Living Our Beliefs

#34. Elissa Felder – Do Good. Be Good. Bring Goodness

March 09, 2023 Meli Solomon Season 2
Living Our Beliefs
#34. Elissa Felder – Do Good. Be Good. Bring Goodness
Show Notes Transcript

As a traditional Jew attending an Orthodox synagogue, Elissa believes that the Torah provides a blueprint for living. God is an ever-present force in her life and she has an ongoing relationship with God. After the death of her first child, Elissa studied the Jewish beliefs of death and the afterlife.  In addition to the studies, becoming involved in tahara, the Jewish practice of preparing a Jew for burial, has been meaningful. Elissa described several metaphors including the messy back of a tapestry as the details of life and the fetus in utero as creation unaware of the mother providing all its needs.

·       God informs her life, a pervasive force she is in relationship with daily. 

·       With the death of her first child, intense love became intense grief, and then a drive to understand the Jewish tradition’s view of death and the afterlife. 

·       Her child’s death was not in vain. Many lessons have come from the loss, and she feels blessed. 

·       Being present with someone’s grief and pain is a huge gift to the bereaved. 

·       To care for the dead is partnering with God. It is an honor to do this work.

·       Life is a little bridge and is a finite span away from the world of souls. 

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Core Connects RI –

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Elissa Felder Transcript

Do Good. Be Good. Bring Goodness. 




Méli:  Hello and welcome to Living Our Beliefs, a home for open conversations with fellow Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Through personal stories and reflection, we will explore how our religious traditions show up in daily life – at work, at home, in the community, in good times and in bad.  There is no one-size-fits-all ‘right’ answer, just a way to move forward for you, for here, for now.  I am your host Méli Solomon.  So glad you could join us.  


Méli:  This is episode thirty-four and my guest today is Elissa Felder. Elissa grew up in London England. In 1985 she married her American husband and they moved to the US. After the death of her first child, Elissa started to explore Judaism more deeply, especially regarding death and the afterlife. She is very active in her local chevra kadisha and speaks widely on this topic. Elissa is the Founding Director of Core Connects Rhode Island, a non-profit organization that aims to deepen women’s connections to one another, to Jewish wisdom and Jewish values, to empower each other to find greater meaning, purpose and possibility in life and to cultivate unity without uniformity. In 2014, she started chaperoning Jewish mothers on inspiring and often life transforming trips with Momentum the Women’s Reconnection Trip. Additionally, Elissa teaches a weekly Parsha class which is broadcast live on Facebook and uploaded to YouTube. She is passionate about bringing Jews together and celebrating the commonalities rather than the differences. Through all of these experiences Elissa mentors and encourages others on their journeys. A link to Elissa’s social media handles are listed in the show notes. 

Méli:  Hello, Elissa. Welcome to my Living Our Beliefs podcast. I'm so pleased to have you on today. Elissa:  Thank you for having me. 

Méli:  My pleasure. I’m going to begin with my usual first question. What is your religious and cultural identity? 


Elissa:  Hum. So I'm born and practice traditional Judaism. That's how I would define myself. Growing, learning, practicing, on a journey. 

Méli:  OK, so you say traditional. Do you consider yourself Orthodox? 

Elissa:  I guess I'm Orthodox, yes. Orthodox is a big umbrella. So I do affiliate with an Orthodox synagogue. And so that's, I guess if you want to put me in a box, that would be the box I would go in. 

Méli:  I'm not eager to put you in a box, it's just that my audience is quite varied and for a lot of people, especially non-Jews, traditional isn't going to mean very much. So if you could say just a few words, what does that mean for you? 

Elissa:  So that means that the tradition, the Torah is believed to have been given by God to Moses and to all of the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. We have a long tradition, which is why I perhaps refer to it as traditional Judaism, of that Torah being interpreted and then manifested in how we live our lives. So the blueprint for how to live, the guidebook for our life, is the Torah, which we believe was given, I believe was given by God. To the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. 

Méli:  Thank you. That's helpful. Could you say a few words about what your current practice is? 

