“Prohibition Against Excessive Grief”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, we learn of the prohibition of excessive mourning and grief for those who pass away.

Deuteronomy 14 opens with the words, “Bah’neem ah’tem la’Hashem Eh’lo’kay’chem,” You are the children of the Lord, your G-d. “Lo tit’go’d’doo v’lo ta’see’moo kar’chah bayn ay’nay’chem la’mayt,” You shall not cut yourselves and you shall not make a bald spot between your eyes for the dead. The verses that follow assert that this practice is forbidden because Jews are holy people whom G-d has chosen for Himself to be a treasured people from among all the nations on the face of the earth.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) offers a compelling insight into the custom of non-Jews to cut their bodies and rip out their hair as signs of grief. Many nations, says Hirsch, subscribe to the belief that when a close relative dies, a piece of them, if not all of them, goes down to the grave with the deceased. Therefore, they are no longer the same person they were before losing their precious relative or friend. By cutting themselves or plucking out their hair they indicate that they are now diminished.

Rabbi Hirsch argues that Judaism maintains that no human relationship is so close that one is absorbed into the essence of another, leaving the surviving relative or friend of the departed of lesser value or of no value. It is for this reason that the Torah tells us clearly, “You are the children of the Lord, your G-d.” He, your Father in heaven, is your closest relationship, and you are all His children! The tie that binds you to G-d is the closest tie, greater than all other bonds and is everlasting.

The Torah prohibits excessive mourning to make certain that mortals realize that life is meaningful because of what people give to others, not what they take from others. If people understand that life has meaning as long as there are still opportunities to give to others, the loss of a near and dear relative or friend can never lead to despair. Those who succumb to despair because of a personal loss, in effect, declare that those who survive do not really count.

Judaism regards mourning as a mitzvah, for the respect that it accords the dead. Beyond that basic notion, the Jewish conception of mourning is radically different from conventional thinking. Although Jews are encouraged to mourn, the mourning is for the loss of the positive experiences of the relationship, rather than an expression of sorrow on behalf of the departed. After all, the departed has gone on to a far better place than the earthly abode.

When one limb of the body is hurt, the entire body feels the pain. Consequently, if close friends or relatives pass on, pain is to be expected. Judaism therefore allows, indeed encourages, survivors to express normal amounts of weeping and grief. Only excessive grief is discouraged. Since Jewish tradition regards all of G-d’s actions as ultimately for the good, even tragedies are looked upon as possible sources of blessings in disguise. For Jews, it is the life of eternal peace in the World to Come, not the life in this world, that is of ultimate importance.

The Me’am Loez (an extensive Ladino commentary on the entire Hebrew Bible, 17-18th century) cites a meaningful parable from the Zohar that drives home this lesson in a persuasive way.

Concerned that his son would grow up as a spoiled prince in the royal palace, the king sent his son away to a live in a village. Through this experience, the king hoped that the prince would come in contact with the villagers, see how they labor, plow the fields and plant, and gain an appreciation of the common folk. The lad quickly gained the friendship and admiration of the villagers, who came to regard him as one of their own.

When the king grew old, he called for his son to return home, so that he may succeed him on the throne. The villagers began to weep at the prospect of the prince’s departure. One wise villager admonished his neighbors, “Foolish people. The prince is now going to be king over the entire kingdom, and you are crying?!”

The King of Kings, the Al-mighty, sends His human creations to this world so that they would grow in Torah and perform mitzvot. When the time comes for them to leave this world and ascend to the Divine Presence, their family and friends mourn and cry. The wise Moses realized the fallaciousness of their actions. He therefore admonished the people: “Fools, why are you crying? Don’t cut yourselves and don’t pluck out your hairs. The deceased is now ascending to the throne!” (Tzror HaMor).

How comforting it is to know that we are truly the children of G-d, the Father, who is there to embrace and comfort His children, and ultimately bring them home to dwell in the Divine Presence.

May you be blessed.