February 21, 2017

More than meets the eye

It was 3:30 in the morning when our alarm went off. We quickly dressed, made a coffee and jumped into the car. It was still pitch black outside, but the roads were clear as we drove north to Tsfat. 

We were quiet, in disbelief, feeling heavy and sad. A friend of ours from Canada had just passed away. He was a devoted husband, a father to a large family and a dynamic community leader.

He was a giver to countless charities and a sustainer of many others in need. And he was just in his early fifties. We were still numb from the shock of the news and knew the world already felt emptier with his passing.

Dawn was breaking as we drove into the ancient cemetery of Tsfat. Scattered over the mountainside, tzaddikim, learned rabbis, and Kabbalists are buried here in graves that date back over 2,000 years. Safed tradition recalls that Hannah and her Seven Sons, murdered by Antiochus during the Maccabean Revolt of our Chanukah story, are buried here.

It is also the place where the most famous Kabbalists are buried, including the Ari (Rabbi Isaac Luria), Rabbi Yosef Caro, Rabbi Moshe Alsheich, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz and Rabbi Chaim Vital. People come to Tsfat from all over the world to visit these graves where they pray and ask assistance of these great souls.

Typical of a winter's morning, the mountain was shrouded, enveloped in a thick cloud. I saw three busses parked outside and hundreds of Hassidim crowded into a tiny a room around the body. They were wearing long coats, some black and some striped. They had wide brimmed fur hats and long peyot. They all spoke in Yiddish.

Photo: Times of Israel
The body was rushed out to the freshly dug grave, mourners’ kaddish was recited and it was over.  Six of the man’s sons who had escorted their father’s body now stood in shock by the graveside. The parents of the deceased man and wife had stayed back home.

As the crowd turned to board the bus, someone we knew asked one of the mourners how they knew this great man.


The mourner did not even know the name of the man who had just been buried.  Yet these men came by busloads in the early hours of the morning to pay respects to a man they did not know personally.

And then they all left. The family also boarded a bus, heading back to Ben Gurion airport, probably making this one of the shortest trips to Israel on record.

The cemetery was now quiet. As the clouds cleared and the Old City of Tsfat was slowly revealed,  I stood alone, thinking about why a man would be buried so far from his home and his loved ones. And why he would have a funeral attended by strangers and placed in grave few would visit.

As I stood there, a dog wandered around the graves howling. I looked over and saw a flash of white and then too he was gone. There was something mystical happening here and I could not quite understand it. During this time, a friend of mine was having a vivid dream of this event.  She knew nothing of the death and funeral until much later and told me she woke up exhausted from her unusual dream.

Yes, there is more to this than meets the eye. Beside this newly covered grave is the kever of the Moroccan Kabbalist Rabbi Yosef Ohayon. And nearby is the grave of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, a relative of the famous Kabbalist Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

I then understood that this is the place for such a righteous friend. And being buried here in such a way was his ultimate act of modesty. It was quiet, quick and there was no fuss. If this burial had been done in his hometown, it would have been a huge send-off. Perhaps he had another, more uplifted vision for such a moment.

And so our friend was buried in a very ancient cemetery nearby the graves of tzaddikim. Perhaps his understanding of death is that it is not final, but simply a departure from one world to the other.

Standing at the graveside on this hushed morning, I felt as if he had deep knowledge of how to make a swift transition from this world. And humble, spiritual Tsfat was the place for this to happen.

Baruch Dayan Emet

Photo: Ascent Of Safed

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