Elissa:  Actually, if you don't mind, I might reframe the question. I think the question would be: what do I believe? And I believe, going back to this idea, belief that the Torah, that the Jewish way to be in the world is sourced back to God means that my whole life is informed with that way of being in the world. Like to recognize that God is a pervasive force. That I'm in relationship to God all the time. That I talk to God all the time and my actions are reflective of that understanding that God is around us. So what I eat, how I dress, how I spend my time, what I do, is very much informed by that belief that God is present and is all knowing, all good, all loving, and that my job, so to speak, is to line myself up in this world with God in mind. Do good, be good. Bring goodness into the world. 

Méli:  Do good, be good. Bring goodness into the world. 

Elissa:  That's the hope. Not easy, always. 

Méli:  Where are the challenges? 

Elissa:  Well, we have desires sometimes that take us in the opposite direction. So for instance, if you think about the laws of what we eat, the kosher laws, something might look very enticing that isn't kosher. So I have to make a choice. There's a choice there of what I choose to eat, where I choose to eat, etc. I have been in a situation where people are eating non-kosher food and I have to abstain. So it might be enticing to partake and to join in and yet my belief system would preclude me from doing that. So I don't, so I hold myself back. That for me isn't a struggle anymore, like what I eat is probably less of a struggle. Maybe more of the struggle might be areas of refinement, what we speak about, how we speak, what we speak when we speak about other people. And there's a many, many directives given in the Torah as to how to use our language. So gossiping, slandering, those sorts of things and how to actually interpret that correctly. So we we're really mindful of our language is really, really hard. 

Méli:  Yeah, interesting note. I appreciate that comment. I imagine, just based on my own experience and speaking with so many people about their faith path, that the challenges we face and what we find interesting, what we feel passionate about pursuing and learning about changes over our lives as well. Elissa:  Yes, for sure. That's why I think when you say, you know, what kind of Jew do you identify with? I think that really I want to identify myself as a growing Jew, right, or a growing person. We're not the same five years ago that we are now. And please God, in five years we'll be different than we are now. We're growing and we're trying to be better people and refine ourselves and you know, keep, keep moving up that road to trying to make ourselves into better people. 

Méli:  Yeah, point well taken. A Jew in development. 

Elissa:  Exactly. Evolving. We're evolving. All of us, you know, wherever we are on that ladder, we're all moving. Sometimes we go down, sometimes we go up. 


Méli:  Absolutely. Well, that brings us nicely to the core thing we wanted to speak about, really, your personal journey driven by loss and grief and what you've done with that loss and grief. So could you, if you're willing to speak a little about of how that journey began for you? 

Elissa:  Yes, absolutely. I grew up in a very comfortable home in London. Everything was very orderly. There was no trauma. Everything seemed to be very smooth. And I ended up marrying an American and we moved to the United States from England. We had some difficulties conceiving. We were interested in starting a family. Was really something that we wanted, and knowing that there might be some issues involved, we started to attempt to have our family very soon into our marriage. It took us a few years. That was a traumatic experience of going to infertility. One has to be courageous and strong to weather the storms of month by month, you know, not working, not working. Finally we were able to achieve a pregnancy and it was a very exciting time of being pregnant until it seemed that the baby inside wasn't growing as the baby should be growing. And so we started getting a little bit worried what was going on, this is the baby going to be healthy? And so on. And when our son was born, he was born on time and he was a good weight. But there were immediately, there were health concerns. Our rabbi came to visit us in the hospital. And there was a reluctance on my part to bond, you know, like I didn't know what to do with this. And our rabbi said to us: ‘This is your baby. And if you don't love this baby, who will’? That was a pivotal moment. If you don't love this baby, who will? And I was like. This is my baby, this is my job. And that was the turn to completely embracing and unconditionally loving and advocating for this little baby who had to go through a lot of medical procedures, a lot of different testing that he had to go through. Until finally, it was at the point where he wasn't growing at a rate that was good for him, and so it was time to have some open-heart surgery. They felt that his heart was the issue. And to cut a very long story short, and this is already now, 33 years ago, he died on the operating table. I was a young mother. I was 26 years old. And my baby died. And it was like I hit a brick wall. I didn't know how to live beyond that wall. My whole life, of the four months of Sam's life, was wrapped up in taking care of him and investing myself in him and loving him. The love that became so intense then manifested itself as the grief of loss, and I didn't know where he went. I had – I was this mother, new mother, and I wanted to take care of him. And he wasn't here anymore. Where was he? And so began my quest for finding out where he went and if he needed me anymore. And it was that motherly drive that love of is he OK? Does he need me? That drove the post – his name was Sam – the post-Sam life after he died. 


