To Comfort and Be Comforted
To Comfort and Be Comforted
Foreward: The Challenge
All of us face the prospect of being menacheim aveil on a regular basis. However, nichum aveilim is a very complex mitzvah with few clear guidelines. Every aveil grieves differently, and every menacheim has their own understanding of what is expected of them. Some of us are uncomfortable and afraid of visiting a shivah home. It is awkward – we don’t know what to say, or we may face an emotional aveil without knowing the exact way to react. We might stay away when in fact our very presence would be a great source of consolation. Some people inadvertently say things that are hurtful instead of helpful because they feel they must say something, and they feel they must alleviate the aveil’s pain. We are unprepared because we don’t fully understand the needs of the aveil, nor do we clearly appreciate the goals and the purpose of nichum aveilim. Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah and the National Associa- tion of Chevrah Kadisha (NASCK) have joined to create this project, Nichum V’Nechamah, To Comfort and Be Comforted: A Guide to the Mitzvah of Nichum Aveilim.
You will have the opportunity to read the words of many prominent rabbanim, well-known authors, lecturers and professionals, who deal with grief on a regular basis, many of whom have themselves suffered personal loss. They will outline and address the rules and the guidelines of offering comfort in a way that will provide clear goals and direction to those being menacheim aveil. They may also help the aveil better understand what shivah is meant to be. Additionally, these essays will provide a great source of comfort to those in mourning, whether it is during the shivah, immediately after, when the mourners are more alone with their grief, or at a later time when the aveil may still have the need for meaningful words of comfort and consolation and there is no one there to give it to them.
The full presentations by the outstanding contributors who participated in this project are divided into clearly defined categories. Choose to gain from those who best speak to you.
When there are so many and such varied contributors from different backgrounds, different professions and different perspectives, it may appear that some contradictions exist. We suggest that you read very carefully. There is a great difference between, “I know how you feel,” something you should not say, and “I feel your pain,” which is quite appropriate and an expression of sincere empathy. Take into account who is speaking. A rabbi may be able to offer nechamah and meaning that a friend or neighbor should never offer. The context is important as well. When an aveil asks for meaning or chizzuk from an older or pastoral figure, it is quite different than when a casual acquaintance walks in and states, “You need to be strong.”
According to Rav David Feinstein, shlita, it is quite appropriate to give this book as well as the DVD upon which it is based, to aveilim during shivah.
Rabbi Hershel Schachter is the Rosh Yeshivah and Rosh Kollel of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) in New York City. He is a prominent posek, as well as halachic advisor for the kashrus division of the Orthodox Union.
- It is contrary to halachah and inappropriate to talk about things unrelated to the niftar (and techiyas hameisim when applicable) during the shivah.
- There are two obligations in nichum aveilim: the individual’s obligation, which is to visit a friend or colleague who is sitting shivah to comfort him, and the communal obligation, which is to participate in the minyan forming the line through which the aveilim walk following the burial.
- When being menachem aveil, be careful to respect the aveil’s space, allow him to speak first and allow him to eat when he needs to.
Performing the Mitzvah Properly
Many people come to be menacheim aveil, and they act improperly. It is very common. I remember when I was sitting shivah for my mother, over twenty years ago, and many, many people came to be menacheim aveil. There was only one person, one chassidishe rav from the neighborhood, who did the nichum
aveilim according to the halachah. Everyone else violated the din.
The Rambam writes that nichum aveilim has a double aspect to it. It is kavod hachayim and kavod hameisim. It is kavod hameisim with the fact that people care to come and be menacheim aveil and kavod hachayim to show solidarity, to be mechazzeik the aveilim. usually when people come to be menacheim aveil, a lot of people come and have not seen the aveil in years. They start reviewing who got married, who had a bar mitzvah and who had children – the whole history of the family. The pashtus is that this is not proper. You are not allowed to be meisi’ach da’as from the aveilus. You are supposed to talk about the niftar, nice things about the niftar. You are supposed to talk about techiyas hameisim if it fits in, but not start reviewing all the latest news and what’s happening in the world and what is happening in politics. That is really a hesech hada’as, not a mitzvah at all.
We know that there is a double aspect to tzeddakah. There is a chovas hayachid and a chovas hatzibbur. The Rambam writes in hilchos matnos aniyim that he never heard of a community that does not have a kupah shel tzeddakah. There are matters where there is a double chiyuv, and there are certain aspects of tzeddakah that are only chovas hatzibbur and not chovas hayachid. So it would appear that in nichum aveilim as well (and all mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro) there is a double chiyuv. There is a chovas hayachid – all the people who are friendly with the aveil should come be menacheim aveil – and then there is a chovas hatzibbur. In the cemetery right after the kevurah, you do the shurah; as the Gemara says, “ein shurah chutz mei’asarah,” you have to have a minyan for this. That is the chovas hatzibbur of nichum aveilim.
Very often, people go to be menacheim aveil, and the aveil is not interested in hearing all these stories, and they come and mutcher him ois (pester him). The Gemara says that you are not allowed to strike up a conversation with the aveil unless he starts talking first. He has to be in the mood to talk to you about it. At times, people come to be menacheim aveil, they hock a chaynik (rattle on incessantly), and the aveil wishes they would leave in two minutes. They nudge a lot of times. It’s a rachmanus. A lot of times people come, and they don’t let the aveil eat. They don’t give him a chance to eat his meals. That is an avlah, not a nichum aveilim.
• Show that you feel the pain of the aveilim.
• Do not try to explain why the aveilim suffered a loss.
• Show the aveil they are not alone through small acts of kind- ness and concern.
• Provide a genuine listening ear.
You are Not Alone
The following essay is the transcription of an excerpt of an address given by Rabbi Frand at The Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation Tishah B’Av event 5773, with permission from the CCHF.
If we were on the level of someone like Rav Pam, zt”l, we would literally feel the pain of those we are being menacheim. Rav Pam once went to be menacheim aveil a parent who had lost a child, Rachmana litzlan, the most difficult kind of nichum aveilim. Do you know what Rav Pam told him? He came in, he sat down, he cried. He got up, he said, “HaMakom yenacheim eschem,” and he walked out! And he didn’t say a word. The parents said that his was the most comforting nichum aveilim because that is the classic, true nichum aveilim. As Rashi says (Masechta Shabbos) on the Gemara of “ein menachamim aveilim b’Shabbos,” we don’t do nichum aveilim on Shabbos, according to one opinion, “mishum d’mitz’ta’eir im hamitz’ta’arim,” because you are causing yourself pain, which you shouldn’t do on Shabbos. That is classic nichum aveilim, to literally feel their pain.
And may I add parenthetically, that if you ever chas v’Shalom have to be menacheim aveil parents who have lost their child, do not try to
explain to them why they lost their child because you don’t know – unless you are a navi.
Most of us are not on that level, to come in and to cry with people, but there is something we can do at every nichum aveilim, and that is to convey to the aveilim that you are not alone.
Unfortunately, both my wife and I lost older siblings this year, and on both occasions our neighbors sent in food, everything from soup to nuts, including an entire se’udas hamafsekes on erev Yom Kippur before my wife got up from her shivah. We both found it extremely comforting. Why? How does a potato kugel assuage one’s loss? Because it says, “You are not alone. If I cannot replace your loss, if I cannot find the right words to say, if I can’t sit and cry with you, I want you to know that I am with you and you are not alone.”
On the 15th day of Av*, the Ribbono Shel Olam showed Klal Yisrael, “You are not alone” when they saw that the bodies of the harugei Beitar* had not decomposed. We can follow suit, in our own small way, with small acts like sending food or sending a note or just sitting with an aveil or a sick person or a lonely person. That is a nichum; that is comforting.
There are other things we can do for people in their times of need. And that is, we can listen to them. Not provide them necessarily with brilliant suggestions and advice, but we can listen. Rav Schwab, zt”l, who was a rav for many, many years, used to say that people would come to him and pour out their hearts and ask and tell him their difficulties and sorrows. He once commented, “Many times I don’t have much to tell them. I can’t solve their problems. I don’t always have brilliant solutions. I can’t wave a magic wand and make their suffering go away. But I can listen.” And he would listen. And it would be therapeutic because people felt that they were not alone.
* On this day, the millions of dead in the city of Beitar, who had been massacred years before and lay unburied due to Roman tyranny, were finally laid to rest, their bodies miraculously still intact.
• Nichum aveilim is a manifestation of the mitzvah of “v’ahav- ta l’rei’acha kamocha.”
• We learn the mitzvah of nichum aveilim from Hashem Him- self, when He came to comfort Yitzchak Avinu on the demise of his father Avraham Avinu.
• The idea of nichum aveilim is to allow those sitting shivah to have a change in perspective.
• We say “HaMakom yenacheim…” to aveilim to express the idea that Hashem is the “Makom,” the place, so to speak, as He fills the entire world and is the source for everything. Just as He is the source for all that is obviously good, he is the source for this loss, and ultimately He is tov v’hameitiv (good and beneficent) for everything.
• One cannot fully accomplish the mitzvah of nichum aveilim over the phone or in a letter, especially since part of nichum aveilim is comforting the niftar, who is actually present at the shivah. However, one can certainly do so if necessary, or follow up with a letter to further express his thoughts.
• You should organize your thoughts before going in to be me- nacheim aveil. Do some research about the niftar beforehand if possible and think about what you are going to say.
• Remember that no two shivah houses are the same, and no two mourners are the same.
• All of you should be there, completely focused on the aveil. Turn off your cell phone, don’t greet others you know. You are there just for the aveil. Wait for the aveil to speak and lead you in what he wants to speak about.
• If the aveil can’t open up, the comforter can start first. You can redirect the conversation if necessary, i.e., if inappropri- ate topics are being discussed, because that’s what the aveil really wants.
• The words of “HaMakom” express that we are together with the aveil in his pain in the sense that we too have what to mourn – Yerushalayim and the Churban Beis Hamikdash.
• Follow up after the shivah with a call or a letter or another visit. or reach out to find out what the aveil needs.
• It is a nechamah to tell a child, “I see your parents in you. You’re perpetuating his legacy.” And it is a nechamah to the neshamah of the niftar that the children are continuing in the parent’s ways and thus raising them to higher levels in Gan eden.
Comfort for the Loss of a Child:
• Hashem chose you to parent this special child, pure and un- sullied from sin.
• In the same way that meat must be salted precisely, Hashem metes out the precise amount of suffering to a person – not enough to break him, but enough to bring out his greatness.
• Hashem gives tests to the best – to hold them up as role models, just as he tested Avraham Avinu to hold him up as a role model to the world.
• Every child is a world unto himself. Never tell a parent who has lost a child, “You have other children.”
Following in the ways of Hashem: halachos and hashkafos
Whenever approaching a mitzvah one of the first things incumbent on the individualist, now lets understand the obligation of the mitzvah. Nichum aveilim is a tremendous mitzvah. In fact, the Rambam writes (Hilchos Aveil 14:1) that under the rubric encompassed
within the general heading of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha” (love your neighbor as yourself) (Kedoshim 19:18), about which Rebbi Akiva tells us zeh klal gadol baTorah (this is an important rule in the Torah), are so many mitzvos, including gemilus chassadim, hachnasas orchim, bikur cholim and nichum aveilim. The Rambam therefore tells us that nichum aveilim is a mitzvah d’rabbanan, whereas others sources, such as Rabbeinu Yonah, say that it’s a mitzvah d’Oraisa. Either way, it is clear that there is an idea of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha” connected to nichum aveilim.
It’s not just about me; it’s about what I can do for somebody else. But at the same time, the Gemara (Sotah 14a) tells us, based on that well-known concept “v’halachta bidrachav,” that we should go in the ways of Hashem, that just as Hashem dresses the unclothed, we should clothe the needy and the destitute. Just as Hashem is mevaker cholim – He came to visit Avraham Avinu after his circumcision – so too we have to visit the sick. And just as Hashem Yisbarach k’vyachol (so to speak) is menacheim aveilim – after the demise of Avraham Avinu he came and comforted Yitzchak the son of Avraham – so too we have to be menacheim aveilim.
So we see that when a person comforts mourners, it is a fulfillment of the Rambam’s explanation of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha” And it’s simultaneously a fulfillment of what it means to be g-d-like, what it means to emulate the ways of HaKaddosh Baruch Hu.
The Gemara only cites a few select examples of how we can emulate Hashem. It is far more applicable and has many more ramifications in halachah. But what do we see? one of the choice selections to illustrate how to emulate Hashem is by being menacheim aveilim.
So now let's look at the definition of the words menacheim aveilim, to comfort mourners. What exactly is that concept all about?
I heard once from Rav Moshe Shapiro that the concept of being menacheim aveilim, which denotes, obviously, to comfort, on a deeper level relates to the idea of “ki nichamti ki asisim,” (I have reconsidered My having made them), which is what Hashem said after man’s first sins at the beginning of sefer Bereishis. We often encounter that identical terminology, the root of nunches-mem, connoting a sense of a change of perspective, a change of heart. It’s as if HaKaddosh Baruch Hu regrets, so to speak, that he ever made man. So to be menacheim means what? To give another person an opportunity to have a change of heart, a change of perspective, and thereby present them with an ability to be comforted. Because you’re showing them a different take, a different way to look at things.
One way of doing this is to allow the aveil to see “HaMakom yenacheim eschem,” that Hashem is defined as Mekomo Shel Olam, that which fills up the whole world. This is the opposite of those who believe like the 6th century Persian Zoroastrianism, that there’s a power of evil that g-d can’t control. on the contrary; everything in the world comes from Hashem. It is true that nowadays (Berachos 54) we do recite different berachos in response to various events that take place in our lives – one for joyful occasions and one for difficult circumstances. But at the end of time, we are going to see that all things good or bad are emanating from one source, and that source is only the Ribbono Shel Olam.
If we recognize in the here and the now that Hashem is HaMakom, He fills the world, and that everything that takes place, even if we perceive it as something that temporarily mandates one reciting the berachah recited on hearing tragic news, that of Dayan emes (the True Judge), then we will know in our heart of hearts that it’s all coming from the same Source. And that same Source is the ultimate source of good. HaKaddosh Baruch Hu is the ultimate source of kindness; He is the ultimate parent to us all, Who loves us far more than any parent can ever love a child.
Right now there’s pain. It’s a time of aveil, of bechiyah and hesped, but just know in your heart of hearts that ultimately we are going to have a change of perspective. “HaMakom yenacheim eschem,” it’s coming out of love, and everything the eibershter does is one hundred percent for the good.
The mitzvah that often precedes the mitzvah of nichum aveilim is the mitzvah that we know as bikur cholim; let’s add some clarification. A lot of people say bikur cholim means just go, visit. Sometimes we even go to the hospital and we expect or we hope
that maybe the person is sleeping, and we’ll just leave a letter or note. And then chalk one up for me, give me some brownie points for the World to Come; I did my mitzvah of bikur cholim. That’s not really the mitzvah.
We know there is a famous shaylah amongst the halachic authorities (Reb Moshe Feinstein, Iggros Moshe, Yoreh Dei’ah 223; Rav Ovadiah Yosef, Yechaveh Da’as 3:83; Be’er Moshe; Chelkas Ya’akov; Harav Yonasan Steif, She’arim Metzuyanim B’halachah; Tzitz eliezer; Minchas Yitzchak): can you fulfill the mitzvah of bikur cholim by telephone? And basically the consensus that emerges from the poskim is that certainly you do fulfill a portion of the mitzvah, but as Reb Moshe Feinstein writes, “lo yotzei yedei chovaso” (you did not fulfill your obligation), it’s not the complete fulfillment of the mitzvah. And what’s the idea behind it? He writes that this is because you haven’t really visited the person. Bikur cholim doesn’t just mean, as the word simply denotes, go pay him a visit. Bikur cholim is from a language of bikur hakorbanos, inspecting korbanos for a blemish, to decide whether or
not they are qualified to be offered on the mizbei’ach. You are scrutinizing. You are doing a deep, thorough inspection.
When you do the mitzvah of bikur cholim, it doesn’t just mean pay a cursory visit. It means go to the hospital and see exactly what this specific choleh needs. Can I offer him or her a blanket? What about a soda or a cup of coffee? A sefer or a book? What exactly are their needs? Do a thorough scrutiny of their needs, their wants. What does this specific ill person need me to do? How can I benefit them? How can I aid in their speedy recovery?
We have the same poskim addressing if you can fulfill nichum aveilim through a telephone. Along come the sefarim about aveilus (Kol Bo in aveilus; P’nei Baruch; She’arim Metzuyanim B’halachah) who say that, no, it is not the fulfillment, and again, this is the consensus of the poskim (Reb Ovadiah Yosef; Debretziner Rav; Be’er Moshe, cheilek 2). Certainly you fulfill a part of the mitzvah, but it’s not the complete mitzvah. Lo yoztei yedei chovaso because there’s a lot more to this mitzvah than just calling up on the telephone.
