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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chayei Sarah: A time to cry
Abraham did not cry a lot when Sarah died. "Do not cry over a deceased person and do not mourn him." It is important for us to analyze the difference between the purpose of saying a eulogy and the purpose of crying for the deceased. It is permissible to delay the burial in order to bring a person that can deliver a suitable eulogy. Crying is mainly for the sake of those left behind. There are limits on how far mourners should go to express their loss. We must remember that the soul of the deceased has entered a higher and better life. The eulogy was for Sarah's benefit, whereas, the crying was for the benefit of Abraham and the other mourners.
The passing of Sarah
In this week's parasha, the Torah relates how our matriarch Sarah passed away in Hebron, and that Abraham returned from out of town (from the Akeidah) to "eulogize Sarah and bewail her". In the Hebrew text, the word 'livcotah' (to cry) is written with a small letter "kof". The commentaries explain that this is to hint that Abraham did not cry a lot.
The times for mourning
This corresponds to the teachings of our sages. The Prophet Jeremiah (22:10) says, "Do not cry over a deceased person and do not mourn him." The Talmud (Moed Katan 27b) explains that this means not to cry excessively and not to mourn in overly measure. Our sages specified the appropriate times for mourning: three days for crying, seven days for eulogizing, and thirty days of mourning (twelve months for mourning after parents). After this time, G'd instructs us to cease mourning for the departed. Of course, the void in our hearts does not disappear in only thirty days. However, no one is more merciful and sensitive than G'd. And in His infinite wisdom, G'd set the limit for crying at three days, etc.
We pray for the deceased, say kaddish, give charity, and learn Mishnah for the Neshamah of the deceased. Our sages teach that the soul must go through 12 months of judgment and purification to reach its rightful place in the eternal world. However, this is not a reason to cry, as we understand that this is for the greatest benefit of the deceased.
Eulogize and bewail
The commentaries note that the Torah says that Abraham came to "eulogize Sarah and to bewail her". It would have been more logical to say "eulogize and bewail Sarah". The reference to "her" is redundant. In order to understand this, we must analyze the difference between the purpose of saying a eulogy and the purpose of crying for the deceased.
Honour the deceased
Our sages teach that it is beneficial for a deceased person to be buried as soon as possible. The burial of Sarah was delayed so that Abraham could arrive and eulogize his beloved wife. Based on this, our sages teach that it is permissible to delay the burial in order to bring a person that can deliver a suitable eulogy, for the eulogy is an honour to the deceased (see Sanhedrin 46b).
The purpose of crying
On the other hand, the crying is mainly for the sake of those left behind. They go through great pain having lost a close relative. The separation is very difficult, and it brings out an urge to express deep feelings of sadness. Our sages distinguish between the body of the deceased and the soul. When a person dies, the body ceases to exist in this world, but the soul passes on to the eternal world. It travels from a world of trials and tribulations to a world of purification and reward. The Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 4:16) aptly describes this process as the soul moving from the lobby into the banquet hall. In truth, there is no reason to cry for the one who has departed. Therefore, the purpose of crying is not to honour the deceased. Rather, the purpose of crying is to allow the mourners to express their loss.
Limits on mourning
There are limits on how far mourners should go to express their loss. In Parashas Re'eh (Devarim 14:1), the Torah says, "You are children of Hashem Your G'd. Do not cut into your flesh, and do not tear out your hair because of someone's death." The Sforno comments that it is not proper to be overly pained due to the death of the deceased. As the next verse says, "You are a holy nation". As a holy nation we are destined for the World to Come. Even a little sniff of the World to Come is more enjoyable than all the pleasures of this world (Pirkei Avos 4:17). The deceased no more has the ability to perform mitzvot and good deeds in this world. But the reward in the World to Come is so much greater than any enjoyment in this world, so if we look at the total picture, the deceased has gained more than lost. Obviously, there are many details that vary from case to case. It is easier to accept the death of an elderly person who had a long life and accomplished a lot, such as establishing a family or benefitting the community or mankind in general. However, when someone dies young and meets an untimely death, we must learn to accept that it is all part of G'd's masterplan. Everyone has their mission in life. Some have a short span to achieve their mission. Others have many years to fulfill their job. On top of this, we must always remember that everything is not over when a person leaves this world. We can still benefit the deceased through our Torah study, acts of lovingkindness and charity.
Being promoted to a better world
Other commentaries point out that the Torah starts this verse with the expression "you are children of G'd". The Zohar (Parshas Vayechi) compares this to a king who sends his son to a school in a little village. After the prince grows up, the king wants to bring him back to accept the responsibilities of an important position especially reserved for him. All the people of the village have become very fond of the prince and are very upset about his departure. A sage who lives in the village asks his fellow villagers why they are so upset and were crying. He reminds them that the prince is leaving for a high position and a better life. Although they were all saddened by their loss of the beloved prince, the sage told them to be happy for the prince. Similarly, says the Zohar, our Father, the King of the Universe, sends a person to this world to busy himself with Torah and mitzvot. When the time comes for the person to leave this world, family and friends cry over the separation. Comes our sage Moshe Rabbeinu and says to us, "you are children of G'd, why are you crying?" As such, this person is also G'd's child. It is time for the soul to return to the highest of heights for the position waiting for it in the beautiful eternal life. Therefore, says the Torah, do not cut yourself, tear your hair, because that implies that this person is lost and has no continuation. It is acceptable to cry and mourn but the tears and mourning are due to our loss. For the deceased, we must remember that the soul has entered a higher and better life.
Praise and cry
The eulogy, on the other hand, is for the benefit of the deceased person. The praises expressed in the eulogy show the high esteem and love in which the deceased is held. This helps to elevate the soul of the deceased to a higher place in the World to Come. This is why the Torah separates the eulogy and the crying. At Sarah's funeral the eulogy was for Sarah's benefit, whereas the crying was for Abraham and the other mourners. It is only natural that a husband and children cry when a dear wife and mother leaves this world.
May we all live to see the fulfillment of the words of the Prophet Isaiah (25:8): "Death shall be annulled for eternity, and HASHEM G'd shall wipe away tears from all faces." Amen.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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