Méli:  Well, I'm so sorry for your loss and I really hear the the trauma in that, and the and the deep grief. Where did you turn in your grief and what was the answer that you found? 

Elissa:  Yeah. So I think there's two sides to this for me. One is the grief and the pain and the loss, which is pervasive in our society where we're all losing and we're all grieving. So there's dealing with your emotions and your sense of how to continue in the world. And then there's what Judaism has to say about this. I was rooting myself in traditional Judaism. What does Judaism have to say about death? What does it have to say about the afterlife? What does it have to say about what happens after? What's life, what's death? You know, all of these questions. And so some of the answers that I found over the course of this second-half of my life, of 30 something years since he died, have informed how I live such that I really feel, and I don't say this lightly, and it's my experience that I feel blessed to have suffered the loss. That the loss brought me to a place where I live my life in a way that I feel I couldn't have without that loss.

Méli:  Loss in forming life. 

Elissa:  Yeah, and challenge and obstacles and life being a classroom to learn and how to be and how to open your heart and how to interact with oneself and others and life and the preciousness of life and the gift of life. And I I didn't see myself as not passionate before, but I became much more passionate afterwards. 

Méli:  Yeah, passion shows up in some surprising places, doesn't it? And really, it's a reminder that even a good life – and you said your childhood had been smooth, it had been good. You got married. That was wonderful. OK, conceiving was a challenge, but you clearly had a lot of blessings in your life and yet this loss brought you to a new place and opened something else up. It sounds like it opened a path of learning and exploration for you. Am I understanding you correctly? 

Elissa:  Yes. And you know, it's interesting because I didn't feel like I wasn't learning and growing before, but somehow one's own experience. I don't know if this is the correct place to insert this, but here I am 33 years later and I have, thank God, five healthy children. My middle daughter also lost her first child, her three-month old baby and I'm watching her grieve, and her husband ,and it so reminiscent right? Thirty years later, you're watching your child go through what you went through, and you can't give the answers because the answers are the ones that you learn by yourself. You have to experience it and figure it out for yourself. As much as I wanted to give her all the answers that I have, and here's the way to do it. It's her journey. It's her path. I quickly learned, with her as my teacher, that my role was just to be supportive and loving. And perhaps on some level she had somebody in her life that she could turn and look at and say, my parents went through this. They survived. They thrived. I can do this. She did voice that, so I'm not making that up. But the point that I wanted to bring out really is this idea that as much as we might learn lessons that we want to share with other people, sometimes it's not possible to share those because one has to go through it oneself to really learn the lesson and have it deeply embedded into how you think and how you feel.

Méli:  Yeah. And that balance, wanting to support, wanting to guide or suggest lessons or suggest avenues to to go down. Certainly as a mother you want to relieve the pain that your daughter is, is experiencing. Completely reasonable. And yet, yes, she she does need to learn her own. But clearly you have a role. I mean the the supporting is a role, right? 