In addition, writes Rav Sternbuch (Teshuvos V’hanhagos 3:587), there is another element of nichum aveilim; the mitzvah is not just to be menacheim the aveilim, but it’s also to give solace, comfort, to the neshamah of the niftar. Therefore it’s necessary to actually go to the beis aveil. You can still write a letter to the aveil; it can bring a person comfort. Sometimes letters are the best way to bring nechamah, and I personally suggest, as I’m sure many others do, that even if you did the mitzvah of nichum aveilim – sometimes there are a lot of people around, and the aveilim didn’t necessarily notice you – now go home and write a letter. And write a lengthy letter, devarim hayotzim min haleiv, from the heart, and then they will have something they can hold onto for a long time. Sometimes in a letter you can say things and convey certain messages and feelings and emotions that perhaps you weren’t successful at doing when you were sitting opposite that aveil at the time of the actual mitzvah of nichum aveilim. So, yes, write that letter. But as Rav Sternbuch and Rav Ovadiah Yosef write about the letter or the telephone, you still didn’t go to the beis aveil; it can’t suffice. It’s only a portion of the mitzvah to write the letter, to pick up the telephone – because going to visit is simultaneously doing something not just to comfort the aveilim themselves, but for the neshamah of the niftar as well.
So now a person is ready to go be menacheim aveil. Let’s take the two ideas that we presented thus far and sort of fuse them together. Nichum aveilim, just like bikur cholim, means a scrutiny. Analyze what a person needs. Nichum aveilim means I’m not just going to do a mitzvah, I’m going to be menacheim, I’m going to comfort, and I’m going to try in some way to change the person’s perspective and bring him solace and comfort.
The Chaftez Chaim (Ahavas Chesed 5), and the Shelah Hakaddosh write that you should speak to the aveil. And the Shelah even talks about making him happy, cheering him up. The Chafetz Chaim says it’s one
of the greatest chassadim to go ahead and speak things that are relevant, that are germane and get the aveil to go ahead and speak, to open up a little bit about his mother, father or close relative.
But we all know the famous halachah (Yoreh Dei’ah, Tur Shulchan Aruch, siman 376) that “ein hamenachamim resha’im lifto’ach,” you’re not granted permission to open up and speak until the aveilim speak first. This is a very interesting halachah practically. It is important to keep in mind that before you go to the beis aveil, since we know bikur is to do a deep, thorough scrutiny, you have to know the needs of this specific beis aveil. No two battei aveil are alike. No two individuals are alike. They don’t react the same way. Everyone looks different, everybody reacts differently toward a tragedy.
The first thing you have to know is to organize your thoughts (Zohar Hakaddosh, parshas Korach, quoted by Rav Wosner in Yoreh Dei’ah
213) before walking into the beis aveil. one should think: Where am I going now? What are the people like? Don’t just say, “oh, you know what? I’m going out to eat, I’m going out to visit somebody else; let me stop in.” You have to know “tov laleches el beis aveil mileches el beis mishteh,” it’s better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a party. Don’t say, “Before I go to the wedding, let me stop in. Let me fulfill my obligation and pay a ten-minute visit.” No, before you go in, stand outside the house for a moment or two. or better yet, what I try to do is to sit in the car for a little bit and try to assess the situation. Who am I really going to speak to now? Who am I going to comfort? Know the people; know the situation. Did you do your research? Always look at the cards and know that you got the name right. Know that you know how to pronounce the name. Know that when you are going into a beis aveil you did your requisite research. I want to know, was this a father? Was this a mother? What did the father do? What did the mother do? Do your research before you say something wrong. Was this person frum? Were they unfortunately not frum? And certainly if you didn’t have the tools to do the proper research beforehand, at least sit in your car for a minute or two, stand outside the house, collect your thoughts and then walk in the door.
Now you walk in the door. Here we have a halachah. You don’t start speaking until the aveilim start speaking first. And now sometimes you walk into a house and the aveilim are very quiet, whether they are introverted by nature, or perhaps the situation has frozen them to a certain degree, and they just can’t open up. Rav Waldenberg (Tzitz eliezer) describes a situation in which the Chazon Ish, Rav Avraham Yeshayah Karelitz was once walking into a beis aveil and he sensed from the outside that the aveil couldn’t open up. So the Chazon Ish started first.
He also cites Rav Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach, who said that even though, yes, we have a halachah that you don’t open up, if the aveil didn’t open up at all, certainly you can still say “HaMakom yenacheim eschem b’soch she’ar aveilei Tziyon viYerushalayim.”
Let me throw out another question in halachah. I myself have encountered this on more than one occasion. Sometimes you walk into a beis aveil, especially a house where perhaps not everybody is frum or they’re not as frum as you would have expected or hoped for, and they are talking about the latest sports, about the NBA finals. This is very unfortunate; what are they talking about?! This is a beis aveil! It’s certainly not kavod for the niftar, and maybe this is not even appropriate conduct for the aveilim themselves.
Rav Sternbuch writes (Teshuvos V’hanhagos 2:376) that certainly if you are dealing with a case where people are talking about inane, senseless ideas, and certainly if the aveil is sitting there quietly, then you are allowed to say, you know what, I’m going to get the aveil’s attention; you’re allowed to begin talking in such an instance to redirect the course of the conversation and focus on the aveilim and the niftar.
Sometimes in these cases the aveil is sitting there quietly. But I’ve seen cases when they drag the aveil into the conversation, and you
know in your heart of hearts that the aveil really doesn’t want to be talking about the Knicks or the Rangers. He really wants to be talking about his parent, his dear beloved mother or father. In such a case you can redirect and re-channel the conversation because at the end of the day that’s what the aveil really want to speak about.
Part of the idea (Aruch Hashulchan 376; Chafetz Chaim in Ahavas Chesed) is that you want the aveil to establish what the nature of the conversation is going to be like, and you have to try to model this yourself. The way you sit should be in accordance with the appropriate type of sitting at a beis aveil. Your cell phone should be turned off completely. Never think, Oh, what’s the big deal, the phone is ringing, I’ll shut it off. You’re there with the aveil, all of you has to be there with the aveil. And that means if you have a vibrating phone, he’s going to know if you have a vibrating phone. Shut the phone off completely. There’s nothing else going on. Don’t go in as a group. Why do we have halachos that you’re not supposed to shake hands and give a Shalom aleichem to anybody else in a beis aveil? Your focus has to be that you’re here for the aveil.
So you’ve sat there opposite the aveil, and you’re waiting for him or her to start speaking. They open up. Let them talk, give them the opportunity, “da’agah belev ish yasichenah l’acheirim” (worries of the heart are alleviated when shared with others). Let them speak. Let them release their pain, let them express their emotions. You are all there with them. Let your posture somehow model their posture. Let your behavior model where they’re at. Let them lead you and just be there, give them your ear – but more than your ear. give them all of you. And listen. The greatest comfort is that you came, that you weren’t rushing out anywhere, you didn’t look at your watch, you didn’t sense the vibrating phone in your inner jacket pocket. There were no phones and no notes taken out, no other distractions and no looking at the watch. You were all there for them and they got a sense of that. They’ll know that, and that’s what they want more than anything.
How many stories do we have of gedolim who came to pay a shivah visit? Whether it’s Rav Aryeh Levine or Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer, Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, the stories abound. They came, they sat
there and what did they do? They just cried with the aveil. They sat there listening, commiserating, empathizing and sympathizing with the aveil’s pain. That’s really what they want. Be there for me, be there with me in my pain.
So you did that, and you did your initial assessment and your requisite research beforehand. You know exactly what the relationship is, however much you can find out. Be able to come in and say, well, your mother did this and your father accomplished this, and I heard they were part of this organization and this chessed. Let them hear how great their parents were. That itself gives them incredible comfort. Let them hear the praise and positive attributes of their loved one. You are not there to play rabbi to them. You are not there to say, “Well, it’s a kapparah.”
You’re also not there to satisfy your curiosity. I’ve seen people asking, “How old was he? And what did he die of? And how sick was he?” If the aveil wants to talk about that, again, you’ll follow his or her lead. But you’re not there to satisfy your own curiosity. If they want to share it, that’s up to them. Rather, say over the shvach and the ma’alos because it’s good for the niftar, and it’s good for the aveilim themselves. Let them be establish what’s good for themselves. And everybody agrees that what every aveil needs is for you to be with them in their pain.
On that note we move now to the next stage. You were there and you waited until they opened up first. You might follow up with a telephone call, you might follow up with a letter. And you want to try to leave with some divrei nechamah, some comfort. We leave by saying the phrase, “HaMakom yenacheim eschem b’soch she’ar aveilei Tziyon viYerushalayim.” As we discussed earlier, “HaMakom yenacheim eschem” is recognizing first and foremost that Hashem is Mekomo Shel Olam, the all-loving and all merciful HaKaddosh Baruch Hu.
At the same time “yenacheim eschem,” we recognize that we will give the aveil a change of perspective. At the end of the day it’s all good. We’re not here to convince the aveilim how it’s good right now.
That’s something that takes time. We might not know it until the Next World. But right now, our job is to try to give them that basic level of comfort, which will in turn help give them a level of perspective. And then we go on to the end of the line: “…b’soch she’ar aveilei Tziyon viYerushalayim,” together with all the other mourners of Tziyon and Yerushalayim. Why are we bringing up the Churban? Why are we bringing up the mourners of Tziyon and Yerushalayim?
Rav Sternbuch (Teshuvos V’hanhagos 2:378) writes that part of what we are trying to convey is that they’re not the only ones suffering. We’re suffering with them because this to us is like the Churban Habayis. And the same way that all of Klal Yisrael are mourning as we have been for thousands of years, you should know that your loss is a loss for me as well.
Never go in and tell them, “I feel the loss.” It’s not equal. It’s never equal. Sometimes people go to a beis aveil and they say, “Well, you know, she lived until her nineties.” That is a berachah, and sometimes you could mention it if it’s an appropriate setting and an appropriate time; for example, “Wow, how did she merit such a long life? Was it kibbud av va’eim? Was it not speaking lashon hara? Tell me about what made her special.” But at the same time, you have to recognize going in as well that a Yiddishe mamma is a Yiddishe mamma. Whether she was nifteres, Rachmana litzlan, at a young age of fifty, at sixty, at seventy, whether it was at eighty, ninety, one hundred or 120 – a Yiddishe mamma is a Yiddishe mamma and a Yiddishe tatte is a Yiddishe tatte. I’ve gone to shivah homes, and it could be a seventy-year-old person sitting shivah for a one hundred-year-old parent, but a parent is a parent, a relative is a relative, and they always feel pain.
In addition, we can never feel the pain that they are feeling. But at the same time, writes Rav Sternbuch, we want to try to convey to them that we are attached to them in this pain because at the end of the day we’re all Klal Yisrael and “kol Yisrael areivim zeh lazeh,” all Jews are responsible for one another. Just as we’re mourning for the Churban, we’re mourning right now together with you. We’re mourning with all the other aveilei Tziyon viYerushalayim. And, adds Rav Sternbuch, not just are we mourning with you, but this is all connected to the loss. The fact that we don’t have Mashiach, the fact that we don’t have techiyas hameisim, it’s all emanating from the fact that we don’t have a Beis Hamikdash. At the same time, just like we don’t understand this ongoing harsh and bitter exile, so too, we can’t understand why you have to be suffering the way you are suffering.
Regardless of the age, regardless of the ailment, the infirmity, at the end of the day we don’t really understand everything. Don’t try to play the rabbi. Certainly don’t try to play HaKaddosh Baruch Hu – oh, this happened because of this reason. That’s not what you are there for. That’s between them and the eibershter – and if they want to speak it over with the rabbanim, there’s a time and a place.
You’re there with one primary focus. of paramount concern in the beis aveil is how to show these aveilim that you’re there with them, for them, that you feel their pain. You want to try to lift them up by letting them know, “I’m here for you – but I’m not just here for you now, I’m always here for you.”
When was the last time you paid a shivah visit that you gave a follow-up phone call? Did you write a follow-up letter? What about follow-up calls after the shivah? A lot of people say, “oh, shivah is over. Well, I got it in.” There are halachic questions about going on the first day, going in the first three days. But let’s say you timed it right and you went between day three and seven, and maybe you even went back for a second visit. Now the shivah is over; what about follow-up? If you really care, show the person that when you came it wasn’t just to fulfill your obligation, but that you commiserate and feel their pain and are there with them.
What about a follow-up visit when shivah ended? Did you go ahead and say, “Maybe I can still reach out. What does the person need?” Tell them, “I’m here with you, and I will always be here for you.” That’s what we want to convey. HaKaddosh Baruch Hu loves you. Hashem is always here for you, and so too, I will always be here for you, to comfort you. I will make myself available, and do whatever I can do. Please let me know. You want to schmooze about it? You want to go out for a cup of coffee? You want me to stop by? Whatever I can do, I will always be here for you.
We mentioned giving divrei nechamah (words of comfort) before leaving the beis aveil. one thing that I feel is very poignant, something that’s always moved me a lot, is a beautiful letter that Rav Yitzchak Hutner wrote to a student in the midst of shivah (Iggros U’kesavim, Pachad Yitzchak 242). Rav Hutner quotes the words of Chazal, “bera kara d’avuah,” that a son is literally the knee, the extension, the leg of his father. What exactly were Chazal trying to convey? Why is the son the leg? Why not the arm, the eye, or any other limb? You could have selected any limb of the body and said that the son is the continuation of the father. Yet Chazal, with their choice terminology, are trying to convey a much deeper thought and a far more profound message.
Rav Hutner writes so beautifully to explain this: The Gemara (Berachos 61a) tells us that to a living person who departs we say leich l’Shalom, go to peace. As the Gra, the Maharsha and others explain, you are always going toward peace, toward sheleimus, completion. l’Shalom doesn’t just mean a blanket statement of peace. It conveys the greater statement of peace between himself, his Creator and his friends – all-around, all-encompassing sheleimus. leich l’Shalom. go toward sheleimus. Why? Because you are holeich, you are always on the move.
But what do we say to a meis, a person who passes away? We don’t say leich l’Shalom, but rather, leich b’Shalom, go in peace. As the Maharsha and others explain, go in a state of peace. There’s no more opportunity for growth. No more opportunity for learning Torah, for mitzvos; this is what it means, “hayom la’asos u’machar l’kabel sachar (today is to do and tomorrow is to receive remuneration). So when a person passes away, we say leich b’Shalom, go in your current state of peace to bask in your reward.
Where do we see the point of distinction between l’Shalom and b’Shalom? Are you a holeich (going) or are you an omeid (standing)? The navi Zecharyah tells us (3:7), “V’nasati lecha mahalchim bein ha’omdim ha’eileh.” A person in this world has to be like a tzaddik, who is defined by the navi as a holeich. He’s on the move, he’s on the go, he’s always going up the ladder in ruchniyus (spirituality). As the Gra writes in Mishlei, if you’re not going up, then you’re going down. You have to be moving; you can’t be just standing in the same place.
What happens when a person passes away? You can talk about how they did so much, and you want to repeatedly convey to the aveil what a spectacular, remarkable role model this parent was because look at what they accomplished as a holeich in life. And not only that, but based on what they did, look how they’ve inspired others, whether directly or indirectly. “And you know what?” you can say, “They’ve inspired me.”
Let them know that your life has been changed. And if your own life hasn’t been changed until now, tell them how much of the lessons you’ve learned from the niftar you’ve now inculcated and ingrained within yourself – and that henceforth you’re going to change because of the life that their relative lived as a holeich.
But now, let’s go back to Rav Hutner. It’s true that when they lived they accomplished a, b, c, and d. give the aveilim that comfort, let them know what pleasure they can take from having such wonderful role models that they could emulate throughout the course of a lifetime. But at the end of the day, the niftar is in Gan eden. And yes, they have no pain, and yes, based on their merits they’re basking in the glory of the Shechinah. But they are not a holeich any longer. However, you children are bera kara d’avuah. The ko’ach halichah, the power of going forward, is ingrained in what? Not in the eyes, not in the hands, rather, it is specifically in the legs, which have knees, as opposed to the angels in g-d’s celestial court. They don’t have knees, so they can’t jump; they fly, they have wings, but they’re not holchim. They are described by the navi as omdim, as nitzavim, as idle, as motionless. They don’t have free choice. They are not growing.
So yes, this person was a holeich in the course of his incredible lifetime, but now he is an omeid. However, he left you, the dear beloved children, and you’re following in his ways. That’s a nichum that you can give.
on the one hand, look at your amazing parents. Look at what they accomplished as illustrious role models for not only you, the family, but also for others. But what about the nechamah to the niftar? Don’t worry, they’re still holeich. Look at the children they produced! Look at the aveilim you now came to be menacheim. Find something; they might not be the greatest people, but everybody’s got positive qualities. Find something great in these people and say, “Ah, I see your parents in you.”
That’s the greatest comfort – not just you’re doing great things, but I see you’re doing great things because of the parents you had. I see your parents in you. You’re perpetuating their legacy. Not just because you’re taking a name of a dear parent, and baruch Hashem you’re going to give it to a child, and im yirtzeh Hashem you should have simchos this year. (giving birth to a son within the year of aveilus brings atonement and comfort to the whole family [Yerushalmi, Mo’ed Kattan, Bamidbar Rabbah]).
