“Mourning and Eulogizing”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Although this week’s Torah portion is entitled Chayei Sarah, which literally means “the life of Sarah,” the opening part of the parasha actually concerns Sarah’s passing and death. The Torah states in Genesis 23:2 “Vah’tah’maht Sarah b’Kiryat Arba, hee Chevron b’eretz Canaan. Va’yah’vo Avraham lis’pohd l’Sarah v’liv’ko’tah.” Sarah died in Kiriath Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan. And Abraham came to eulogize her, and to weep for her.

As always, the rabbis wish to understand the link between this chapter (Genesis 23) and the preceding chapter. Parashat Vayeira concluded with the Akeida, the binding and almost slaughter of Issac. Rashi suggests that when Sarah heard that Issac, her beloved son, had almost been slaughtered, her soul departed and she died.

It is at the passing of Sarah that the concept of “eulogy” first appears in the Bible. The expression is found several more times in the Bible. Jacob is eulogized by his sons in Egypt (Genesis 50:10). When the prophet Samuel dies, all of Israel eulogize him (Samuel I Chapter 25). King David’s eulogies for King Saul and Jonathan (Samuel II 1:17-27), and for Abner (Samuel II 2:33-34), are renowned.

It appears from Ecclesiastes 12 that eulogizers would often walk after the bier as the deceased’s remains were carried through the streets. Joining the eulogizers were wailers, usually women, who would cry out. Some wailers were professionals who were paid for their services.

There is a dispute in the Talmud, Sanhedrin 46b, concerning the purpose of eulogizing. Are eulogies intended to honor the dead or to honor the survivors? Since the verse concerning Sarah says specifically “lis’pod l’Sarah,” to eulogize Sarah, the rabbis conclude that the eulogy was intended for Sarah’s sake and honor, rather than for the survivors.

Proper eulogies are supposed to be educational and instructional, especially if the deceased is a righteous person. It is important that the eulogy convey lessons from the life of the deceased that may influence the audience. As the verse indicates, “liv’ko’tah,” to weep for her–eulogies are meant to bring people to tears. Tradition teaches that the Al-mighty collects the tears of those who are moved by a eulogy and places them in “storage” to reward all those who cried at the end of their lives. Consequently, our rabbis teach that, when one hears that a righteous person has passed away, even if the departed was not a personal acquaintance, the community is expected to be pained over the loss and accord the deceased special honor. After all, it was the merit of the deceased’s righteousness that brought goodness to the world from which all benefited. Furthermore, righteous scholars are considered to be “virtual relatives” of the entire community of Israel. Consequently, it is only proper for the community to mourn its personal loss.

Eulogies and mourning are also meant to bring out the best in people. Sometimes, those attending funerals hear extraordinary testimonies depicting the special relationships that the departed may have had with their children or their spouses, or learn of their generosity or dedication to Torah study. The mourners go home enriched, often inspired to change their own behavior.

The May’am Lo’ez relates the tale of a kingdom, in which one province was set apart from the rest of the nation. Despite its distance from the main kingdom, the province was considered secure because among its residents was an heroic leader who would vanquish all enemies. However, on one occasion, the enemies of the province decided to attack in a united front. The frightened citizens of the isolated province petitioned the king for assistance, begging him to send reinforcements. Instead, the king demanded that the province’s heroic leader leave the city and join the king in the secure main part of the kingdom.

The May’am Lo’ez suggests that the king’s intent was not to abandon his citizens, but rather to show them that they too possessed the prowess and might to fight and defeat their enemies. Because they had always relied entirely on their heroic leader, their talents were never utilized. If the citizens would join and battle the enemy together, they would undoubtedly prevail in battle.

The lesson, of course, is that too often, we rely on others to do our “fighting” for us. We frequently rely on others to support us financially, to do our chores, to study for us and even to pray for us. Rather than use our own G-d-given talents, which we certainly possess, we sheepishly rely on others.

The loss of a cherished partner, friend, or relative is at times looked upon as diminishing the survivors. Quite to the contrary, the loss often causes the survivors to exhibit strengths that they never knew they possessed, and inspires them to perform deeds and actions for which they had always relied on others. It appears to be, ironically, somewhat of the fulfillment of Samson’s famous adage (Judges 14:14): “Oo’may’ahz yah’tzah ma’toak,” From bitter came forth sweetness. It is the silver lining that at times appears on the heels of dark clouds.

May you be blessed.