Elissa:  So two things I'd like to pick up on that Méli. one is that there is an injunction within Judaism to be like God. God is kind. Be kind. God clothes the naked, cloth the naked. God buries the dead. Bury the dead, right? So we're we're enjoined to be God, like, and one of the fundamental aspects of religious Jewish belief is that God is forever present. God is always with you, God's with you as you travel through life, whether we were in Egypt as a Jewish people in slavery, God was there, right there with us. And so that's how I saw my role vis-a-vis my daughter or other people that I might go visit or be in relationship with, is not to minimize the value of being present and truly being present. And truly listening and being there for another person is being God-like and and I learned that lesson. That's that's one thing. And then the other thing I'd like to offer up is when my child died against my will, against everything I wanted to happen. He died. So there's a sense of: I don't control the world, God controls the world, that I don't understand the ways and that I recognize that I didn't own my child. My child wasn't really mine. And this is also another core fundamental Jewish belief that our lives, our gifts that God gives us and our children, our gifts and the people in our lives are gifts. Hopefully, if we like the people in our lives, then they're gifts. Letting Sam go was part of the journey, a part of the learning, that he wasn't mine and I had to let him go. I had to really deeply understand that he wasn't mine. When our children, when my daughter went through her loss, there's this also sort of a sense of she's not me, it's her that's going through this. And yes, I'm going to be present, and yes, I want to hold you and support you and love you and take away the pain, and the pain shouldn't happen to you, but we can't. We can't do that, but we cannot avoid it. When when Sam died, there were many people who were very present for us and were able to sit quietly and just be present. And then there were other people who avoided us. They would see me coming down the street, and they would walk the other way too much pain. I can't handle it. I'm not criticizing people who walk the other way, but if you can be in the presence of the pain, it's a very big blessing for that person to have those people. That we want to feel not alone – what's the opposite of that – we want to feel in the community. We want to feel the presence of other people, that they're witnessing our grief. I think David Kessler, who is a grief expert, speaks about the value of people witnessing other people's lives and other people's experiences. As much as I know God's with me, I need other people too, we’re social beings, and so if we can sit with others in their grief, it's a very big deal.

Méli:  And again, it's a very individual experience. Some people in their grief want to be alone and find it kind of claustrophobic to have a lot of people, you know, close around saying: ‘oh, what can I do for you and all that. 

Elissa:  Right, absolutely. The lesson, many lessons, one of the lessons from the loss of Sam is the gift that he was. I didn't get him for as long as I might like, but he was definitely a gift. And then we have another Jewish belief that we don't want to waste things. And I really applied that to Sam. He was four months old, and he left this world, but I didn't want his life to be in vain and wanted to learn the lessons that I could learn. My husband could learn our other children post-Sam, he was our first. But the other children that came after him know about him and have described. Sometimes they'll say, you know, we grew up in the shadow of death. But I I don't see that as a bad thing. See, I see that as a as a good thing. It gives you the capacity to recognize that we're not going to be here forever. That our lives in this world are finite. So if you really really believe that and we do, we do have like a psyche that doesn't want to you know we don't want to go there want to deny that we're going to die but but when Sam died was head on, you know, he died and my granddaughter died. My life today has purpose and meaning and a reason why I'm here. There's a Hasidic master by the name of Rabbi Nachman of Bretslov. He has a teaching that is the day you were born, is the day that God decided, so to speak, that you were needed in the world. And so, by sequitur, the day you die is the day you're not needed in the world anymore. Time to move on. Time to go into the next realm of existence. That, I think, is a profound teaching. And I when people have birthdays, you know, we recognize this is the day that God, so to speak, decided that you needed to be in the world, that you have something that only you uniquely each one of us is here for. 

Méli:  Yeah, and that is a beautiful teaching and I can hear the passion with which you live that teaching. The only hesitation I have with that, however beautiful it is, is there is so much ugliness in the world. So many awful things that happen in the world, and I struggle with the idea that that too has purpose and meaning. 