But you know what? Beyond perpetuating the legacy by merely giving over a name, and far more importantly, you’re living by their ideals, you’re carrying on their messages. You’re carrying on their life work. You’re carrying out their core essence, what they were like.
Your parents didn’t stop being a holeich, since bera kara d’avuah, concludes Harav Hutner. The son is the metaphorical leg, the continuity, that perpetuity of what the parent was all about. As Rav Eliyahu guttmacher writes (Sukkas Shalom), saying Kaddish is very great and being a sheli’ach tzibbur is as well. But more valuable than all of them is doing mitzvos and of course, learning Torah, which is equal to all the other mitzvos. Learning Torah publically is the greatest nechamah and the greatest nachas ru,ach (pleasure) that you can bring for the neshamah of the niftar.
Yes, to the niftar we might have said leich b’Shalom, go in peace. But in essence it’s really leich l’Shalom because you are the kara d’avuah, you’re the figurative legs that carry on your parent’s noble work and all their accomplishments.
And tell the aveilim, “I see you continuing.” give them that push, give them that encouragement. The more they continue doing what they’re doing, the more they’ll give the greatest nachas ruach because that’s what allows the parents to continue onward. Your parents are really alive and well, as they always will be.
“Tzaddikim afilu b’misasam keruyim chayim” (righteous people, even in their deaths are called living) (Berachos 18b). This is especially so when their wonderful, remarkable children continue their noble life’s work. That nachas ruach (spiritual pleasure) will enable and empower the continuous ascent of that holy neshamah in Gan eden.
One of the most difficult and heart-wrenching scenarios is when one is presented with a mitzvah of nichum aveilim to parents – and very often young parents – who are sitting shivah for, lo aleinu, a child. Based on my work as a rav in Chai Lifeline’s Camp Simcha,
unfortunately, there are far too many cases — and even one case is already too many. When a young child loses his or her life in their fledgling years, often it’s due to cancer or sometimes it could be due to an accident, but regardless of the source of death, this is one of the most painful losses conceivable and imaginable to mankind.
So how does one enter such a beis aveil and do the
right thing? I think it’s important, first and foremost, that you follow the halachah to wait until they begin speaking and thus give you the direction.
Again, and it can never be emphasized enough, let them know that you’re there with their pain. You’re there commiserating, sympathizing with them, whether tears are coming down, or they see emotionally that you are fully there with them in the moment of nichum aveilim.
We can’t understand, we don’t understand. You’re not here to play the Ribbono Shel Olam. And you’re not there to ever tell them this is a kapparah (an atonement) for this and that. That’s between them and Hashem. You’re there to be their friend. You’re there to be their comforter. And what they need now is a listening ear. Let them talk about the wonderful attributes, the characteristics, the aptitudes, the talents of their dear child. Listen with an attentive, captivated ear. give them all of you, all of your attention, and let them lead you by the hand.
Follow their lead and talk yourself, especially if you did the requisite research beforehand. Talk about what was special about this child. And maybe make some inquiries before you walk in the door. Tell them, “I heard that your child did this, I heard your child was like that.”
What if it was a child at a young age, and they weren’t in school, and you couldn’t pick up any little stories? You can say I heard about their smile, I heard about their warmth, I heard about the way they
sang, the way they danced, the way they were at the Shabbos table, the way, they did their parshah sheets. Whatever the case is, you found out something, and you can highlight that. Tell them, “We’ll never forget how your child’s smile lit up the room, the way your child just looked at people or made other people laugh.”
Highlight those positive traits; let them know what an amazing child they had: “Wow, you guys must have done an amazing job in raising such a spectacular child! How lucky this child was to have parents like you. Even though it wasn’t for that long, HaKaddosh Baruch Hu decided that you were going to be the choice parents to raise this lofty neshamah.”
And yes, the Ramban (Sha’ar Hagemul) talks about gilgul neshamos (reincarnation of souls), when a child dies young and innocent before bar or bas mitzvah. We don’t understand gilgul, but what we do understand is that Hashem Yisbarach decided that you are the best parents in the world for Hashem to entrust with this lofty neshamah, which was going to be taken away prematurely, before the age of bar or bas mitzvah. Hashem took them away in their pure, pristine state. All they have are zechuyos merubos (great merit). All they have are mitzvos and ma’asim tovim, good things in their backpack, as they go on their journey to Gan eden to reside under the Kisei Hakavod (the Throne of glory). They are there with the Ribbono Shel Olam strolling in Gan eden. Hashem says, “I’m bringing them closer to Me than ever before.” Can you imagine? You must have been such amazing, amazing parents. I can’t imagine your pain, I can’t imagine your suffering, and I know that your loss is irreplaceable.
At the same time, dear parents, its amazing.
Hashem gave you this nisayon, this test, this challenge, and for some
reason He decided you’re the best parents in the world. And from what I heard about your son, from what I
heard about your daughter, now I can see it. You were the best parents in the world for them. And Hashem Yisbarach decided that whether it’s for that one year or two years or three, four, five years, Hashem decided that this holy neshamah, which was going to do so many great things, should be entrusted to these two people.
One idea the often comes to mind is an idea expressed by the Piaseczna Rebbe, Rav Klonimus Kalman Shapiro (Sefer Aish Kodesh, parshas Chayei Sarah.) The Gemara (Maseches Berachos 5a) tells us that “Ne’emar bris b’yissurim v’ne’emar bris b’melach,” the concept of a bris appears in conjunction to suffering and appears likewise in conjunction to salt. “Mah melach memasekes es habasar,” just as salt sweetens up the meat, so too yissurim are memarchin gufo shel adam. The suffering comes, and it cleanses all the impurities and imperfections; they cleanse the human soul.
The Piaseczna Rebbe then asks the following question (let’s keep in mind that this is a Rebbe who himself died at a young age, who was witness in the Warsaw ghetto to his students, his loved ones, dying in full view of himself. He saw the most fearful measures of suffering) in the name of Rav Menachem Mendel of Riminov: Why is suffering similar to salt? What’s unique about salt? Salt is put into the meat to get rid of the impurity and not allow any bacteria to come in. If you put in too much salt, you’re going to ruin the piece of meat. If it’s too salty, no one is interested in tasting it. But at the same time, if you put in too little salt, then you won’t achieve a perfected state of that piece of meat. So too, HaKaddosh Baruch Hu is the ultimate chef. He is the connoisseur, Who, so to speak, is cooking up the world. Hashem Yisbarach, with His infinite wisdom, knows to give an individual the precise measure of yissurim. He won’t give you one ounce more than you can handle because He doesn’t want to break you, because He loves you too much. But from the other side of the coin, from yet a different perspective, Hashem says that I want to bring out gadlus, greatness, in this person, in this young couple, in this family. And for some reason, in His infinite wisdom, Hashem gave you an incredible neshamah and then took it away so prematurely to give you this pain. But we know that if it’s not pain that you could handle, then Hashem wouldn’t give it to you.
There is a famous Ramban in several places, starting with the end of parshas Vayeira in connection with Akeidas Yitzchak. A nisayon is “neis l’hisnoseis bo,” it’s to lift you up high. And at the same time, as the Ramchal and others describe, Hashem is holding you up high, and He says, look what I’m selling, look at this Yiddishkeit, look at these people. I gave them a glorious special neshamah to care for. I entrusted these amazing people with this holy, pure, pristine neshamah, and look at them, look at this test and still look at their frumkeit (observance), look at their ehrlichkeit (sincerity). Look at how they are growing from this suffering. Look at these special people, look at their connection to the eibershter. Look at these anashim gedolim ad me’od (very great people).
Hashem Yisbarach picks His best. And you’re right, sometimes that’s hard. And many people say, “I don’t want to be the best; Hashem, don’t love me too much. I just want to be like every Tom, Dick and Harry. You know what? Let me just have my wife and let me have my two, three, four kids. Let me be able to pay their tuitions, let me be able to pay the bills, pay the electric bill and be able to have my set time to learn Torah; I’ll learn my two to three hours at night. Let me have my livelihood. g-d, I’ve got a good plan; this is what I envisioned. I’ll be an ehrlicher Yid (sincere Jew), and life will be great.” And you know what? Sometimes Hashem Yisbarach says, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Reuven, Shimon, Levi. I’m sorry Tom, Dick, and Harry. I don’t want you to be a regular guy. You’re not a regular Joe.” Hashem Yisbarach is only testing the very best; He’s only going to give it to somebody who could handle it. If He gives it to some average Joe, it’s going to break him. He’s giving it to the best people that He can hold up on high on that neis l’hisnoseis bo, on that staff. People who can serve as role models to all of Klal Yisrael and say look how I gave these people the biggest slap conceivable to mankind. I took away their child, and still look how they stay close to Me. This is gadlus. I want to be around people like you.
What was that test that made Avraham Avinu, the father of Yiddishkeit, who he was? It was Akeidas Yitzchak, a display, a readiness, a willingness to lose his son, to lose a child. Where is the first time we encounter in the Torah the idea of ahavah, love? The Rambam points out in Moreh Nevuchim that the first mention of ahavah in the pages of Chumash is, “Kach na es bincha es yechidcha asher ahavta es Yitzchak” (Please take your son, your only child, whom you love, Yitzchak). The first person loved on the pages of Chumash is a child. That’s paradigmatic of what unconditional love is all about. Regardless of if a person has a family of five, six, seven children, never lose sight. They could have many other children, but losing one child, that’s losing a world. It says if you save one life, you saved a world. Every child is a world unto his own. Never tell a parent, “oh, you have other kids, other nachas.”
Every child is “kach na es bincha es yechidcha asher ahavta es Yitzchak,” as precious as Yitzchak, that one, beloved son of Avraham Avinu. Every child is loved. Avraham Avinu became Avraham, became an individual who could start out Klal Yisrael, the Jewish nation. He starts out Klal Yisrael because what he felt for his son Yitzchak was the beginning, the underpinnings of what Klal Yisrael is all about: ahavah she’einah teluyah b’davar, how a father loves a child unconditionally. If the eibershter decides to take this child away, Hashem nassan Hashem lakach (Hashem gave and Hashem took), then I accept it. It hurts, it’s painful, and nothing can ever fill that void, but at the same time, Hashem only tests the Avraham Avinus amongst us. He only picks the best of the best.
We don’t understand the eibershter; down here there are a lot of questions with no answers, but upstairs there are no questions. You see everything with a clarity. until we get to Gan eden, we just don’t know. But what we do know is that if Hashem gave you this incredible, unfathomable nisayon, it’s because you are two amazing people who give endless nachas to the Creator and who will continue to give nachas. You’re going to continue that legacy of that wonderful, dear, smiling child, of that amazing child, who himself or herself might have endured tremendous suffering, but now that child is in the highest of highs in Gan eden Shel Ma’alah. And you, together with one another, will serve as role models for all of Klal Yisrael.
How could you handle it? I don’t know how anybody could handle it. But if Hashem Yisbarach in His infinite wisdom gave it to you, it’s because He knows that in the recesses of your heart you can handle it, and you will handle it and you’re going to grow as you are growing already. And Hashem is going to give you that strength to carry on, to inspire one another, to strengthen one another and to strengthen and inspire so many people in your community and beyond.
You’re going to be those role models for so many years to come, until that day when Hashem takes your holy neshamos and rejoins them with that holy neshamah that you lost years previous, so together you’ll be metayel (stroll) for all of eternity in Gan eden Shel Ma’alah.
Hashem Yisbarach should give you the ko’ach (strength) and the nechamah amitis bekarov (true comfort speedily). And im yirtzeh Hashem we should come together for only simchos, especially together with you, such incredible, special, amazing people that never stop for a second giving endless nachas ru’ach to the Borei Olam. You should have the ko’ach to carry on meichayil l’chayil (from strength to strength) for many happy and healthy years up ahead.
- When we are menacheim aveil, it is a dual mitzvah of gemilus chassadim – chessed with the aveil and chessed with the niftar.
- We can comfort the aveil by helping him strengthen his emunah. By helping the aveil to accept the din, we are en- couraging him.
Although it is painful that we can’t see the niftar, it’s really like he’s just travelled overseas on business; it’s actually beneficial for him, while sad for the loved ones he left behind.
- It’s important to prepare what you want to say before going to be menacheim aveil. If you don’t have the proper words, don’t say anything.
- According to many poskim, the aveil can say hello when answering the phone, as it is just a way to start the conversation.
- We cover the mirrors in a beis aveil because looking at oneself brings happiness, which is not appropriate during shivah. In the same vein, we do not bring young children to a shivah house.
- When a person sits shivah, he should also think of the pain of HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, who is far from Yerushalayim and His Beis Hamikdash. And indeed, all pain and loss that we have stems from the Churban Beis Hamikdash.
• The source for nichum aveilim is either from the passuk of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,” loving your fellow Jew, or from the passuk of “achar Hashem elokeichem teileichu,” emulating the attributes of Hashem. Whichever is the source, your degree of success in offering comfort hinges on how well you carry out these directives: How much do I love my fellow Jew? How closely do I follow in Hashem’s ways?
• Only Hashem can bring true comfort. When we say “HaMakom yenacheim eschem…” to the aveil, we are admitting that we cannot facilitate the comfort the aveil seeks. But these words are also reassuring. “HaMakom” – Hashem can be found everywhere, and He will not only bring comfort but turn the pain into berachah.
• The word “yenacheim” means “will bring comfort.” Why is this in the future tense? This teaches us that achieving true nechamah is a process, something that will happen.
• The role of the menacheim is to validate the aveil’s suffering and share it with him. Just coming and listening can accomplish this. Crying with the aveil creates a bond between the aveil and the niftar.
• Be extra sensitive when you do speak to the aveil. Prepare what you would like to say beforehand.
• According to Rav Dessler, real nechamah is a neis, so only Hashem can make it happen. Time doesn’t heal. only Hashem does. By lightening the load of the aveil, the menacheim is helping the person to embrace Hashem and achieve nechamah. It is therefore important not to distract the aveil from his pain but rather to validate it.
• Sensitivity is key. Turn off your cellphone before going in to a shivah house, and don’t come in dressed for a simchah.
• The art of giving nechamah comes from a culture of giving. You should show you care for others and that you follow in Hashem’s ways on a regular basis to hone these middos.
• Nichum aveilim is part of the mitzvah of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,” loving your fellow Jew, and takes precedence over other mitzvos in this category, such as bikur cholim and hachnasas kallah, visiting the sick and providing for the needs of a poor bride.
• There are different levels of the mitzvah, beginning from simply going to the aveil’s house, to saying the “HaMakom,” to actually offering words of comfort. When speaking, one must be sensitive to the aveil, particularly when the niftar died suddenly or in a tragic ways.
• Follow the lead of the aveil – whether to speak or to listen quietly, what to speak about, how to speak, etc.
• Don’t try to calm or soothe the mourner; rather, express empathy.
• When people refrain from coming to be menacheim aveil
because they are uncomfortable, it causes the family pain.
• If you’re not sure if what you want to say will be helpful, it’s better not to say it. Active listening is helpful. Speak softly and gently. Share stories about the niftar.
• When a family suffers a tragedy, pay attention not only to the parents, but also to the children, who are very much affected.
• The aveil should think what he can do to help himself or others and not wallow in his pain. Channeling one’s grief into productive action can be very helpful.
• Children are a gift; they do not belong to us.
• Every kind of loss is different, whether it is sudden, after a prolonged illness, etc.
• When young children die, it’s beyond our understanding and certainly not because we are being punished. Rather, Hashem looks for special guardians with whom He can entrust His most special neshamos.
• The neshamos of young children who have never sinned are like korbanos to Hashem.
• We can’t understand what happened because there is a bigger picture starting from the time of Adam Harishon, which is beyond us. one shouldn’t stress himself trying to understand; rather, accept that it’s beyond you.
• Hashem infuses a person with kochos to accept the situation he is given.
• The pain does subside with time.
• One’s faith and trust in Hashem can allow a person to move forward.
• Couples who have suffered a stillbirth or miscarriage don’t want to be treated differently. “Treat me normally; I am normal.”
• It’s worse to avoid one who has suffered such a loss even if you have an infant with you, which could be a trigger for her.
• Don’t mention the loss until she starts talking about it. This way you’ll know where she stands.
• At family get-togethers or simchahs, don’t hide your newborns. She knows about them anyway, and this will bring more pain. Take your cues from her in terms of how she would like to interact with you and your baby.
• Don’t give a time limit for mourning and for getting back to regular functioning.
• Even if you personally experienced a similar loss, don’t equate it with someone else’s experience. Each person deals with her situation in a unique way.
• Being a good listener is the best thing you can do to help a friend or relative in this situation.
• It’s important for men to realize that they have a different way of dealing with loss in general, and particularly this kind of loss, in which there was no physical attachment for them.
• It might be hard for the woman to discuss her feelings with her parents or in-laws. She might want her space and not wish to stay over at their homes.
• One rule: There is no rule. Every couple copes differently.
• Don’t minimize the pain of miscarriage by saying, “It was only a miscarriage…”
• All of taryag mitzvos are contained within the basic storyline of the written Torah, the Torah shebichtav.
• The massive treasures in the Torah shebichtav are hidden in the oral Torah, the Torah shebe’al peh. This is the heartbeat of the Torah.
