by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – November 12, 2009
“And Sarah died…and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her” (Bereshit 23:2). Abraham, upon the departure of his wife, Sarah, from this world, recognized the great loss that he had suffered. As a consequence, Abraham mourned and cried for Sarah, his now departed partner throughout his long life.
Similar to Abraham, we also engage in various forms of mourning upon the loss of a loved one. After a close relative dies, we rend our garments. Once the body is buried, we begin the observance of shiv’ah and sheloshim which our Rabbis explain in the Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 21b: “During the first three days [of shiv’ah], the mourner is not permitted to engage in the inquiry about another’s welfare; after three and until seven days, he may respond but not inquire; thereafter, he may inquire and respond in the regular manner.” In the voluminous and authoritative code of Jewish law, Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 390:1, we are further informed that: “For an entire thirty days, the mourner is not to cut the hair of his head, nor the hair of his beard nor any hair on him…If, however, his mustache…interferes with his eating, he may [trim it] after, but not during, shiv’ah.” In addition, an orphaned son recites kaddish for his parents. If someone died without a son, kaddish may be recited for him by a relative or even a stranger. It is recited for eleven months following, and, annually on the anniversary of the person’s death; and this kaddish is recited only in the presence of a minyan (at the funeral, at the end of synagogue prayer services and after Torah study). Finally, a tombstone is erected for the deceased, on which are engraved the initials of the words “May his/her soul be bound up in the bond of life.”
All of these forms of mourning serve as a means of emphasizing the gravity of one’s loss. Our Rabbis tell us that even the lowest among us are saturated with good deeds (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 57a). We help our spouses, raise our children and help another in need, which alone warrants much appreciation. Thus, when one departs, it is incumbent upon his close relatives, who best knew him, to lay aside their personal interests and endeavors and engage in a period of contemplation and appreciation of the role that the departed relative played in their lives and in the world’s course of events and the good he brought into the world.
However, after the designated period of mourning, we should continue with our everyday lives, in the realization that the departed has left this material world for a better world.
In Kohelet Rabbah 5:21, our Sages tell us: “When a person enters the world, his hands are clenched, as though to say, ‘The whole world is mine, I shall inherit it’; but, when he takes leave of it, his hands are spread open, as though to say, ‘I have inherited nothing from the world’…This is like a fox who found a vineyard which was fenced in on all sides. There was one hole through which he wanted to enter, but he was unable to do so. What did he do? He fasted for three days until he became lean and frail and got through the hole. Then he ate and became fat again, so that when he wanted to go out, he could not pass through at all. He again fasted another three days until he became lean and frail, returning to his former condition, and went out. When he went outside, he turned his face, and, gazing at the vineyard, he said, ‘O vineyard, vineyard, how good are you and the fruits inside. All that is inside is good and commendable, but what joy has one from you? As one enters, so he comes out.”
Indeed, this world offers many tempting material fruits, but when one leaves it, none of these fruits can be taken along. In Kohelet, King Solomon tells us, “The conclusion of the matter once everything is heard, fear G-d and keep his commandments, for this is the entirety of man.” Only the spiritual benefits gained upon following in the ways of G-d live on with the deceased into the world to come and allow for the enjoyment of everlasting bliss. And it is in the realization that our departed enter this blissful world that we should take solace.