Elissa:  Yes, as do we all. I think that is a very foundational struggle that we as humans go through. How can there be suffering? How can there be so much pain in the world? How is that possible? I'll offer a metaphor, and I don't have an answer for it, although there are answers given in the Jewish tradition as to why they're suffering in the world, but I'm not equipped to answer those, really. But I will offer a metaphor that I find helpful, and the metaphor is a tapestry. So we live in the back of the tapestry. So the back of the tapestry has cut off ends, it has knots, it has frayed pieces of material. It's a mess. It doesn't look orderly, it doesn't look beautiful. It's a bit chaotic. But if you turn it around and you look at the other side, then it could be a beautiful landscape, let's say. Whatever it is, that your perspective is too limited here to see the big picture. And the big picture is a belief system. The belief is that on the other side of the tapestry, it'll all be clear why it had to be the way it is, but we in this world can't see it. 

Méli:  Interesting image with the tapestry. Thank you for sharing that. Does that work for you? 

Elissa:  Yes, absolutely. I'm definitely in the knots and the cut off ends and the traumas and sitting with people who are in pain, I don't have answers why you're in pain. In my heart, I believe there's a reason. Don't know what the reason is. I don't know why Sam had to be born and why he had to die. I don't know why these things are happening in the world. No idea. But I do believe God's in the picture and God's present. There's a bigger answer to the End of Days. 

Méli:  OK, moving on from that. You'd mentioned in an earlier conversation we had that one of the outcomes of the death of your first child. Was getting involved in taharah and the Hevra Kadisha community. Could you say a little about that? 


Elissa:  Yes, I'd love to. Some friends of mine came up to me after Sam died and they told me that they had prepared him for his burial. They had washed him and they had dressed him in little white garments. I had no idea what are you talking about. It's not really talked about that much, but it's such a interesting thing and I was so interested. First of all, thank you to my friends that you, who loved him in life, took care of him in death. That the wife of the rabbi got together a bunch of women to sew the garments that he would be buried in. So they spent the evening prior to his burial preparing these little garments that he was to be buried in. And I was so comforted by knowing that they were there and that they loved him. And I'm sure they cried about him and they will remember him and that he's or forever a part of their life, right? So his life isn't wasted. Go back to the idea of not wasting, that he affected people, that he affected he. Yes, for sure he affected me, but where the ripples, right? I wanted to learn more about it and I wanted to be involved myself. Post-Sam and after maybe a decade of mourning the loss of Sam, I started to get involved in my own community preparing women for burial. So for modesty reasons, women prepare women and men prepare men, and there's a transmission of tradition of how to do that and what it is that we do and how we do it. And it is dignified, it is beautiful, it is loving, and it is predicated on the belief that death is not the end. That death is actually a misnomer. That it's a transition. That we, just as we are born into this world, we are, so to speak, born into the next world. And that the End of Days. So that again is a much bigger picture of Jewish belief, but at the End of Days there will be a rejoining of our body with our soul in a purified, rarefied End of Days’ way, which we don't really know what that means, but we who are alive are a coupling of a physical body with a spiritual soul, and death is a separation of the body and soul. They go through their own processes until the End of Days when they come back together, purified and ready to live forever in God's presence. So what we do here, as we prepare a body and a soul for that separation is just beautiful and loving and dignified and holy. And I've been doing it for 20 years. 

Méli:  Thanks for explaining a bit about that. Since I do interfaith work and religious research. The question that immediately pops up is – at the end of days are Jews together and Christians together? Or are we all mixed up and all of our souls and bodies are reconnected. What what's your understanding about them? 

Elissa:  Way beyond my pay scale. 

Méli:  OK. 