• Mishnah comes from the same root as teeth, which are used for chewing. This is done repeatedly and is the way one shows he enjoys his food. In the same way, Mishnah is the repetition of the entire Torah shebe’al peh. The more one reviews it, the more he is showing he enjoys it and the more he has access to the vast treasures within the Torah.
• Rebbi Yehuda Hanasi wrote the mishnayos in a cryptic way so that you’re forced to ask questions. We depend on a mesorah of live people. It’s not enough just to learn from sefarim. Rebbi Yehuda Hanasi wrote down mishnayos because he saw with Divine inspiration that otherwise it would be forgotten.
• Mishnah and neshamah have the same four Hebrew letters
– mem, shin, nun and heih. The neshamah is what fuels our minds, which is who we are and is the linchpin between us and Hashem. Mishnah is also the linchpin that links us and Hashem; it’s the link between Torah shebichtav and Torah shebe’al peh, allowing us to connect, so to speak, to the mindset of Hashem.
• The linchpin between Chumash and Halachah, which tells us how to do the will of Hashem, is Mishnah. Mishnah actually changes us and changes the way we think and see things.
• Rebbi Yehuda Hanasi organized the seemingly arbitrary inclusion of taryag mitzvos within the text of Torah shebe’al peh in an extraordinary way: six sections (sedarim) made up of sixty-three tractates (masechtos), divided into chapters (perakim) and then divided further into paragraphs, each paragraph being one Mishnah.
• Today, learning mishnayos is a whole new obligation because it has been elucidated to such a degree.
• The main thing when learning mishnayos is to learn it systematically and to do constant chazzarah – review.
• Every Gemara is assuming you know all of mishnayos because there is so much cross-referencing. At least learn the mishnayos on the masechta of the Gemara that you are going to learn before doing so. The more mishnayos a person knows, the better he’ll understand the Gemara.
• Mishnah is learned more than any other subject l’iluy nishmas a departed loved one. It not only helps us get clarity about Torah shebichtav, but it actually feeds the neshamah.
• The purpose of all that we learn is in order to know how to do the mitzvos, to know how to do the will of Hashem.
• Rav Yosef Karo merited to author the Shulchan Aruch because he constantly learned mishnayos.
• Torah shebe’al peh is the proof of our special relationship with Hashem.
• In the merit of learning mishnayos, will come the ingathering of the exiles and then the coming of Mashiach, both of which will precede techiyas hameisim.
• Waiting for the aveil to speak is derech eretz, as it guides the comforter in knowing what to speak about.
• Nichum aveilim is so important that it precedes bikur cholim because it offers comfort to the mourners and to the deceased.
• The goal is to benefit the mourner, to help him feel better.
It is so important to think when you come to be menacheim aveil what you’re supposed to say and what you’re not supposed to say. Chazal tell us that you have to wait until the aveil starts to speak before you can speak. Perhaps it’s because we want to know what’s on the aveil’s mind. For someone to bring a new subject to speak about, something else, is not hilchos derech eretz – it’s not respectful; that’s why you have to wait until he speaks, so that you know what to speak about.
It’s so important when you leave a home of mourning to think – what did you gain from it, what did the people that you came to menacheim aveil gain? Did they hear a good vort from you? Did they hear something that can be said over?
And it’s very important to go away with something, with a hisorerus, some kind of inspiration. The first hisorerus is that the inyan of nichum aveilim itself is a very big mitzvah. The Rambam says, “Yir’eh li – it appears to me – if a person has two mitzvos, nechamas aveilim and bikur cholim, nechamas aveilim is earlier, before. Why? Because ‘Im hachayim v’im hameisim.’ It’s a mitzvah done with the living, as well as the one who passed away. So you’re menacheim an aveil, and at the same time you’re menacheim the meis itself. Perhaps it’s only in the house that he lived in. We don’t know exactly the guidelines, but it’s clear that you help people when you come and you partake in their problems or in this case, the tza’ar, the pain, of the aveil. So that is the greatest mitzvah. The greatest mitzvah is not to think just about yourself. And don’t think just about the mitzvah either. The mitzvah is to be menacheim an aveil, to make him feel a little better.
It’s so important that they usually have a chart of mishnayos [in the shivah house] to learn mishnayos l’zecher the niftar or nifteres, which is a great zechus. Mishnah is osiyos neshamah; they are both comprised of the letters mem, shin, nun and hei. Therefore it’s proper to speak also about Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah. It is an appropriate time to learn mishnayos when you speak about an aveil and speak about aveilus. And the other organization [NASCK] is a chevrah vos is ubertohn, an organization that is involved in many important matters. I know they involve themselves in all the dinei aveilus, all the laws of aveilus; when it comes to practices that are shelo k’halachah, that are not halachically acceptable, they want to investigate, and they’re involved completely to try to prevent issurim, to prevent inappropriate things from happening. So it’s a gevaldige chesed to have a connection to this organization. It’s an organization that helps others and thinks about others. Both matters, mishnayos and nichum aveilim, are so connected because mishnah is osiyos neshamah – it’s talking about a neshamah, it’s talking about the parting of the neshamah from the body, the guf. And it’s a great chesed to help both organizations.
They should have a kiyum, and they should be zocheh to mitzvos, freiliche, happy mitzvos. They should have mitzvos and nachas from their mishpachos. This is a gevaldige mitzvah.
- Be very sensitive in the presence of the aveil. At the shivah, the aveil is the focus.
- Speak about the niftar. If you didn’t know him or her, ask the aveil to tell you about their loved one or to recount what the maspidim, those who gave eulogies, said at the funeral.
- Writing a letter after the shivah can be meaningful and an easier way to express oneself. It is something the aveilim can pull out and look at again and again. Many people save these letters and look at them every year on the yahrtzeit.
- Don’t ask about the niftar’s illness or how he died.
- Never say, “I know how you feel,” especially when someone has lost a child.
- Don’t stay at the shivah too long.
- Don’t stare at the aveil.
- Don’t forget about the aveil after shivah, but respect their privacy. Just let them know you care and that you are there should they need you.
- When a spouse is niftar, make sure the family still has parnassah, a way to support themselves as they did when the niftar was alive.
Its All About Them
I would like to thank you dear friends Rabbi Moshe Haikins and Rabbi Elchonon Zohn for inviting me to speak to all of you on this very, very important topic of nichum aveilim.
I would like to tell you a very interesting Gemara and just give you my perspective on it. The Gemara in Yevamos (79a) says, “Sheloshah simanim yeish b’umah zu,” there are three signs, three characteristics, of this nation, the Jewish nation. One is rachmanim, they are compassionate, caring people. The second is baishanim, they’re sensitive, understated and modest. And the third is gomlei chassadim, they do favors. Now, the order of these three characteristics is very interesting. I would have thought that perhaps it should be in a different order because when one is a rachman, he is doing something for someone else. When one is a gomel chessed, when he does favors, he is doing something for somebody else; I would have imagined those two should have been together. Baishanim is saying somebody is modest, somebody is sensitive. That’s a characteristic about a person himself, not something he’s doing to somebody else. So why is baishanim right there in the middle: rachmanim, baishanim, v’gomlei chassadim? I think Chazal are telling us something very important.
When you do a favor for someone, whether you are visiting the sick, offering comfort to an aveil, or you lend money, understand that the beneficiary is a baishan, he’s so sensitive. That’s right in the middle of all the chessed that you’re doing. You’re being a rachman, you’re being a gomel chessed, that’s great; but just remember the person who is the recipient. He’s sensitive, he’s modest, he’s got feelings, and you can’t make him feel like your lulav and esrog, like your “special mitzvah.” You can’t do a favor or do a mitzvah and make him feel that he’s the recipient of it. You have to be sensitive, and that’s why this is sandwiched right in the middle.
I think this is very important when we speak about nichum aveilim. You’re coming to the home of people who are so sad. They’ve lost either a parent, a sibling, or, Rachmana litzlan, a child. It’s terrible; the world has ended for them. You have to be sensitive about the way you dress, the way you speak, the way you act in the presence of aveilim.
I want to share with you an amazing thing, the Mesilas Yesharim (ch. 20) has a topic called mishkal hachassidus, the manner in which to weigh piety and kindness. He says like this: “Mah shetzarich l’havin ki ein ladun divrei hachassidus, al mar’eihen harishon,” what you
have to understand is that one doesn’t determine matters of kindness, piousness (which is really what chassidus means) at first glance; “ela, tzarich l’ayein u’l’hisbonein ad heichan hama’asim magiyos,” rather, you have to see what the result will be and how far your actions are going to reach. “Ki lif ’amim hama’aseh b’atzmo yeira’eh tov,” because some- times it looks like you’re doing a good thing – you’re coming to visit a sick person or you’re coming to be menacheim aveil; “u’lefi shehatoldos ra’os,” but because the outcome is bad, because after you leave the person feels worse than when you came there; “yischayeiv l’hanicho,” you shouldn’t do it altogether; “v’im ya’aseh oso yihiyeh chotei v’lo chassid,” and if you act in a certain way that you make either the sick person or the aveil feel terrible, you’re a sinner, not a pious person.
That’s teaching us a great lesson. When you walk into the aveil’s home, he is the focus or she is the focus, not you. You don’t begin talking about what you went through. That’s not what we’re here for; we’re not telling your stories. We are talking only about the aveil. And so I want to give you some guidelines that I think are so important when we come to be menacheim aveil.
The First thing is to remember to talk about the nifter. If you knew the person, then you can share some memories. Was it a rebbi of yours, a friend of yours? Was it somebody who you davened with in shul and you were impressed with him? Did you work with the person? Any connection that you had is a wonderful way to begin to talk to the aveil. Sometimes you have a good friend or even a relative who is sitting shivah, and you really didn’t know the person who has passed away. So then a great question to ask is, “Tell me something about the person. What do you think was so important about him or her? What did the maspidim, the ones who gave eulogies, say?”
Again, you’re not focusing on the illness that you had that was similar to what the niftar suffered from; nobody cares, and even more important, it’s not relevant. The only thing to talk about is the niftar, not about the Yankees and the Mets, and not about all your friends that are gathering. Sometimes a nichum aveilim home looks like a club. Everyone is coming there; all that’s missing is the beer and pretzels. That’s not what it’s all about. What it’s all about is talking about the niftar. And again, if you don’t know about the niftar, ask what the maspidim said.
You know what's another beautiful thing? There are many people who cannot express their thoughts verbally; sometimes they come to an aveil’s home, and they just can’t say how much that person really meant. Either they’re embarrassed, or they’re not eloquent enough.
Write the aveil a letter! You cannot imagine how many people receive these letters weeks and months after the person who was dear to them passed away, and they saved these letters. They put them in an album and read them on the yahrtzeit. I remember one of the greatest educators that ever lived, longtime principal of Yeshivat Ateret Torah, Rebbetzin Zahava Braunstein, alehah haShalom – what a great lady she was. I had the opportunity to speak on the same programs with her many, many times. of course, when she was nifteres, I came to be menacheim aveil. Her family showed me that so many people wrote letters, so many students and colleagues and other principals. They saved these letters, and now they read them on every single yahrtzeit. What a beautiful way to express your feelings, and it is so memorable for the family.
You know what a lot of people do? They ask questions about the illness. Who cares? It’s over, right? What’s the difference who the doctor was and what’s the difference how the illness started, and how Hatzolah came — that’s not what it’s about. The person lived sixty, seventy years, and even if they lived less, the main thing is their life, not how they died and how they were sick. Those are irrelevant questions and are sometimes very painful for the family to relive. So don’t pry about that; that’s not really what the person was all about.
Never, ever, criticize the doctor that they had. All of us know wonderful doctors, and unfortunately, there are doctors that are not so great. So don’t say, you should have had another doctor, should have taken this health treatment, should have gone to that country where they have a certain medication. That’s the wrong thing to say, even if you mean it well. The next time you know someone that’s sick, tell it not to the sick person, tell it to the family, but here at the beis aveil that’s not the thing to do.
You know what people say – and it’s terrible: “I know how you feel.” That is awful. Don’t tell me you know how that person feels. Some- body who was very close to her mother loses her mother. If you haven’t lost your mother, you can’t say you know how they feel. And the worst of all is chas v’Shalom if someone has lost a child, you cannot tell them, “I know how you feel” because you don’t know. A spouse– how could you tell anyone you know how they feel, if you’re still married. Baruch Hashem, we should all always be married until 120. “I know how you feel” is just a very insensitive thing to say.
You know what the Rambam tells us? Its an incredible Rambam; I love this Rambam. The Rambam is teaching us how to be menacheim aveil. The Rambam tells us in Hilchos Aveil (ch. 13:3): “Keiztad menachamim es ha’aveilim?” – How are you supposed to comfort the mourner? You talk and you speak about the person, as we said, and, “v’keivan shena’anei’a b’rosho,” as soon as the aveil makes a motion with his head; “shuv ein hamenachamin rasha’in leisheiv etzlo,” then don’t sit there anymore – you shouldn’t stay too long; “shelo yatrichuhu yoser midai,” so that you should not trouble him too much. You know, Benjamin Franklin had an expression, “Fish and visitors smell after three days.” Well, no one is going to be menacheim aveil for three days, but the point is that there is a limit to how long you should be there.
I remember when my mother, alehah haShalom, was nifteres. She was a great lady, and I had so much to say, and there were so many people who had wonderful things to say. There was a fellow, a lovely guy, who sat there for two days in a row. I didn’t mind because he was sitting in the back. It’s not that he sat up front; he just wanted to hear about my mother, which was very impressive to me. But otherwise, if you’re right up front by the aveilim – twenty minutes, that’s it, unless they really want you to stay. If not, you have to curtail it. That’s what the Rambam is telling us: don’t be a burden on the aveilim.
Another thing: Don;t stare. If you have nothing to say, come, say “HaMakom yenacheim,” and be out of there. Sometimes, there is just nothing to say. I remember,
Rachmana litzlan, a fellow I was friendly with was killed, unfortunately, in a terrible, tragic accident. And his wife told me afterward that people came, and they would just sit there and stare at her and stare at the kids, and it was so uncomfortable. They didn’t know what to say. And it’s true, many children, teenagers and younger, and even adults, don’t know what to say. So you just come, and you’re there for them for a few minutes, and then leave. Don’t stare. It makes the aveilim feel very uncomfortable, and obviously, that’s not what you want to do.
I once heard something fabulous and you should write this down. The word “listen” and the word “silent” are spelled with the exact same letters. Write it down and you’ll see. When you go to a beis aveil, be silent, listen; that’s what you’re supposed to do. Try to get the aveilim to talk; that’s the main thing. or listen to those people who are talking about the aveilim, how special they really were. But don’t talk about yourself. It’s not a question of talking; it’s a question of bringing out the greatness of that person who passed away.
Now I want to talk about a different thing, which I think is very, very important. unfortunately, I have had to sit shivah for both my father and my mother over the years, and I can tell you that one of the saddest times is not even during the shivah. Shivah is a great thing that Chazal established. What an unbelievable thing! And I must tell you that I always feel bad for those people who only have one hour to sit before Yom Tov, or just one or two days. That’s the halachah, and I’m sure Chazal had their reasons for it – after all, the Yom Tov is so great that it overtakes the aveilus. But there’s a certain catharsis, there’s a certain facing the reality that aveilim feel when they are sitting shivah for seven days, and so many, many people come to talk to them.
But do you know what happens after the shivah? It’s awful. It’s so quiet. The house is quiet. The wife is looking at the husband’s suits and the place where he sat on Shabbos. She can see him all over the place, except that he’s not there. The same thing with a husband who sees his wife’s clothing, her shoes, her dresses, where she cooked. It’s Gehinnom on this earth after the shivah. That’s what I want to talk to you about. Not only nichum aveilim. Call them after the shivah, come and visit – with permission – and be available – but don’t be aggressive. There are many people who like their privacy.
There was a fellow whose wife passed away, and I used to invite him for Shabbos many times with his kids. After a while he said, “I know you mean well, but we want our privacy.” And you have to respect that. There are some people who feel they want to be part of the community, and they want to be invited, and that’s great. You can do that; invite them for Shabbos and for Yom Tov. Just show them that you’re thinking about them. Again, as we started, they are baishanim, they are sensitive. Don’t push and say, “How come you don’t want to come for Shabbos? You shouldn’t be lonely!” Listen, you shouldn’t be in their position. When you’re in their position then you’ll think about it, and then we’ll talk. But one thing is for sure: be sensitive to their feelings. They want privacy, fine; just let them know that you’re available for them.
Here’s another way you can show that care, especially to a young mother who has unfortunately lost her husband. Call her when you’re going shopping. Tell her, “I’m in the grocery store, I’m going shop- ping, is there anything I can get you?” or, “Maybe you want me to take your kids, just to go shopping. Let me take them off your hands for a while.” or, “We’ll go to 7-Eleven and get a Slurpee, or we’ll go to the ice cream store.” The idea is, again, don’t be aggressive – but be available. That’s very important. Another thing is, as we said, to invite them anytime. You can invite them for Shabbos and Yom Tov, but al- low them their privacy and allow them their dignity.
