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Torah Attitude: Parashas Toldos: How to comfort mourners

Summary

Sometimes the Torah refers to one person greeting another as a blessing, for that is the essence of a real greeting such as "Shalom". Just like G'd comforted Isaac at the time of his mourning, we shall comfort mourners in their bereavement. When we pay a shivah visit we do an act of kindness, both to the deceased and to the mourner. We must try and encourage them with words of comfort. We must always try to alleviate the mourners' pain and make sure that they do not blame themselves for doing "this" or not doing "that". There is a hint of comfort in serving mourners something round, as it indicates that mourning is something that goes round, and everybody goes through such a situation. During the first three days of the Shivah the mourner may not greet or respond to greetings. The week of the Shivah has great psychological value as it gives the mourners time to come to terms with their loss and share their grief with family and friends.

Greetings are blessings

This week we will continue our discussion of how we are obligated to emulate G'd and follow in His footsteps to do acts of kindness. Towards the end of last week's parasha it says (Bereishis 25:11): "And it was after the death of Abraham, and G'd blessed Isaac." In general, when the Torah relates that G'd blesses someone it would say the context of the blessing (see Bereishis 1:22 and 28). The same applies when the Torah mentions how people bless each other (see Bereishis 24:60). However, sometimes the Torah just says that one person blessed another. In such a case, the blessing refers to a greeting (see Rashi Bereishis 47:7). For the essence of a real greeting is to bless the other person such as saying "Shalom". So why does the Torah not tell the context of G'd blessing Isaac?

Comfort the mourner

Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sotah 14a) that explains that G'd appeared to Isaac to bless him with words of comfort. Similarly, we find that after Rachel passed away it says (Bereishis 35:9): "And G'd appeared to Jacob and He blessed him." There Rashi quotes the Midrash Rabbah (81:5) that explains that G'd came to comfort Jacob in his sorrow. Says the Talmud, just like G'd comforted Isaac at the time of his mourning, we shall comfort mourners in their bereavement. This may be one of the reasons why we bless the mourners when we leave a Shivah house and wish them that G'd shall comfort them.

Shivah visit

The Rambam (Laws of Mourning 14:7) writes that when we pay a shivah visit we do an act of kindness, both to the deceased and to the mourner. It appears that the soul of the deceased is present in the shivah house, especially if the mourner sits in the house where the deceased passed away. It is therefore important to keep the conversation with the mourners appropriate to their needs, as well as to the needs of the deceased. The deceased benefits when we talk about the life history and good deeds of the deceased. This also makes the mourners feel good, both when we give them the opportunity to speak about their dear relative who just passed away, and when we tell them of our experiences with the deceased.

Encouraging words

Although we should try to raise the spirits of the mourners, this should not be done by distracting their attention from their loss by talking about the latest news or telling jokes. Rather, we must try and encourage them with words of comfort. How can we comfort someone who just lost a dear relative? Every situation is different and there is not one formula that applies to all mourners. But as a general rule, we must remind them that although the deceased has passed away from this world, the soul is still alive in the upper world, and we are in a position to benefit it through Torah study, prayers and good deeds. And just like the ones who are left behind have the ability to help the deceased, so may the deceased be in a position to care for the family left behind from above.

Alleviate mourner's pain

We must always try to alleviate the mourners' pain and make sure that they do not blame themselves for doing "this" or not doing "that". Every person has a lifespan that is suited to the person's specific purpose in life. One person needs many years. Another needs only a relatively short period. As long as they acted in good faith and looked after the deceased to the best of their ability, they must understand that the time expired for the deceased. It is also appropriate to comfort the mourners by reminding them that the time will come when they will be reunited with their loved one at the time of resurrection. For when something is time limited it is much easier to deal with than when it is final.

Round food for comfort

In this week's parasha the Torah (Bereishis 25:29) relates how Jacob was cooking a meal. Suddenly Eisav came in from the field exhausted and demanded that Jacob pour him some of the "red stuff" he was preparing. Rashi quotes the Talmud (Bava Basra 16b) that explains that this event took place on the day of Abraham's death, and Jacob was preparing the first meal one serves for mourners known as "seudas havraah". The "red stuff" Jacob was cooking was lentils. The Talmud explains that it is the custom to serve something round to mourners at this meal, such as lentils or boiled eggs. There is a hint of comfort in serving mourners something round, as it indicates that mourning is something that goes round, and everybody goes through such a situation. The mourners should therefore not blame themselves or feel that they have been singled out for G'd's judgment. The round food further alludes to that just as these food items do not have any "mouth" to open, so too the mourner has "no mouth" and is not in the mood to engage in much talking.

Not respond to greetings

The Talmud (Moed Katan 21b) teaches that during the first three days of the Shivah the mourner may neither greet nor respond to greetings. For the next four days, the visitor should not greet but the mourner may respond if someone greeted them. The stringency of the first days reflects the level of mourning at this stage, referred to by the Talmud as the three days of weeping. Many people follow the custom not to visit the Shivah house during these three days. Often just family and close friends will come and look after the needs of the mourners. The wound is too fresh and the grief too strong for the mourners to engage visitors in conversation. Obviously, it all depends on the situation and the personality of the mourner.

Psychological value of Shivah

The week of the Shivah has great psychological value as it gives the mourners time to come to terms with their loss and share their grief with family and friends. The time after the Shivah is often more difficult to cope with, as there is no outlet for the host of emotions that follow after the loss of a close relative. The thirty days of mourning that all close relatives observe, and the year of mourning that children observe after the loss of a parent, is therapeutic as one still feels connected to the deceased by observing the laws of mourning. However, it is difficult to do this by oneself, and it is of utmost importance that family and friends stay in touch in any way possible to ease the way for the mourner to face life and look ahead instead of clinging to the past.

May the time come soon when we will all be connected in joy and happiness with the ones who have passed away, when death will cease and G'd will wipe away the tears of all mourners.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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