Elissa:  I tell you that what I do think about. Is that the end of days there will be clarity and that we all will recognize God, one God, the God. So whereas we might all have different belief systems, it seems that my understanding of the Jewish tradition is that everybody will recognize the God. And just to also clarify  – that the Jewish belief isn't that, you know, our body's gonna rise up out of the grave and kind of like come back to life again. It's obviously a huge topic and very mystical and I am totally ill equipped to speak about it. But my little bit of understanding is that at the beginning of time, when God created Adam and Eve or Adam, Adam was the first, the first creation of mankind. And living in the Garden of Eden was a very spiritual, purified existence. And the soul, the spiritual aspect of Adam and Chava, of Adam and Eve, was the major entity, and the body was a wisp. It was a little bit of nothing. The soul was big, the body was little. After they ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, now there's such a thing as “death”, as a rectification, as a as something to fix what had happened. Adam and Eve are sent out of the Garden of Eden and they become more body and the soul gets pushed inside, which is who we are. When we look at each other, we see our bodies, we don't see the soul. Maybe through the eyes you see the soul. Maybe in the hands there's the soul, but the soul is deeper in, it's harder to see the soul. So traditionally, we – Jewish belief is that you are a soul in a body. You might point to yourself and say, this is me, but you're your soul. Your body is the garment, it's the vessel that carries the soul. The end of days mystically we're gonna look more like Adam and Eve. We're going to be more soul and less body. But what we do, when we wash somebody and we prepare them for burial, is that we essentially bring water, and water is a very powerful element that was in existence before creation. Like there's no new water. All the water that exists is the water that was back then, the beginning of time when God separated the waters and created the world, right? So we take that literally. So that water is water we have today, and the water we use to elevate and to purify and to cleanse is water that we use in the process of bringing the dead to the grave, anticipating the future where the body and soul will come back together. So it's it's, it's part of the process, it's not the end. 

Méli:  So really, you're describing a whole set of cycles. That's what I'm hearing. 

Elissa:  Cycles?

Méli:  Well, you're saying that death is a misnomer, that it's a transition. And at the End of Days, bodies and souls will be reconnected. Do you see it more as as a linear progression rather than a cyclical thing? 

Elissa:  It's a good question. I like that question. The way it's laid out seems linear and yet we do have circular time, so. I guess it's a bit of both we we exist within a framework of time and space, but outside of this existence, there's no time, there's no space. So go back to the tapestry metaphor. When we look on the other side and we see the full picture we're not caught up in the knots anymore. So we're in the time and space. If you're standing on a platform of a train station and the trains going by and you've got one caboose and another caboose and another caboose and another caboose. So that's one day, another day, another day, another day, go up until the mountain, look down, or go up into an airplane and look down. You see the whole thing, you see the whole train. So perhaps that's some kind of visual for us existing outside, like we're in time. We can't know. Like linear, circular. I don't know. We're caught up inside the box, but take us outside the box and then we're in different, different existence altogether.

Méli:  Yeah, point well taken. And yet I wonder in these experiences of doing taharah and you've been doing it what you said 20 years. What is your experience doing taharah for a Jewish woman who has died? And I'm thinking about this in relationship to what we just spoke of, this sense of being in time and beyond time. 

Elissa:  Yeah, I I don't know. I never really thought about it vis-a-vis the concepts of time. I am very mindful of the honor and privilege it is to be alive and in a morgue taking care of fellow Jewess. And I do feel grateful for my life. I feel alive. Especially with that juxtaposition of taking care of somebody who's no longer alive. I often and always talk to the dead with the belief that the soul is there. And as the soul separates from its body, it stays close to its body in the beginning stages until burial. That the soul is hovering around, that soul’s disembodied but it's there. It's watching over its body. It's concerned for its body. It had a relationship with its body for its lifetime, however long the lifetime was. But the the soul and the body have a relationship with each other that the soul doesn't leave right away. It sort of stays. And there are teachings that lower aspects of the soul always stay with the grave. But in that room, in that morgue, the soul is freshly separated from its body, and it's there, it's watching, it's aware. When we speak to the dead, when we refer to the dead, when we ask forgiveness from the dead: ‘Please forgive me for any indiscretions, for anything I might do that is not dignified’, or for anything. Anything. I don't even know what might come up. We ask for forgiveness from the deceased before we start and after we finish. It's real. It's really real. I've washed friends. I washed my granddaughter. I washed mothers of friends of mine and children of friends of mine. Again, it's a big privilege and I pray, we all pray all ,of all of the women that I know that do this work feel privileged and feel that they want this person to get the the best experience they can have. Because this is the only this is the only washing they'll get. You might be doing it for 20 years. But this is the only one they'll get. You want it to be as beautiful and as dignified and as loving as possible. 