One thing that's so important, especially if the husband is the one that passed away, is to make sure the family still has a means of support, still has their parnassah. Now, of course, you may not be the business person, and you may not be involved in their business, but you’ve got to get other people involved to make sure that the finances are the same as when the person was alive. There are many, many people today who don’t have insurance. It’s a tragedy, and every person should have life insurance, but unfortunately, we know people who don’t. And we know that there are some people who are privately employed, and if they’re not here, all of a sudden the livelihood of the family falters. It is our obligation to be there for them in this regard as well.
I just want to end with one more thing. of course, there is no happy way to end a talk on aveilus. That’s why I think Rabbi Haikins and Rabbi Zohn deserve so much credit for putting together this great, great video, which hopefully will be inspirational and will be a guide to thousands around the world.
I remember one Friday night when I was in London, in Golders Green, and I was speaking to Rebbetzin Amelie Jakobovits, a brilliant woman, a charismatic woman. She had lost her husband, Rabbi Dr. Immanuel Jacobovits, who was a personal friend of my father, alav haShalom. So I felt very close to the family, and Rabbi Jacobovits’ son- in-law, Sammy Hamburger, was like a brother to me. I remember, we were walking Friday night, and Rebbetzin Jakobovits said something so painful. She said, “The happiest days of the year have become the saddest.” What a thought! What’s the happiest day of the year? Pesach, you’re sitting at the Seder. All of a sudden, now the family is sitting without a father, without a grandfather, without a husband. What’s Chanukah without the whole family being together? And now the almanah and the yesomim and the yesomos are lighting the Chanukah licht alone. And I want to tell you, you know what the saddest Yom Tov of all is? It’s not Pesach because people get invited, and it’s not Sukkos, because there are outings, and it’s not Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur because people are in shul all day. The saddest is Chanukah because it’s night after night – you can’t invite everybody every night– so there are going to be some nights when these bereft families are going to be alone. You have to think about that. Call them, bring them gifts, invite them to your house. obviously you’re not going to invite them every night of the eight nights of Chanukah. But just remember, to the aveilim, the happiest days of the year have become the saddest.
The greatest thing that we can do is to really be rachmanim, baishanim and gomlei chassadim. Let’s remember, baishanim is right there in the middle. And the Gemara says we want to be like Hashem, mah Hu rachum, af atah rachum, just as Hashem is the compassionate one, we want to be compassionate. Hashem should help that we shouldn’t need this video, that there shouldn’t be any more aveilim, and that will happen at techiyas hameisim. And that is the greatest hope we can daven for, “V’ne’eman atah l’hachayos meisim,” that all those who passed away will be reunited with their families at the time of techiyas hameisim. Hashem should bless all of you for doing the great mitzvah of nichum aveilim. But just remember, before you go to an aveil’s house, stop for a moment and think, what’s it about — is it about you or is it about them? Remember, it’s about them.
• When performing the mitzvah of nichum aveilim, it is critical to achieve the goal of comforting both the aveil and the niftar.
• To achieve this, one should focus on the life and accomplishments of the niftar.
• When someone passes away, even though we believe the neshamah is being rewarded, we feel pain because of the separation. It is for this reason that crying at this time is appropriate. However, excessive grief is not appropriate because we recognize the immortality of the soul.
• Assure the aveil that the niftar is surely being rewarded. one should not try to distract him with idle chatter.
• One should demonstrate a measure of participation in the sadness of the aveil. Sitting quietly at the beis aveil is an ideal way to do this.
The Source of The Pain, The Proper Way to Comfort
The mitzvah of Nichum Aveilim is part of the general mitzvah of gemilus chassadim, as the Rambam writes in the fourteenth perek of Hilchos Aveil. The Gemara tells us that nichum aveilim has two components: it is kavod hachayim and kavod hameisim, for the mourners and for the soul of the departed. Therefore, when one performs the mitzvah of nichum aveilim, he has to have both components in mind:
1) He should be helping the bereaved confront their loss and understand it, and he should be helping to alleviate their suffering, their pain and their anguish.
2) At the same time, as the Chazal have explained, when a person’s neshamah ascends on high and is separated from the guf, from the body, there is a measure of aveilus that the neshamah feels for the loss of the guf. For this reason it is critical that when a person comes to perform the mitzvah of nichum aveilim, he does his best to achieve both of these ends.
The Gemara describes various situations of nichum aveilim, what was said and how it was taken. The Rashba writes that no berachah is made on nichum aveilim because one never knows whether he will be successful. If the person is not “mekabeil tanchumim,” doesn’t accept the comfort, the mitzvah has not been fulfilled properly.
In order to achieve these two ends, the focus must be, whenever possible, on the life of the niftar. What were his or her accomplishments? How he can be assured that because of these good deeds the niftar will enjoy a tremendous reward in the World to Come? The very essence of nichum aveilim is our reaffirmation of our belief in hash’aras hanefesh, the immortality of the soul. This is what enables us to get past the initial grief of the loss of a loved one.
The Rambam explains the topis in Parshas Re'eih that states: “Banim atem laHashem elokeichem, lo sisgod’du v’lo sasimu karchah bein eineichem lameis,” as children of Hashem, you should not mutilate yourself when a loved one dies. We’re not to do as the non-Jews do. When a loved one dies, they are disconsolate; there’s no consoling them because from their vantage point, when a person dies, he falls off a cliff, his existence is no longer, and therefore there is terrible mourning and sadness. We believe – in direct contrast –that when a person passes away, the neshamah ascends to a higher and better and more peaceful world. And therefore we’re not permitted to scratch ourselves as the nations do, because this would indicate a lack of this fundamental belief.
Asks the Ramban, why then does the Gemara allow – even require
– sheloshah yamim l’bechi, three days for crying, as it says in Masech- ta Mo’ed Kattan, and shivah l’mispeid, seven to eulogize. Answers the Ramban, when a person loses a loved one there is a separation. Sep- aration itself leads to a feeling of strong emotion, to tears, to crying and to wailing. Whoever has read about or seen the scenes of mothers escorting their children from their European towns on their journey toward America would understand what this is about. They come to the pier or to the train station, and they’re crying and they’re bawling. What are they crying about — isn’t the person about to embark upon a better life? The answer is that there is a separation. The mother will no longer be able to see her son with her own eyes of flesh and blood. And therefore she cries, even as she understands that the child is now embarking on a better life. So too, when a person passes away, even though we believe that the neshamah is now being rewarded for all its good deeds, we will no longer be able to see that individual with our eyes, and therefore the emotional crying and eulogizing is completely appropriate and even mandatory. However, the scratching that the non-Jews do, because of the feeling that the individual is no longer in
existence, we are not permitted to do. Rather, we believe firmly in the immortality of the soul.
For this reason, when we go to a beis ha’aveil we are required to emphasize this fact. It’s appropriate to speak of the good deeds of the individual who passed away and to exclaim with certainty, based on our emunah sheleimah, that the individual who passed away will be rewarded for all the good deeds that he or she has performed. This gives a tremendous measure of consolation to the individual who has lost his loved one. Yes, I’m crying, yes, I’m eulogizing, yes, I’m sad because I can no longer see this individual. But I’m consoled because I have this certainty that the individual is being rewarded for all of his or her good deeds.
So these are the themes that are most appropriate for nichum aveilim. unfortunately, we often find that a person comes to a beis ha’aveil, and there is complete absence of these themes. People are talking about all kinds of extraneous matters. Perhaps they feel they should try to distract the aveil from his aveilus so he won’t feel so sad. That’s a mistake. An aveil may not be meisi’ach da’as, he may not divert his attention, from his aveilus. He’s supposed to realize the sit- uation that he’s in. But despite that fact, he’s supposed to be consoled by the understanding that the neshamah is being rewarded for all the good deeds that the person performed in this world. Trying to dis- tract the aveil and to involve oneself in idle chatter – sometimes even prohibited chatter – in an attempt to fulfill the mitzvah of nichum aveilim is not appropriate.
As I said before, unfortunately, when one goes to a beis ha’aveil there is very often all kinds of totally irrelevant conversations. When a person walks in, that person should try, whenever possible, to channel the conversation in the right direction. It’s not always possible, and one has to know one’s limitations. But whenever it’s possible, ask, “So, where was your father born? Where did he grow up?” These kinds of questions are often completely ignored even in a lengthy sitting in a beis ha’aveil. It’s really a shame; people want to fulfill the mitzvah properly, and they certainly do fulfill the mitzvah partially, just by coming and giving the kavod to the aveil. The aveil does feel better that the person came to visit, and even the niftar presumably feels better because the person came to visit. But the preferred method of fulfilling the mitzvah of nichum aveilim, as I mentioned before, is not to become involved in distractions, certainly not in idle or even prohibited speech, but rather to focus on the individual, what the great accomplishments were, what kind of family was left, all of which give consolation, and the great reward that the individual will undoubtedly experience in the Olam Haba. This is the preferred and ideal way to fulfill nichum aveilim.
Ideally, a person should share the pain and be nosei b’ol im chaveiro. Midina d’Gemara, by the strict Gemara (Mo’ed Kattan 28b), not only does the aveil sit on the floor, but so does the menacheim. As it says in Iyov, “Vayeishvu ito al ha’aretz,” they sat together with him on the ground. Nowadays we don’t do this for various reasons, but an individual should demonstrate some measure of participation in the sadness of the aveil. The poskim talk about the halachic aspects. The Gemara tells us that an individual who walks into the beis ha’aveil is not supposed to speak until the aveil speaks first. However, the ba’alei mussar explain that it’s not really a simple halachah; it has a much deeper explanation. If a person walks in and just starts talking, it indicates that he doesn’t really feel the pain of the aveil. If the person walks in, and he is quiet and everyone is quiet, it seems to be a little bit awkward; in today’s world everyone is always talking. But the Gemara tells us that the ideal for a beis ha’aveil is shetikusa, a person should be quiet. When a person is quiet, this is the greatest measure of nichum aveilim because the aveil understands that the menacheim participates in his sorrow. And that’s why the menacheim should not say anything until the aveil speaks first, to demonstrate that he too experiences a measure of sadness. In this way, we can try our best to fulfill the mitzvah of nichum aveilim properly, which is such an important mitzvah of gemilus chassadim, of kindness with both the chayim and with the meisim.
Whenever we come to a beis aveil we leave with the traditional conclusion of “HaMakom yenacheim eschem b’soch she’ar aveilei Tziy- on viYerushalayim,” which means that just as an individual is in avei- lus, so all of Israel is in aveilus because of the Churban Hamikdash. We hope and pray for that time when indeed every individual will be consoled and Klal Yisrael will be consoled and Tziyon and Yerusha- layim will be consoled, when the Mashiach will come and the Beis Hamikdash will be rebuilt, bimheirah b’yameinu, amein.
• V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha means to want the same good for others that you want for yourself. Therefore, performing the mitzvah of nichum aveilim means sharing the aveil’s pain with him, and when one shares another’s pain, it helps relieve it.
• Different people react differently to loss, so be flexible in how you deal with various aveilim.
• The actual shivah is a kavod to the meis. When the aveil sits on the floor and talks about his departed loved one, what he is in essence saying is, “Do you understand what we’ve lost?”
• One’s job as a menacheim is not to prattle endlessly to fill the silence, but rather, to encourage the aveil to speak about his loss.
• When being menacheim aveil, remember, you’re not there as a mussar teacher.
• Hashem is the ultimate giver. We try to emulate Him as much as possible. Sharing a person’s pain is an effective way of doing this.
My heart is with you
Many people are uncomfortable with the mitzvah of nichum aveilim. When going to a shivah house they think, what do I say, how do I say it, how should I conduct myself? It becomes a burden. This becomes an issue that sometimes can stop a person from feeling comfortable and maybe even from doing the mitzvah.
So I would like to share with you a perspective that I think helps us define what the actual mitzvah is, and when we understand it from the right perspective, it actually becomes a guiding light in terms of how to conduct oneself, how to act and what to say.
The passuk says "v'ahavta l'rei'acha kamocha". The typical translation is to love your neighbor as yourself. The Ramban on the Chumash observes that that can’t possibly be the explanation. It’s impossible, says the Ramban, that the Torah would obligate me to love my friend as I do myself. Self love is the strongest emotion in the human heart. My own self preservation and my own interest are innately put into me, and I can’t possibly love another human be- ing as I do myself. But even more than that, we are taught the rule of chayecha kodmin, your life comes first. Rebbi Akiva taught us that if you and a friend are in a desert with only one canteen of water, you come first. What, then, is the passuk saying? The Ramban explains that if you read the passuk very carefully, it’s not saying love your friend as you do yourself; rather, v’ahavta l’rei’acha, share love to him, feel love toward him, as you do to yourself. Whatever good you want for yourself, whatever things you’re interested in, whatever is valuable to you, you should want for him as well.
My rebbi, the Rosh Yeshivah Rav Henoch Leibowitz, would often share this Ramban – that we are one unit. The Jewish nation is one unit and one body, and I’m supposed to look at my friend and say, “What can I do to help him?” If I eliminate the jealousy, if I eliminate the competition, if there is no distinction between us, then obviously whatever I want for myself, I want for him. And more than anything, I’m with him. I’m with him in his joys, and I’m with him in his sor- rows. When it’s his wedding, I go there with tremendous joy, but not because I’m happy; rather, I go because I’m sharing in his joy. When he makes a bris for his son, I’m sharing in that emotion, I’m sharing in his ups. And as I share in his ups, I share in his downs as well. When he has bad news, if he loses a job, if he loses a business, I’m with him, I feel his pain. And certainly, when it comes to the loss of a loved one, I feel his pain, and I’m with him in that; we’re one unit.
I believe that while this is the definition of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,” it’s also the underlying principle that guides us in nichum aveilim. What is my role? I’m going to share the aveil’s pain with him. I’m not going there to lecture, I’m not going there to be philosophical; I’m going there to share his loss, to join with him. And that emotion is the underlying principle and the guiding light in terms of what I should do and how I should conduct myself. If you think in those terms, the mitzvah becomes very clear and very well defined.
Obviously, before you go in, you have to think who am I visiting? If it was a ninety-two-year-old woman who passed away after a full, beautiful life, it’s a very different shivah house than if it was a six-year-old girl who was hit by a car. Before you go in, you have to put into your mind’s eye what the family is likely going through, and when you enter that door it’s with one intention: I’m here to share that person’s loss, I’m here to be one with them, I’m here to share their burden. If you walk in with that thought process, it will guide you through everything.
You also have to be flexible because not every person reacts the same way to a loss. Different people have different backgrounds and different experiences. I once went to the shivah house of an adam gadol, a great person, and I experienced very divergent scenes within that one house. The men were sitting in one area of the house, the women in another. I visited the men’s section first, where the sons were discussing their father. Their father was a very accomplished person. He was a posek. He had written sefarim. He was a person of tremen- dous accomplishments. And while the mood was somber, there was a real sense of sharing who their father was, a sense of pride; it was a very interesting experience. Then I went over to the women’s section, where the wife was sitting. And that was a shivah house because that was a woman bereft, a woman left without, and it was a very different emotional experience. Therefore, I have to not just walk in being pre- pared; I also have to be flexible to react to whom I’m going to be with. But again, my underlying thought process has to be that I’m sharing with them. And I think that if you walk in with that thought process, you’ll know exactly what to say.
Chazal defines what we shoudl say-basically nothing. I’m not there to answer questions, I’m not there to philosophize, I’m not there for anything other than to share in his burden. The reason why our rab- bis say that the aveil speaks first is part of this very concept. I walk in there, and I don’t speak. I walk in there, and the floor is open to the aveil. The person sitting shivah will express what’s on his mind, what he’s thinking. My role is, if anything, to draw him out, to be a sounding board, to allow him to express. When he expresses who the person was, he accomplishes a tremendous thing.
According to many Rishonim, early commentators, the actual sit- ting shivah is a kavod hameis, it shows respect for the deceased. When the aveil sits on the floor and talks about the meis, he’s showing “kasheh alai meisi,” look how severe my loss is. Do you understand who this person was? Do you understand what it is that we’ve lost? The more he speaks about the person, the person’s accomplishments and what the person meant to everyone there, the more kavod hameis it is, and certainly the more therapeutic; for a person to feel those emotions, to be attuned to them and be able to express them is a huge part of the consolation. Your role is to be on the receiving end, to listen, to be there to share in his loss. If you walk in with that perspective and that understanding, you know very well what to say. All you should be interested in doing is feeling and sharing. You’ll ask questions. oftentimes – if the aveil begins speaking – you can ask open-ended questions about the niftar: who he was, what he accomplished, etc.
I want to share with you one thing that many, many people make a mistake about. In this country there is a disease called prattle. There seems to be some kind of need to fill space with sound, as if to say silence is an evil and we have to constantly fill it with mindless chatter. Now, if you feel that’s appropriate, that’s okay, but it doesn’t belong in a shivah house. Your job is not to fill the air with words. Your job, if anything, is to coax the person to speak, to ask questions to bring the person out. When you share in the aveil’s pain in this way, that is the greatest nechamah.
