Thursday, November 16, 2006

The meaning of death, the meaning of comfort (Parshat Haiyei Sarah)

יום שישי כ''ו בחשון תשס''ז
This week’s
parsha brings us to the first time in the Torah that we find a report of mourning – as well as the first report of somebody being comforted in their mourning.

The parsha opens with the death of Sarah – Avraham’s beloved wife and the mother of Yitzhak (Isaac). The Torah says Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to cry for her (Gen 23:2). The word for mourning here is לספוד/lispod, which comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for eulogy (הספד/hesped).

That is, Avraham came to eulogize his wife and to cry for her. From this. we learn that these are the proper ways in mourning. We should speak of the dead person and lament their loss. And we should cry for them.

Of course, every one has their own individual way of mourning; certainly, no one should feel required to cry. But, the problem is that, in today's society, so many people seem to think that comforting a mourner means helping them to stop crying. I see this so often in my work in the hospital; well-meaning people trying to help a crying mourner to stop crying. The Torah tells us this is a mistake. It is entirely proper to cry and to speak of the dead person. As a chaplain who works with families in the wake of death, I understand my job as very much helping the family member -- if, and only if, they are ready -- to speak of their loved one. In chaplain-speak this is called "eliciting story." It provides true healing for people.

The following lines in the Torah also have a great lesson for us regarding how to deal with death. The Hezkoni sets the stage for it in his comment on the verse I already cited. Why did Avraham cry for Sarah, asks the Hezkoni? He answers:

לפי שלא היה לו מקון מוכן לקבורה

Since he did not have a place prepared to bury her.

Burial of the dead is extremely important in the Jewish tradition. It is no accident that the account of the very first purchase of Land in the Torah -- a detailed account in the lines that follow -- involves obtaining a place to bury a beloved family member. A full 17 verses -- the remainder of the chapter -- are devoted to a loving recording of this Holy act, the acquiring of a burial place for Sarah.

In this day and age, an increasing number of people -- especially those who are not associated with any house of worship -- are skipping burial in favor of cremation, and are even skipping the establishment of any permanent place of burial for their loved ones. Ashes are just being scattered to the wind.

This is not the Jewish way. This is not the way to show love and honor to a loved one.

There are many wonderful ways of memorializing a loved one, including the purchase of a proper burial site and the giving of tzedukah in the deceased's name.

Yitzhak chooses another beautiful -- and more subtle way -- of honoring his mother. The Torah reports that upon marrying his wife Rivka (Rebecca), Yitzkah was comforted; this is the first time in the Torah that a mourner receives comfort:

ויינחם יצחק אחרי אמו

And Yitzhak was comforted after his mother. (Gen. 24:67).

The Hezkoni asks, what does "after his mother" mean? And he answers:

אחרי שהיתה דומה לאמו במעשים

After that she was similar to his mother in deeds.

So, often I have seen people in a situation similar to the one Yitzhak found himself in -- to find the joy of one's marriage, or of the birth of one's first child, happening around the same time of the loss of one's parent. My own beloved father passed away only shortly before my sister gave birth to her first child.

There is no replacing a parent. Certainly, one should not marry someone exactly like one's mother. But it is a beautiful thing to be able to find someone who matches a beloved parent in the kind of good deeds that he or she performs. This upholding, and continuing, of the deeds of a loved one is a true memorial -- a living memorial -- to them.

May the memories of your loved ones who have passed be a blessing to you. And may you see their good deeds performed all around you.


One element of the Jewish calendar is the weekly Torah reading, or parsha. This coming Shabbat's reading is Haiyei Sarah, Gen 23:1-25:18. The parsha brings us towards the end of the first two generations of the Jewish people and sets the stage for the beginning of the story of Yaakov -- the man who would give the people Israel their name -- in next week's parsha. Our parsha begins with the death of Sarah, the first of the first generation to die, and ends with the death of Ishmael, the first of the second generation to die. It also includes the first purchase of land in the Torah (Avraham's buying a burial site for his wife Sarah), as well as the story of the quest of Avraham's servant to find a wife for his master's son Yitzhak.

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