Méli:  Yeah, again, point well taken. In listening to you talk about your experience doing taharah, I, of course, am thinking about my own. And part of what prompted my question was my experience oftentimes of being, well, you talked about it earlier, being very present. It's one of the things that I find is so beautiful about that experience is there's something about being in the team and caring for this person, their body, their soul. Doing it in silence, except for the prayers and whatever whispered questions, instructions need to be passed. It is one of the times where I find I am able to absolutely be completely present. This is a struggle for me and for a lot of people I know that our minds – there are all kinds of distractions drawing our attention. We're multi-tasking and you know, we might be doing one thing in our head is in about five other places, and it is so beautiful to have this opportunity to be absolutely present in that one place. No other thoughts going on. And what I find is that I'm both very much in that moment and there's no sense of time. 

Elissa:  OK. So we transcend time because we're doing something. It's like a flow, right? You're sort of in the flow. So you're so present that you that time goes by and you're not aware of it. Is that kind of concept you mean? 

Méli:  Yeah. 

Elissa:  I perhaps could add another aspect to this which perhaps feeds into the idea that time stops. I'm very aware that what we get to do, as the living taking care of the dead, is partnering with God. So at the end of the whole process, we have our Jewish lady and she's washed and she's cleaned and she's been through the the whole procedure that we go through and dressed in the traditional garments that people are clothed in and put into her casket, which is known as anAron, the Aron, like they were the Holy Torah. We put the Torah scrolls into a box, which we call the Aron, the ark. We call the coffin and Aron, it's an ark. We're putting the body – it's not a body that you dispose of, that you throw out, that you burn. It's a body that you, you take care of like a sefer Torah, like the the Torah scrolls that are holy, that have housed holiness, the soul is holy, so we take care of. And we put it in the Aron. And we're partnering with God. This feels like when you ask before, something about when you line yourself up in a way where you feel like you're doing the right thing. Like, what does God want me to do? Does does God want me to say this? Does God want me to eat that? Does God want me to observe the Sabbath? Right. So. God wants me to wash this lady and put her in her clothing and put her in this Aron and say goodbye to her and say these prayers over her. There's no question in my mind that God's there too, and that God wants me to do this. I feel like this is a mission, and it's almost like this is my mission. This is something that I get to line myself up with God to do. It's such an honor to be that person, to do that thing for this person, because God wants it done and I can do it and I'm doing it. So I think that that's a very powerful experience that people who are engaged in this work feel that they become partners with God. 


Méli:  How do you know that God wants you to do it? 

Elissa:  Well, I go back to my Torah, the source of how to know what we're supposed to do is in the Torah. So again, if you go back to the injunction to be God-like. God buried Moses. God buried the dead, so we buried the dead. It's a bigger question, like to do it this way, to do it that way. There's all kinds of teachings that come down. But this is our traditional way to prepare and to bury. And I get to be involved. 

Méli:  Everyone I've spoken with who's been deeply involved in a more conservative, Orthodox, Evangelical what whatever the proper word is, with their religion has spoken of this sort of knowing. And I always want to understand: how do people know? 

Elissa:  I think for somebody who identifies as a growing traditional/Orthodox Jew, the source for knowing is the Torah. Within the system you get too subjective. There has to be something outside the system that's telling you what to do. 

Méli:  And is the Torah inside the system or outside the system? 

Elissa:  Well, again, my belief is that the Torah comes from God, so it's outside the system. 

Méli:  Yeah, interesting. Lots of things surprised me. You know, when you say: ‘OK, well, God is very present in my life. I talk to God all the time during the day’, and yet now you're saying God is outside of the system. 