We human beings are social beings. We have families, we have communities, we have friends, and that gives us a tremendous sense of connection. When you share in another person’s pain, it lightens it and makes it easier to bear the burden; it accomplishes exactly that which Chazal intended. This is real consolation. This understanding is, I believe, the theme that underlies everything. often it’s not easy because there are people who speak about different things at shivah houses, sometimes even inappropriate things. Now, again, it’s not my job to teach anyone, certainly not in a shivah house, and certainly not the people sitting shivah. And if they engage in frivolous conversations, it’s not my point to correct them in any sense. I’m there to support and I’m there to feel the pain, and the more that I feel that, the more likely it is that they’ll come back to the issue at hand, which is the deceased – who he or she was, what the loss meant to them. Feeling that pain and engaging them in it is the key to allowing that process to begin.
Sometimes it happens that people speak philosophical questions. Sometimes people have questions on Hashem, questions on how it could be. I’d like to share with you that your role as the menacheim is not to be a mussar teacher. Even if the answer is obvious, and even if they’re making a mistake, your role is not to be there to teach people.I’ll share with you a case in point. My mother, aleha haShalom, had a friend with whom she was very close for many years. A number of years after my mother passed away, this woman tragically and suddenly lost her forty-year-old son. It was a tremendous, tremendous loss. I didn’t have the kind of relationship with this woman that would normally prompt me to pay a shivah call; however, I felt my mother would have been there, and I felt that out of honor for my mother it was appropriate for me to go, although this woman was sitting shivah quite a distance from where I live. I arrived mid-day, and when I walked into the house, there were a number of people sitting there. The woman who was sitting shivah looked up and said, “oh, Barry’s here! He’ll answer the questions! Why? Why did it happen? How could Hashem let this happen?”
Now, if you listen to The Shmuz, my lecture series, you’ll know that I don’t shy away from philosophical questions. I’m not scared off by why these things happen. In fact, there’s an entire Shmuz, number 163, dedicated to that concept, which is entitled, “only the good Die Young,” about why, in fact, people die at different ages. So I’m not afraid to deal with that issue, but this was not the time for it. So when I walked in the door and she said those words, I walked over to her, I sat down on a chair, and I said basically nothing. After a few minutes I said, “My mother would have been here, and I wanted to be here for her.” And then I started thinking. I was older than this fellow who passed away, and I remember many years ago I was his babysitter one night. I had that mental image of him as a little guy in a big bed. I thought back on that, and I began crying and crying. I don’t think I said much else. I got up, I said “HaMakom yenacheim,” and I left.
After the shivah, this woman called my father, and she said she had tremendous nechamah, tremendous consolation, from the words that I had said. What did I say? I didn’t say anything. But I was there, feeling her pain and being with her. The point is that my job was not to answer why; my job was not to be the one who gives direction. My job was to feel her pain and to be with her. To be with a person in their joy and in their sorrow is a mitzvas aseih, a positive commandment, of “v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha,” and it’s certainly nichum aveilim. It’s something that requires reaching out, something that requires opening your heart, and it’s something that requires an understanding of people.
Sometimes People Are Extraordinairly insensitive– albeit not meaning to be, but they can make very cruel remarks. I’ll
share with you an example. A woman had a child with Down’s syndrome, and the child died very young. Another woman went to be
menacheim aveil and said, “Oy, oy, but you know what? It’s better this
way, it’s better this way.” I cannot describe the insensitivity of those words. If you feel that way, that’s your opinion, but it’s surely not the opinion of the woman who’s sitting shivah. This is a woman who’s in pain, it’s a woman whose life has been ripped apart, and your job is to be there with her, to do nothing other than to feel her pain and offer support by sharing her burden with her. This mitzvah done properly is one of the most intuitive and holy mitzvos imaginable.
Hashem is the ultimate meitiv, the ultimate giver. Hashem is mag- nanimous and generous. We were put onto this planet to grow, to accomplish, to make ourselves similar to Hashem. How do we make ourselves comparable, in some way similar, to Hashem? Much as Hashem is rachum, much as Hashem is merciful, we make ourselves merciful. Much as Hashem is the giver, we try to make ourselves be generous and magnanimous. When you go and share a person’s pain, when you share his burden, you are acting like Hashem, on your lev- el. You’re helping that person, and you’re also growing when you’re doing the mitzvah properly. This is a mitzvah that has tremendous, tremendous benefits for everyone involved.
I want to close with one last point. Rav Aryeh Levine, known as a tzaddik in our time, was a man of unimaginable compassion, a man with a heart that went out to others. If you’d like to know how to ful- fill the mitzvah of nichum aveilim, of making a shivah call properly, I’ll share with you one story about him. A woman had lost a child, and Rav Aryeh Levine went to be menacheim aveil. He arrived at the house, and as he was about to open the door, he burst into uncontrollable sobbing, tears and tears running down his cheeks. He couldn’t go in; he had to walk away, pull himself together and come back a second time. He finally walked in to sit with this woman; to anyone there, it was clearly obvious that this woman was being menacheim, was offering consolation, to Rav Aryeh Levine. He obviously felt her pain to such an extent that if you were an observer you would look at it as his loss, not hers. ultimately that is the way to fulfill nichum aveilim. I’m there to join this person and to offer but one thing – my heart, my feelings; I’m with you. If it were a joyous occasion, I’d be with you in that sense. unfortunately, that’s not the occasion, so I’m with you in your pain. That’s the defining essence of the mitzvah and that guides us in how to perform it.
May Hashem grant us that very shortly death should no longer be a part of our reality, and may Hashem redeem us soon.
• When close family members first hear that a person was niftar, it’s a surreal experience, shocking and difficult to process that the neshamah is no longer in the body.
• Shivah is like a cocoon. It protects the aveil. It’s also a time when the aveil is not distracted by anything else so that he can totally focus on the life and impact of the niftar. During shivah we focus on the niftar’s contribution and on the void that now needs to be filled.
• The walk around the block at the end of shivah is very powerful. The aveil now has to think about life going on without the niftar.
• giving nechamah requires great sensitivity. Crying with the aveil, saying you’ll be there for them, showing you share their pain, are effective ways of providing comfort. Allow the aveil to teach you what he’s going through.
• Prepare yourself before walking in. Don’t just “pay a shivah
call” as an obligation.
• Talk about what the niftar accomplished, what kind of impact he or she made. Celebrate the life of the niftar. “V’hachai yitein el libo – the next step is for the aveilim (and for us) to roll up their sleeves and accomplish things because we are all only here for a limited amount of time.
• When being menacheim aveil someone who is not observant, we need to be very sensitive and not condemn. This is a golden opportunity to give encouragement. If the niftar wasn’t observant, you can focus on what he or she contributed bein adam l’chaveiro, between man and his fellow man. Encourage them to take on a mitzvah as a zechus for the niftar.
• When giving comfort, it is important to be sincere, to show empathy and give it our all.
• First and foremost, one has to be menacheim aveil with the mindset that this is the ratzon Hashem. A person doesn’t live a moment longer than was ordained by Hashem.
• Sitting shivah is about tzidduk hadin, unconditional surrender to Hashem’s judgment.
• We must realize that our challenge in holding onto emunah
is when we are grappling with pain.
• Sometimes it’s helpful, when being menacheim aveil, to personalize the situation.
• The main way of offering nechamah is by telling stories about the niftar and talking about how his memory will be perpetuated.
• Aveilus can be a tool for kiruv. The aveilim can be warmed by the care of the community and motivated to connect to their lineage.
• When being menacheim aveil, you’re comforting the niftar and the aveilim. The neshamah of the niftar remains with the aveil during the shivah. one can say “HaMakom” during the entire year of aveilus when someone has lost a parent; this means the neshamah of the parent is with the children that whole first year. The aveil can accomplish so much during the year of aveilus in elevating the neshamah of the niftar and can continue to do so in the subsequent years.
• One must be so careful with his words in a beis aveil because each word can accomplish a great deal or, alternately, cause great distress.
• The primary reason for turning around during lechah Dodi is that this is the last time before Shabbos when one can say “HaMakom.” It’s a way of seeing if there are any aveilim entering the shul at this time to be menacheim.
• Don’t be stringent with children when they’re sitting shivah
or in aveilus.
• Despair is not a Jewish trait. An aveil has to know never to give up hope and to always be waiting for Mashiach and techiyas hameisim.
• Nichum aveilim is about one thing only – the aveilim. It’s not about us in any way.
• It is comforting to share a story that shows how the niftar impacted your life beyond the physical world and thus touched the eternal. The essence of nechamah is that their time spent in this world was impactful.
• Don’t tell the aveilim anything that will downplay their pain. Don’t say, “Don’t worry – Hashem has a plan.” This brings on guilt.
• one of the greatest fears of a parent who has lost a child is that their child will be forgotten.
• The aveil might feel guilty about moving on. If you’re close enough, reassure the aveil that they can feel positive, while still keeping the deceased alive in their hearts.
• The gam zeh ya’avor (this too shall pass) principle: as time goes on, we might feel guilty for feeling less pain at our loss. But we can better honor our loved ones by appreciating life in a new way as a result of our loss.
• When we lose a loved one, the pain is because of the change in the relationship; it’s no longer a physical relationship. In reality, the niftar is still here – spiritually.
• Remember, although we might be grappling with difficult emotions, the niftar is happy because he has gone back to his essence, his soul.
There are three “C”s involved in loss and bereavement:
• There is no one right way to cope. Some cope by distracting themselves. others have a need to talk about the pain and loss.
• Everyone has to find their own toolbox of how to cope. Become mindful of what works for you.
• It’s rare for family members to grieve the same way. Be respectful of the other members’ manners of coping.
• Tears are an amazing source of comfort.
• Nechamah doesn’t mean comfort, it means a shift in perspective.
• When someone suffers a loss, he must do a self-examination to find meaning in the loss; what is his source of nechamah going to be?
• Some are comforted by the idea that Hashem tests only the strongest among us.
• others find the growth-inducing properties of challenge and loss to be comforting.
• Darkness leads to a greater appreciation of light; this is the key to resilience.
• The words neshaamah (desolation) and neshamah (soul) have the same letters. A little support, like the perpendicular line of the kamatz under the shin in neshamah, brings a person from a place of desolation to a place of spiritual connection.
• Death takes a person away from connection. The laws of aveilus, mourning, allow us to gradually reconnect to the world.
• People need help making the right connections.
• Message to the community: After the initial outpouring of support, don’t forget about bereaved people.
• Connection can literally save lives.
• Finding a way to carry on the legacy or goals of the person who has passed on can be comforting.
• Performing regular acts of kindness can help in overcoming any challenge, particularly loss, by encouraging a person to focus on the positive.
• Losing a loved one can make a person feel helpless, since they are lacking what their loved one can no longer provide for them. Engaging in acts of kindness can make a person who is feeling helpless and dependent feel needed, that he or she can make a difference too.
• Reading about and sharing acts of kindness reassures a person that there are good people in the world, despite all the evil we are faced with.
• Another crucial way to overcome challenge is by strengthening emunah, particularly through hakaras hatov to Hashem; we can engender this by recognizing the good in our lives. Reading about the good in others’ lives helps a person to focus on the good in his life.
• During shivah it is crucial to let the mourners talk as much as they need to. This is a first step in their coping with their new reality.
• Share stories about what the niftar has accomplished. It is comforting for the mourners to hear about how their loved one made an impact in this world.
• By focusing on the positive, we can experience tremendous growth through challenge.
• The mitzvah of nichum aveilim is not only to comfort the mourner but to comfort the niftar. During the shivah and year of aveilus the niftar himself is in pain – over his inability to perform further mitzvos, to gain zechusim and because it’s a time of judgment for the neshamah.
• Relatives can bring comfort to the niftar by learning Torah and performing mitzvos on the niftar’s behalf, earning him or her new zechusim.
• Benefiting the niftar in this way can bring tremendous comfort to the aveilim, who can genuinely feel that they are doing more than they ever could before for their loved one.
• The Neshamah Should Have an Aliyah (published by Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah in conjunction with The Judaica Press) details various customs and ways in which one can bring merit to the niftar.
- Remember, you’re not going for yourself. You’re going to give chizzuk to the aveil and the neshamah of the The reason we say “HaMakom yenacheim eschem” in the plural is because we are there to comfort the aveil and the niftar.
- Don’t go to a shivah house too late. People need to rest and recoup their Allow the aveil time to eat. In general, do all you can to make it easier for them during this difficult time.
- Don’t stay too For most people, no more than ten minutes is an appropriate length stay. Move aside so that other people who have arrived can come forward.
- Try to elicit information about the niftar, about the family, about the ancestors, if
- Joking at a shivah house is give chizzuk in a mentchlichdike way.
- Don’t say things like, “At least the niftar didn’t suffer,” or “It’s good you had time to say ” Whatever the case may be, this is a painful situation.
- If you can, be mechazzeik the aveil by giving over the idea that there is a Hashem is watching, and He has a chesh- bon. The niftar did make a difference, a change in people’s lives, in the total picture, and Hashem knows this.
Focusing On The True Goal
First of all, I would like to thank Rabbi Zohn and Rabbi Haikins for the opportunity to say a few words on this very, very important topic, the topic of aveilus, rachmana litzlan, and the whole theme of losing someone close. It’s very important, and not enough has been done about this subject. I also want to add that to me, Rabbi Zohn is synonymous with what a chevrah kaddisha should be all about. To me, he is the most chashuve person in this country in dealing with chevrah kaddisha inyanim. I wish berachos on both Rabbi Zohn and Rabbi Haikins for all the wonderful work they are doing. As Chazal tell us, this is real chessed shel emes.
I think the critical element about aveilus and being menacheim aveil someone is the concept that you are not going for yourself. You’re not going because you have to make a nichum aveilim visit, because you have to show your face so that
the aveil or aveilah will know that you were there. You are going there to be mechazzeik the aveil. They have just gone through a trauma; whether a more difficult or less difficult trauma, when someone dies in the immediate family it is difficult, and you are going to give chizzuk. The way to give chizzuk is by going down to the home at a reasonable time, and not davka hocking a chaynik (rattling on incessantly); on the contrary, you’re going down there to hear about the person who was niftar or nifteres. You want to hear good things about his or her life, and your job is to bring out these types of machshavos and shmuzing from the aveilim. They have much to say, even if the person was a simpleton, if there’s such a thing as a simpleton. People have great qualities, and you are going down there to hear those qualities, which will be a moiredike aliyah for the neshamah and a chizzuk to the family. The idea is not to find out davka what happened the last day, how the person died, when they died, how long they were living and how long it took. Those are narishkeiten, those are not the important things in aveilus. In aveilus, you are actually going there to give chizzuk to the neshamah.
The velt says that the reason you say HaMakom yenacheim eschem b’soch she’ar aveilei Tziyon viYerushalayim even to one individual, even though eschem is plural, is because the neshamah is hovering in the home where she was last. The neshamah is there and the aveil is there; so even if there is one person sitting shivah, you’re going there to give an aliyah to the neshamah and to make the people feel good about the person for whom they’re grieving. That is the key.
Therefore, you don't ring the doorbell at a quarter to twelve at night and hope that they’re still up; you’re hoping that they’re really sleeping because you want to be good to them. 10 PM is I think a standard time — and it would be a wonderful thing if Klal Yisrael got together and made a decision that you just don’t go be menacheim aveil after 10:00. Just as most people don’t go the first few days, 10:00 should be the cut-off. People need some rest; it’s a very hard, draining experience to sit shivah. I think there should be a time for breakfast, for lunch and for dinner. There should be set times so that people are able to eat. You are not going there to make it more difficult for them; you’re going there to make it easier for them. It’s not pleasant; a person died, so it can’t be really pleasant, but you’re helping them overcome their grief through hearing good things about the niftar.
I think that not overstaying your stay is also very important. Some people park themselves right in front of the aveil, and they’ll sit there for an hour while there are people coming in and out who are stuck at the back somewhere. You should stay there ten or twelve minutes tops. In eretz Yisrael I think they do it properly; they come in for five, seven, eight minutes, and then they move on so the next person can come in. Now, of course there are exceptions to every rule. If someone comes from eretz Yisrael to be menacheim aveil, or you are going to eretz Yisrael to be menacheim aveil, or if someone is very close to the family or made a very long trip from elsewhere, it might be appropriate to stay longer.
You are looking to get the Aveil or Aveilah to speak to you about their loss, what the loss meant to them. It will be a great chizzuk to them afterward that they were able to share about their father, mother, brother, sister, wife, husband or, Rachmana litzlan, their child. That is what you want to accomplish. You want to bring real tanchumin, real comfort, to the people that are sitting shivah.
I sat shivah twice, Rachmana litzlan, once as a young boy. And I have great memories of Rav Moshe Feinstein coming to be menacheim aveil us. Is it a great memory of my father being niftar? No. My father’s yahrzeit is coming up in a few days. It’s the forty-eighth yahrtzeit; it’s a long time, but I still remember Reb Moshe coming into the house and telling us about our father. Sure, it was Reb Moshe speaking, or Rav Ya'akov Kamenetsky, or the other gedolim who came at that time to visit, but I specifically remember the things they said to us about our father. I was much older when my mother was niftar, which was around seventeen years ago, but to hear wonderful things from so many people about my mother was a chizzuk for us. And of course, we know it’s a chizzuk for the neshamah of the nifteres or the niftar. So that’s our tafkid and our job when we go there.
