the name of God, it cannot simply be thrown out. We’re supposed to collect the worn out literature and, at some point, give it a dignified burial.
A few years ago, when my friend Judith’s father-in-law died, the rabbi of their congregation asked if he could put books in the grave. At first, when I saw the box of books the rabbi carried out, I was uncomfortable. The image of a cardboard box stuck inside the grave wasn’t sitting well in my mind, but that’s not what the rabbi did. He took the books out and covered the bottom of the grave with them, making what looked more like a bed of holy words.
The man whose body we buried that day loved Jewish learning, so the image ultimately felt right. The family appreciated it and I was inspired.
This week, when we lost our longtime librarian and a teacher in the community for many, many years, Calvin Lipston, I told the story to his family and asked if they would like to do likewise. They were moved by the image and we did so.
As a rabbi, I’ve listened to the Jewish community for years bemoaning our lack of opportunities to properly lay to rest the books stored in our Genizas. (The Geniza is the term for where we keep the old, holy books.) I don’t know where this particular tradition comes from of laying out the books beneath the casket, but I found it beautiful and an opportunity for so many of us who love our tradition of learning and spend our lives doing so.
As we prepared to lower the casket yesterday, I shared with those in attendance that it seemed fitting that we treat these two sacred vessels in the same manner… the body which housed a divine spirit and the books containing sacred words.
I find comfort in the holy words of our tradition. May our souls all eternally bind to the words of God.