Elissa:  Well, God is the system. Well, God created the system. God is outside and inside the system. So. So let let me give another analogy. The baby, a fetus in utero – so this I got from my teacher Esther Ween – this is a very interesting way to think about creation. So all of creation is the fetus in utero. The fetus has no concept of the mother that is housing the fetus. The fetus are receiving everything that the fetus needs to survive: food, water, shelter, warmth, nutrients. Everything that that fetus needs is provided for by the mother. But the fetus has no concept of the mother. But the fetus is in the mother. But is in a separate space within the mother. The walls of the uterus block knowing what's beyond. So maybe that could be a way to think about creation we’re in God – there's a Jewish term ein od milvado, there's nothing but God. How do you understand that so kabbalistically, God had to withdraw God's self, so to speak, to create a space for creation. But then God infused God's self back into that space. So you have the fetus in utero, has no concept of the mother is sustained by the mother. The mother is forever present. And so too for us. We're sustained by God. God is present, but God is outside and all about, and everything. Creation is that is in the space that is God. 

Méli:  What I hear from you is something I heard many years ago of: God is everywhere outside and inside of me. 

Elissa:  Right, right. So then if we're we're inside God's, God's present, God's imminent, God's transcendent. We use these terms because we need to anthropomorphize God. But God isn't anthropomorphizeable. Which is why we're behind the tapestry. We can't see the – we don't see clearly. If we’d see it clearly, we'd all be doing it. Which gets back to your question about what happens at the end of days. We're all see clearly. Everybody will recognize the truth. Everybody will see the truth. Everybody will see that mother on the other side. There'll be no questions. They'll be clear. But we live in the murkiness. We live in the don't-see-clearly-ness, in the lack of clarity. That's where we live. So we're looking, we're searching, we're trying to find our way. 

Méli:  We're bumping around in the dark. 

Elissa:  And for a torah observant Jew, the torah is the light, yeah? 

Méli:  All right. Well, Elissa, we've talked about a lot of things. I want to give you a moment here at the end to add anything that you feel we've left out that is really important. 

Elissa:  What I spend a lot of my time thinking about is understanding life as a bridge. That we come from somewhere. And we're going somewhere. And this little bridge that we're on is finite. Our souls come from a world of souls, and they go to a world of souls. Here’s another thing that I again, I I do think about these things a lot, and I'm faced with death a lot because I wash people all the time. There's a story in our tradition of the soul coming from the world of souls. So the soul doesn't wanna leave. The soul's very happy in the heavenly realms. Basking in all the divine light doesn't want to come into the world. And so the soul is kind of crying: ‘Oh, don't put me down there. I want to be up in the heavens’. And God says: ‘No, you have to go down to the world. You have to be in the world’. So at birth the soul is crying, and we're all so happy. Mazel tov, you know. So happy. A new life in the world. So paradoxically at the other end people are crying, and the soul is moving on, the soul is happy to go back into that world of souls. So it's sort of a flipping over of who's crying and who's rejoicing. And yet our tradition celebrates life. Our motto is: L’Chaim. To life. Our lives are valuable, infinitely valuable. Every moment of life we treasure, we go out of our way to save lives. Life is the highest of highest valued entities that we have. And we should use them well, and we should again go back to the beginning, be the best we can be, and use our life as well as we possibly can, and not to kill time. Too often, sometimes we kill time, but time is also a gift that we're given to use, as is our life. I think that the loss of Sam, and the loss of my granddaughter, the loss of my mother, she died at 56, all of these give me the tools to almost every day reflect on the gift that my life is, that life is. 

Méli:  Yeah, Amen. 


Elissa:  Amen. Thank you for having me and thank you for letting me share my thoughts. And I hope you know that they're inspiring or that they're educational or just give an insight into another way of thinking. 

Méli:  They've been all of that, and thank you so much for coming on my Living Our Beliefs podcast. It's really been a delightful conversation and I look forward to more connection with you.

Elissa:  Me too. 


Méli:  Thank you for listening.  If you’d like to get notified when new episodes are released, hit the SUBSCRIBE button. Questions and comments are welcome and can be directly sent to A link is in the show notes. Transcripts are available a few weeks after airing. This podcast is an outgrowth of my Talking with God Project. For more information about that research, including workshop and presentation options, go to my website –  Thank you so much.  Till next time.  Bye bye.