Chazal say the halachah is that you should not start talking; rather the aveil should start talking. I think that maybe the reason is that sometimes we just hock a kup, hocking a chaynik with silly things. It’s hard for the aveilim; sometimes they are not in the mood to speak, so you have to start talking. Try to elicit responses about the good things they can share about the niftar – it can be about earlier generations too. It doesn’t have to be only about the person the aveilim are sitting
shivah for. It could also be about the grandparents, the history of the mishpachah. You can hear more about the family, what the family has done and what they meant to so many people. That’s the tachlis of shivah, of doing the right thing, and that’s what we’re looking to do.
Again, the yesod should be not to do what is best for you, the menacheim. You are looking to do what is best for the one you are going to be menacheim, to make them comfortable.
Joking, on the other hand, is not appropriate either. Sometimes you go to a beis aveil, and there is kibbitzing and joking around. That’s not what Chazal intended for nichum aveilim. They intended that we really speak about the person who passed away and give chizzuk to those sitting there, in a bekovedige, nice, mentchliche fashion.
The other thing I would like to address here is what we should take out of the situation so that the aveil can walk away mechuzzak. I remember forty-eight years ago, when my father was niftar, people were looking for things to say to us to make us feel better. one of the things we heard again and again was how lucky we were that our father didn’t suffer. He was niftar in a second – my father lay down, took a deep breath and was niftar. Those were terrible words of nichum – that he didn’t suffer. We were all suffering; my father was niftar suddenly. I was learning in Philadelphia Yeshivah at the time, and Reb Shmuel Kamenetsky woke me up in the morning and told me, “Your father is sick,” and my whole life turned upside down. The fact that he didn’t suffer are not words the aveil can hear. When my mother was nifteres, seventeen years ago, what people said again and again was, “Wow, you really had time to say goodbye, since she was sick so long.” So you hear the setirah – people are trying to say the right thing. My mother suffered for four years, excruciatingly. My father was niftar suddenly – it was terrible. Don’t look to say “smart” things.
The chizzuk you can give them is about all of the wonderful things the niftar did and that there is a cheshbon, there’s a plan, a massive plan. I cannot give it to you in this brief forum, but by the time we finished hearing from the chashuve Yidden about my father and mother, we felt that there is a plan and that these two are now in a moiredike, chashuve place in Gan eden. Not everybody is capable of speaking about Gan eden or Olam Haba on that level, but certainly we can dis- cuss that there is a plan, and HaKaddosh Baruch Hu knows what He is doing; even though it might be hard right now to accept, but tzidduk hadin (acceptance of Divine judgment) is for that reason. Why do we have tzidduk hadin? We say, “HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, You are righteous; You do the right thing.” We know we are struggling with it, and it’s very hard.
It’s very hard. There was a little child who was niftar in our neighborhood about two months ago. The parents are struggling, I’m sure, even though they are a wonderful, magnificent, fantastic people, and the tzidduk hadin was extraordinary. But it’s hard, it’s a shvere zach. Still, you can get across the message that HaKaddosh Baruch Hu is watching everything and knows what He is doing. And in the span of history, their lives will go down as lives that they helped so many people and did for so many people, built mishpachos. It doesn’t matter if the person was a chashuve gadol or a simpler person. Each one in his or her own right built a family. Even if they did not build a family, but they accomplished in life, upstairs that’s what counts.
That’s a message that is not easy to give over. Someone who is a member of the cloth could do it more easily, of course, but I think anybody can leave that message. The idea is to give chizzuk that your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your wife, your husband was a very special person, and they made a change in my life, they did good things for me. HaKaddosh Baruch Hu knows all these things, and there is a cheshbon for everything. That can have a dramatic effect, even if not right away because it is hurting – an open wound hurts; but eventually, the wound starts to close, and the good memories will come back.
My mother, alehah haShalom, was sick at the end of her life, and for a number of months she was on a respirator. What I worried about after she was nifteres was if I would always remember the way she looked at the end, with all those pipes and tubes. With time, I re- membered my mother with a smile. With time, I remembered my mother and all the wonderful things she had done for different people, which I picked up over the week of shivah. of course, I had a lot of knowledge before and knowledge afterward about it. But the idea is to realize that in the span of 5774 years of life, people have come and people have left this world, and there is a cheshbon. You are there to give chizzuk to those people who are looking and struggling to cope with the tzidduk hadin.
We should only see yeshuos and nechamos for Klal Yisrael. Again, I am grateful for the work that is being done by these wonderful organizations. It’s a difficult thing to be busy all day long with sad- ness and grief, and we are grateful to those that are doing it. HaKad- dosh Baruch Hu should bring them only berachah v’hatzlachah b’chol ma’asei yedeihem.
- The aveil feels dark, alone. The function of nichum aveilim is that he shouldn’t feel so alone. But he or she has to be ready to accept that.
- Nichum means to help a person look at things differently; he’s not cut off from others or the niftar.
Wait until the person is ready to speak and therefore open to nechamah; otherwise, later when he hears these words of nechamah he’ll feel that he heard them already, but they weren’t helpful.
- It’s important to give the aveil enough of your time and to show that you feel his pain.
A small act for a departed loved one creates a real connection to the person’s neshamah.
A Never Lasting Connection
I think its important when we talk about a subject to understand what the words mean. In lashon hakoddesh, the word aveil means cut off. In Megillas eichah it says “vaya’aveil cheil v’chomah,” the walls were cut down. It’s also a lashon of aval and afal (darkness) – beis and pei are formed in the same part of the mouth; they’re lip letters. According to Rav Hirsch alef, beis, lamed and alef, pei, lamed are sister words; it’s dark for the aveil and he feels cut off, he feels alone. The function of nichum aveilim is that the person shouldn’t feel alone; there is somebody there. But please let the person decide how much he wants to bring you in.
Without going into the details of the halachah, you’re supposed to be there without speaking until the mourner wants to talk. You’re there to reach out at the right time. l’nacheim actually means to look at something differently. If you look in Rashi at the end of parshas Bereishis, it says “Vayinacheim Hashem ki asah es ha’adam,” that Hashem looked at the creation of man differently. It doesn’t mean He was comforted; it was machshavah acheres, a different thought. The point of nichum aveilim is to help a person look at something differently, to feel differently, not to feel so cut off. He should know that he’s not cut off: not from others, and yes, not from the person whom he is mourning. We know that the neshamah continues to exist, and we’re not cut off. Sometimes, in fact, we’re more connected afterward. But the aveil can only accept this when he wants to hear it.
I remember a case of a woman whose child was murdered, and she mourned for years; she was really cut off. I taught her daughter, and when I met the mother, I said to her, “Do you think your son wants his siblings to lose a mother? He wants you to come back to them and reach out to them.” So her loyalty to her child had her come back to her family, and in that way she was not cut off from her child. She thought there was a disloyalty to her child if she stopped mourning, but now she understood that the expression of love to this boy’s other siblings, who needed their mother back, was a manifestation of her love for him. So it was a turnaround, an example of vayinacheim, to turn around and look at things differently. That’s nechamah.
The Maharal says, “Al tenachamu B’sha’ah shemeiso mutal lefanav,” don’t try to get him to look at things differently while his dead is yet unburied. Why? He says a common denominator in all the things in that mishnah in Avos is that you have to wait until the person is in a certain place, is open. That’s why the halachah is so on target. Don’t speak until the aveil wants to speak. If you speak too early, he’ll reject it. And then later, when you try to say it again, the Maharal explains, the aveil will say, “I heard that already.”
The Shach says, “Avid inish le’ukmi b’divurei,” people stand behind their words. When you say something and it’s rejected, later on it’s too late. So wait, wait until the person is ready to speak, is ready to talk, is ready to hear; then you can be menacheim.
To better understand the mitzvah of Nichum aveilim, we can look at the mitzvah of bikur cholim. The Rosh Yeshivah Rav Yitzchak Hutner said that bikur means to investigate. When it talks about ma’aseir beheimah it says, “Bein tov lera lo
yevakeir,” don’t investigate. levakeir, bikur cholim, means to investigate the sick. What do they need? Rav Moshe Schwab, the gateshead Mashgiach, once came to visit a sick man in London. He sat by his bed for half an hour and didn’t say a word, and then he got up and left. The person he came to visit said that was his most comforting visit. He felt alone, but with Rav Moshe sitting there, he wasn’t alone. This man didn’t want to speak – Rav Moshe gave him just what he needed.
I don’t want to say the halachah is beautiful – that’s such an American thing to say – but the halachah is so in touch with human beings, with human reality because the Creator of the halachah, of our mesorah, also created man. And sometimes a person needs to be alone and wants to be alone; he doesn’t want to speak. But when someone is sitting there and not speaking to them, that’s a perfect mix of you’re not alone, I’m here, but I’m not intruding into your life.
The Vilna Gaon, in Mishlei 4,talks about the word lishmo’a, to hear. And he says that lishmo’a has three translations. one is the physical act of hearing. You have to have time to do this. I remember a case in which someone’s child had drowned in a swimming pool, Rachmana litzlan, Hashem should protect us. Someone who was going to be me- nacheim aveil called me and asked me, “What should I say?”
I said, “You don’t say anything; you sit and cry with the person.” So he said to me, “I don’t have time for that.”
I told him, “You know, on Shabbos you’re supposed to eat some- thing hot. So if you have three hours, then you can have a cholent. If you don’t have time, you make yourself a cup of tea” – although I felt that if a person doesn’t have time, maybe he shouldn’t go. A person has to feel your presence.
I remember Rav Matisyahu Salomon, the Lakewood Mashgiach, explained about a Jewish heart – that on the same night a person can go to a wedding and be mesamei’ach chassan v’challah and then cross the street and go into a shivah call. He said that’s what a Jewish heart is about: you connect. What does this person need? And what does Hashem want from me? It’s not a faucet that runs hot and cold; when I’m at a chassunah, this is what the Ribbono Shel Olam wants from me. When I go to a beis aveil, this is what the Ribbono Shel Olam wants from me. Now I’m going to try to offer what this person needs. Rav Aryeh Levine came into a shivah call, and he just burst out crying. When someone else feels my pain, that’s a nechamah.
Now, as we previously said, the Gaon tells us that the word lishmo’a has three meanings. one is the physical act of hearing, which we just discussed; the second is to understand; and the third is to accept. Shema Yisrael doesn’t just mean listen, it means hear, accept. The next shelav, the next stage, of nichum aveilim is, what can the aveil do once he has heard and accepted? He’s not cut off, and sometimes he’s even closer to the loved one. And if during the niftar’s lifetime he did not appreciate certain things, now he does. There’s certainly what to do for the niftar: there’s tzeddakah to give, there’s mishnayos to learn. In ruchniyus there’s no such thing as a small act. Something that lasts forever can never be small. It says, “Baruch meshaleim sachar tov liyrei’av.” But every sachar is tov, every reward is good. So why does it says “sachar tov?” The mefarshim explain that sachar tov means re- ward that is forever. When you do a small mitzvah, it only pays a penny a century – forever. No bank can cover that. And even a small act for a loved one is a connection.
When I was sitting shivah for my mother, Reb Elyah Weintraub told me that you stay connected to the niftar by just learning some mishnayos. He recommended learning the mishnayos of neshamah, in Maseches Mikva’os, and through that you’re connected. Reb Elyah said, “You can stay connected to your mother. Say a mishnah for her; it’s like sending her a love letter. ‘Ima, Mother, Mamma, here, here’s a mishnah.’” A mishnah is a diamond! Every word is worth taryag mitzvos. It doesn’t take a lot of time, but it keeps you connected. This is very important. The main tza’ar, the main pain, of someone sitting shivah is that you’re an aveil: you feel cut off. But you’re not cut off. We’re here, we’re here for you, we love you; you’re not alone. But even more, you’re not alone – you’re not cut off from that loved one. And that connection is permanent and forever.
- Put yourself in the aveil’s shoes to gauge if he’s ready for chizzuk. give a disclaimer about yourself so that it is clear that you are giving the chizzuk from level ground, not from a “high mountain.”
- Don’t think of yourself as a hero in coming to be menacheim aveil. Think that you want to be there for the aveil.
- We are not nevi’im. We don’t know why the person passed away.
- Ask Hashem to help you be menacheim properly.
- We say, “HaMakom yenacheim eschem” because the niftar is also in pain. He wants to come back and reassure his family that he’s okay; he’s now in a better world.
- There is a plan to every person’s life. In fact, Hashem has a malach show him the circumstances of his life before he’s born, and he agrees to whatever he is shown.
- Let the aveil know you’ll be there for him, to help him move on in life. This can be a great chizzuk.
- The prospect of one day being able to give chizzuk to others can be comforting in itself.
Chocolate Milk and Corn Chips: A Guide to Giving Chizzuk
Chocolate milk and corn chips. Every once in a while, when I put out an article, I get a message from my friend: “Chocolate milk and corn chips.” Sometimes he says it
in front of people – I don’t mind, we’re really good friends – and they look at me and ask, “What, are you taking orders? Do you moonlight at a different kind of business?” And sometimes I tell people what it’s all about.
This friend of mine was together with me in the bungalow colony, and he, lo aleinu v’lo aleichem, lost several children. At that point, they weren’t well; the situation wasn’t good, and people knew a full recovery required a miracle, a neis shelo al pi derech hateva. As hashgachah would have it, I had a little office in my bungalow. Now this was a real bungalow, with really thin walls. You know what they say about bungalows? Someone went and knocked in a picture, and the neighbor came from the other side and said, “Do you mind if I hang my hat on the other side of the nail?” This was the kind of setup we had. One of the things I would do at night in my office was to record a series about chizzuk and simchah (encouragement and happiness) for a certain organization – a very well-known organization that does wonderful things. I would do this late at night, and my friend’s bungalow was right underneath me.
Apparently, he once heard me giving one of my great chizzuk speeches about how you have to strengthen yourself and how life has to go on, and we have no right to give up. All of a sudden the door to my office opened up, and he walked behind me and took this bag of corn chips that was lying on the desk, opened it up, and proceeded to empty the contents on top of my head. Again, this is a very good friend, so it was all good natured. I thought that would really make for an interesting shot on the video, and if that didn’t make people laugh, I don’t know what would. Being that I was concerned he was going to do the same with the chocolate milk on my desk, I shut off the recorder, turned around and said, “Hi, Moish, everything okay?” He said, “Do you mind if I tell you something?”
And I said, “Since you’re going to tell it to me whether I mind or not, go ahead.” He replied, “I just love this. I just had to put a kid in bed by lifting him with a type of a crane because he has no muscle movement. We had to lift him, crank him up, lay him down on the bed, take him off for whatever reason, put him back on; it takes us an hour to go through this maneuver of getting him off his chair and onto his bed. And I just love it. You’re sitting up here, and you’re giving chizzuk to people with a bag of corn chips and a little container of chocolate milk! How nice, eating corn chips and drinking chocolate milk and telling people to be strong!” He said, “I have a great idea. Why don’t you leave the corn chips and the chocolate milk up here and instead come downstairs as we’re putting the next child into bed and give your chizzuk shemuess over there?”
Now again, this was from a real good friend. They were wholesome words. He wouldn’t have said this to me if I wasn’t a good friend. But the words hit home. And it’s kind of my code. He once told me, “You know that a meis is asur b’hana’ah, it’s prohibited to derive any pleasure from a person that passed away. Whatever you do, don’t make a business out of being mechazzeik people.” I thought long and hard about what he said, and essentially I think the message is, “ein chacham k’bar nisayon,” no one is as smart as someone who is going through a situation. I really took his words to heart – and I’ll be thankful to him forever after, because he gave me this great introductory story whenever I do these type of chizzuk things – and whenever I am afforded the opportunity to speak to bereaved parents, Rachmana litzlan, may Hashem protect us, or others who have suffered loss or pain, I always start with this story. First people are quiet, and then usually there is this huge round of applause. I realize how important this story is to them, so I am making a disclaimer. I’m not coming here on top of a high mountain of emunah and bitachon, of faith in Hashem, and telling you, who are suffering down there, come now, you’ve learned Chovos Halevavos, you’ve learned Mesilas Yesharim. get up! Listen to me – I’m a professional at this! Because in a sense, there could be nothing as hurtful as that.
You know, I have a friend, the Ribbono Shel Olam should protect us, who lost a child. I was young then, in kollel. It was before we were in the chizzuk business, so to speak. I was just coming to be menacheim aveil, and as we were driving up to his house, I was thinking to myself, “What can I say to someone who just lost a child? I’m going to be mechazzeik him.” So I said to myself, “got it! You know that famous story with the Ba’al Shem Tov that there was this couple that had a child after many, many years, and when the child was only two years old, he passed away? The couple came back to the Ba’al Shem Tov, and the Ba’al Shem Tov said that that child had to be down here to nurse from a Jewish mother’s milk; that was the only reason he had to be down here. It was based on a whole story that the child was originally a prince and so on. That would be such chizzuk for this person because this child that passed away was two years old. He had to come down to nurse from the heilige Yiddishe mamme for two years. Surely that’s going to make him feel good!”
So I came into the house and sat down. Of course, the halachah is that you let the aveil talk first. He gave me this look, “Nu?” Suddenly my tongue got twisted a little bit, and he said to me, “I’ll tell you one thing: a couple of people were here today, and if I hear that story about the Ba’al Shem Tov with the milk one more time, I’m telling you, I’m going to get up and walk out!” I just stood there and said, “oh.”
“You wanted to say something?” my friend asked. Me, say something? I use this story also when addressing those who are struggling with tragedy.
I want to share something with you. There are times I have spoken to groups of people that have gone through terrible tragedies in their lives. I start with this story – I don’t tell them the first part; I just start with the story: “There once was a child…” And I can see the anger in most of them, the pain, and I understand that pain. When I come to the last part of the story, and I say, “And by the way, I once told this to a friend of mine who was sitting shivah, and he said, ‘If I hear this story one more time…’,” there is this huge roar of laughter in the crowd!
I understand the laughter. In a sense, it’s like a relief. Because they thought that this speech was going to be one of those, “What’s your problem? A neshamah came down for this tikkun, did its job and is on its way home; what are you crying for?” There is all this pain in the crowd, and once there is a turnaround, “And my friend was so angry when I said this story,” a sense of identifying with the people’s pain, there is this sense of relief, “Phew!”
Does this mean there is no place for chizzuk? Does this mean that there is no place for emunah and bitachon? of course there is. But the person that’s listening to it, who is in such a sensitive state, can read very quickly where you are coming from. If you placed yourself on top of the mountain and you’re demanding emunah and bitachon from someone who is in so much pain, that’s offensive. There’s another way of doing it. You can put yourself into that person’s shoes and allow him to feel that you’re feeling his pain; if there is a discussion and suddenly an appropriate opening comes up, you might try to inject a little bit of chizzuk; if the person says, “Really? Tell me that story again,” feel it out, look at the person’s eyes, and see if he is ready for the chizzuk – and always with a disclaimer: “Listen, not that I’m this big ba’al emunah and bitachon. I’m not the one that’s on the level of accepting everything with love. Trust me, when I hear a noise in my back tire, I’m petrified. You know, sometimes I say these things to myself and it helps me, so maybe we can kind of help each other.” If we’re coming from the position that we’re on level ground, it is so much easier to share such a message.
I'll share with you an experience from when I was sitting shivah, Rachmana litzlan, for one of my parents. I should have long forgotten this, so many Yom Kippurs have passed. But I’ll tell you one of the things that bothered me at that time, and it touched on certain sensitivities that I try to be careful with.
I had three friends who came in from a different city, about a three-hour drive from where I was sitting shivah. They came together, and I got the feeling of, “Hey, it’s been a while since we got together, you know. We were able to enjoy this trip and schmooze.” And I’m thinking, oh great, you needed a night out, and you took the opportunity of nichum aveilim and came together. As they were on their way out, I overheard one of them saying, “Should we stop to eat over there?” And one of the others answered, “Yeah! You remember we used to do it as bachurim? okay, great. You know, listen, HaMakom yenacheim eschem.” Yeah, I’m going to need the Ribbono Shel Olam to comfort me.
There is a famous story of a person who came to be mevakeir choleh, to visit an ill person, and he was told, “He’s not ready for you yet. He really can’t speak to you.” The visitor said, “Come on, I came from so far; what do you mean he’s not ready yet?” He is told, “Yeah, well the person you came to visit fell asleep.” So the visitor says, “Well, wake him up and tell him I’m here!” Sometimes you see this. People come to be menacheim aveil, and they’re wearing a cape, “I’m the hero! I came to be mechazzeik you!” It doesn’t make people feel better.
So what do I do when I come to be Menachem Aveil? You do what Chazal tell us to do. There is a disagreement whether it is yikra d’chayah, for the honor of the liv- ing, or for the honor of the niftar, that we come to be menacheim. Is the neshamah of the niftar there, or is this mitzvah about the honor of the aveil? We say that we are coming in the honor of the aveil. That means I’m coming to be mishtateif b’tza’ar, to share in his pain. The greatest words of chizzuk I ever heard were the words of R’ Meir from Pruzhan, who once came to a widow crying and said, “Whatever I’m going to tell you is not going to make you feel better at this moment. Later on in life you’ll be ready for chizzuk, but not at this moment. Right now I just came to cry with you.” And they cried together.
This woman said to the Rebbe, “Nobody was mechazzeik me as much as you were.” of course there is a time for chizzuk in the process. But Chazal say three days of bechi (crying), three days of hesped (eulogy); everything has its place. You’ll be sensitive to where this person you want to be mechazzeik is up to if you’re not thinking of yourself as a hero, but rather, you’re thinking “I want to be here with you.”
I’ve been called so many times to the bedsides of people that are literally almost leaving this world. And I sit down and say, “I don’t know what to say. I haven’t the vaguest notion of what to say.” And I know what you’re thinking: so why am I there? It’s because it would have been so much easier for me to say, “I don’t know what to say, I don’t know the person so well, so I don’t have time for this.” But when I hear such a story, I have to be there. We all have to come to be mishtateif (join in) with the tza’ar of another; it’s the least I can do. I don’t know if I’m on the level of Reb Meir from Pruzhan, who can burst into tears and cry with someone, but any level of feeling pain with another is true nichum aveilim.
I want to share with you a story along the same lines. Many years ago in a certain camp there was a terrible tragedy that took place with a young bachur. A sheloshim se’udah was held, and the olam, the people present, was obviously very tzubrochen, broken and hurt. Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky, zichrono livrachah, was there. one of the speakers got up and said, “Bachurim, you know why this happened? It happened because of bittul Torah,” and he really drilled it into us.
And then Rav Ya’akov, who also knew a thing or two about bittul Torah – they say that in Slabodka Rav Ya’akov didn’t go to sleep until he fell into bed; if he had enough strength to go to bed, he was still learning – began his shemuess. I guess he felt it was important enough to say what he did in public because Reb Ya’akov was very ois g’chesh- bened (well thought out). He turned to the speaker, and he asked him a question, “Iz ehrt a navi?” – Are you a prophet?
“Iz ehrt a ba’al ru’ach hakoddesh?” – Do you have Divine inspira- tion; do you have a connection to the Urim V’tumim?
“Aha. So how do you know it happened because of bittul Torah?” The first speaker said, “I assume, you know, Chazal say… “oh, it’s a hash’arah that you have, it’s your assumption. You don’t know that it happened because of bittul Torah. Because, you know, if you’re wrong, and this particular mishap did not happen because of bittul Torah, then you transgressed the lav of ona’as devarim, the negative commandment against causing pain with words – because the family is now saying, if only they would have gotten the niftar to learn more, it wouldn’t have happened; do you understand that?”
Then Rav Ya’akov turned to the crowd and said, “Bachurim, I want to talk to you about the importance of limud haTorah and the terrible punishment for bittul Torah.” And he almost repeated verbatim what the previous speaker said. Do you understand the greatness of Rav Ya’akov’s message? There’s nothing wrong with saying – and in fact, it’s what we have to do when a tragedy happens – how are we going to be mechazzeik ourselves? We’re going to finish Shas; we’re going to organize people to do things. That’s what the Ribbono Shel Olam wants us to do. That’s what the Rambam says we have to do. But don’t go deciding that this is the reason the person died unless you’re a navi, and Hashem told you that. Because that’s painful.
Now, there are two reasons people go to be menacheim aveil. one is, “oh, I have to make sure that he sees me. I have to make sure that he knows I was here,” which is fine, but understand what you’re doing; don’t overdo it. There are those who need to advertise, “I’m here, remember, I came. It wasn’t easy for me to come, but I came.” What do you want the aveil to do? Do you want a medal?
The second reason people come to be menacheim aveil is because they truly want to be menacheim the aveil. So what you have to say is, “Borei kol olamim (Creator of all the worlds), help me do this.” When Chazal say that the menacheim shouldn’t talk first, rather let the aveil talk, that means they’re trusting you to gauge his mood. Now, depending on who you are and depending on who he is, it could be he does want to hear words of chizzuk from you. Feel him out. As long as you’re thinking that the primary purpose is that this person should feel better, not that I did my job, then you’ll have siyata d’Shmaya.
Being that sometimes people do like to hear a good vort, let me share with you some of the messages that I heard when sitting shivah. The Sefas emes says, “Ha- Makom yenacheim eschem”; eschem is plural. Who is the eschem? You don’t always have multiple people sitting shivah. What if there’s only one person sitting shivah? Why did Chazal create one formula in lashon rabbim? The reason it says eschem, says the Sefas emes, is because it’s not only the aveil sitting shivah; the neshamah is also in pain. And why is the neshamah in pain? Because the neshamah would like to turn to his family member(s) and say, “I’m okay, don’t worry about it. I’ve come back to where I understand, and it all makes sense to me now; I’m back home. And you’re crying. You look at it like I’m gone, but I’m back home.” The neshamah says, “Can’t I just tell him? Can’t I just appear for one second and say, ‘Don’t worry, I’m okay?’” But part of how HaKaddosh Baruch Hu created this world is that the neshamah does not have the ability to be able to convey that message directly to the family member who is crying. And that is the pain of the neshamah. Look at how this person is crying; if only I could tell him it’s alright, that this is the real life. Says the Sefas emes, that is the HaMakom yenacheim eschem.
I heard this vort from someone who was so impressed with it; it meant so much to him. I looked at him and said, “You know, it takes a very big ba’al madreigah, a person on a high level, to be impressed with this vort and feel good about it.”
The person who shared it with me told me that his Rosh Yeshivah told it to him. “My Rosh Yeshivah was in the middle of the wedding of his own child, and he heard about my tragedy. He figured we had just come home from the levayah (funeral), and he called me from eretz Yisrael and said, ‘I asked the music to stop in the middle of the chassunah. I just want to tell you this vort.’ Can you imagine what my Rosh Yeshivah did for me, in the middle of his own child’s wedding? He had to tell me this vort?!” I realized what had happened. The emunah in that vort, how my friend really believed what the Sefas emes says, was because of the mesiras nefesh of his Rosh Yeshivah. You see how when you really genuinely are willing to give, then the person is willing to listen. Don’t talk from on top of the mountain, jump into the person’s mud and pain and speak to him from there.
The other vort the Rosh Yeshivah told him was the following: It says by the mitzvah of hak’hel, when the king would read the entire Torah for everyone, that the men come to learn, the women come to hear, and taf lamah ba’im (children, why do they come)? The answer is, litein sechar tov, to give a reward for those who bring them. The Chasam Sofer asks, “Why do little children go away from this world? We don’t understand it. But one of the reasons is to give a reward to the parents, to those who raised them up until this point.”
I once heard the following from a chasuve Rav who was talking to someone, and it was devarim hayotzim min haleiv, words that came out of his heart, that’s why it was nich’nasim laleiv, that’s why it entered the person’s heart. (The Amshinover Rebbe used to say, “My father would always say, devarim hayotzim min haleiv means you have to be so sincere that your heart fills up, and it has to pour out of your heart.”) This rav quoted a Rabbeinu Bechaya that says that when a neshamah is called to come down to this world, the neshamah is very frightened. The neshamah is kind of in a waiting room. The Derech Hashem says that Gan eden is broken up into three parts: there is the waiting room, because all neshamos were created at sheishes yemei Bereishis (the six days of Creation); there is the trip down here to this world; then there is the Gan eden after this world; and there is a third part of Gan eden, of the olam hatechiyah, of techiyas hameisim, when this world becomes Gan eden. That’s the kaddosh, kaddosh, kaddosh, the ultimate holiness, the Shelah Hakaddosh explains, whatever this means.
We try to picture this with a very simplistic analogy: A kid comes to the dentist, and he sees a beautiful waiting room with fish and toys. He’s so excited until they call him in to the dentist’s chair, and all of a sudden, uh oh! So when a neshamah is waiting, we’re in the waiting room; it’s so beautiful and so great. It’s so unbelievable. Then comes the malach and says, “You!”
“It’s time for you to be born.”
“No, no, no,” al karchacha atah chai. “No, no, I don’t want to be born!” Says the medrash, greater is the fear of being born than the fear of death. Fear of death is the unknown; the fear of being born is a greater unknown for the neshamah. So the Ribbono Shel Olam, in His great mercy, wants to make it a little bit easier for us. Chazal tell us that He sends a malach, and the malach gives us a tour of this world. We look through the entire world, and the malach shows us our parents.
The Kedushas levi says that one of the reasons women cry by a wedding is because the neshamos come, and the neshamos look and say, “Those two kids are going to be our parents! our whole future is in their hands!” Hashem knows what He’s doing; there’s a chain of events, the way it works. The neshamah starts crying. And the wom-en, who are much more sensitive to the sublime, also start crying. The neshamah is shown everything – marriages, homes, all the phases of life, ad zibulo basraysa, until the last shovel of earth. Exactly how bechirah, free choice, plays into this, Chazal deal with. After the neshamah is given the tour of this world and is told this is your mission, this is your job, this is the reason you are down here, the neshamah comes back up to Shamayim. HaKaddosh Baruch Hu says, “Do you understand the mission?”
And the neshamah says, “Yes.”
“You realize you have to be born; that’s the purpose of creation.” “okay.”
“You know, I showed you everything beforehand, and I explained it to you.”
And Hashem takes – kavayachol, of course not in the physical sense – a contract, and He says, “Here, everything is spelled out in the contract. I want you to sign off that you knew about this beforehand.” The neshamah signs off. We come down to this world.
After 120 years we come up there, and the neshamah says, “Ribbono Shel Olam, how could You have done this to me?”
HaKaddosh Baruch Hu answers, “Sheifele, I showed it to you beforehand, and you signed off on it!” The world is not hefker, without a plan.
Again, there is a time and a place to give chizzuk. There is a time and a place to give chizzuk to ourselves as well. I’ll share with you a vort that I once heard in the name of Rav Ya’akov. I heard it from Rav Ginsburg. There was a very chashuve Rosh Yeshivah who had already lost a child, and the Rosh Yeshivah himself had a serious heart condition and was going through a particular health issue when a terrible tragedy took place with his son in eretz Yisrael, and the bachur passed away. His family was scared to tell him the news, Hashem yeracheim, given his health condition. So the Rosh Yeshivah went to learn, and the house turned into a shivah house. They covered the mirrors and were sitting shivah, and before the Rosh Yeshivah came back, they turned everything back, and the wife smiled and served supper. This is how it went for three days! For three days they kept the Rosh Yeshivah at bay. You might say somebody else would have been more perceptive to pick this up – how could you hide a thing like this? – but if you would know how immersed this Rosh Yeshivah was in his learning, you would understand. There was a spy to check if the Rosh Yeshivah was coming home, so they could quickly get rid of all the small chairs and take off the signs of HaMakom yenacheim eschem.
After three days, Rav Ya’akov told the family that they should now tell this Rosh Yeshivah the news, since eventually he would find out. Somebody asked Rav Ya’akov, “Me’ikara mai k’savar v’hashta mai k’savar” – “So what did you think to start with? If you were going to tell him, what changed after three days?” Rav Ya’akov explained that when a person hears about an earth-shattering tragedy, Rachmana litzlan, he says, “My life is over; I will never be able to go on! I can’t, I can’t. Life is over! But now you’re going to be telling him that it happened three days ago, and therefore you will say, ‘You survived these three days, your life wasn’t over; you will continue to survive.’” one of the most important rules of being mechazzeik someone in this kind of situation is to let him know that life is going to go on. And when you let him know that I’m going to be there with you for life to go on – not that I’m this super mentor — but we’re going to be here for each other as life goes on, that’s really a chizzuk that is unparalleled.
I once read a story about a seventeen year old boy who was kind of an intern at Pearl Harbor; he worked on one of the ships. Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor. And this seventeen-year-old who was so excited about the huge ships was suddenly thrown into a world of death, a world of pain, a world of blood, a world of seeing people being burned up alive. He personally was not hurt, but the entire night he was ferrying back and forth with a boat, dragging people out of the water, soaked in oil. They were black from the oil from their heads
to their toes, in flames, and he threw his own body on them to try to extinguish the flames. When the night was over, he went into unbelievable trauma. He was going out of his mind. He just kept reliving and reliving the scenes of that terrible night at Pearl Harbor.
Somebody said to him, “How did you survive that night, going back and forth, when you were seeing it actually happen?”
He answered, “Well, then I had no time to realize the trauma. I had to help the people.”
“So why don’t you continue helping people now?” this person suggested.
This young man took a medical technician paramedic course, and he’s been saving lives since then. And he said that’s what saved his life.
When we’re busy helping others and saving others, it’s hard to feel our own pain. give people the confidence that they’re going to get through this and they’re going to have the power to give chizzuk to others. Even the hope of giving chizzuk to others is already a chizzuk.
May HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, Who is the only one who can really give us the chizzuk, give us the opportunities to help each other to be mechazzeik ourselves.
- When one is menacheim aveil, he is giving nechamah to the
aveil and the niftar.
- While in a circumstance where there is no other choice one can be menacheim aveil over the phone, the optimum way to do the mitzvah is to be there personally to truly connect to the aveil. Also, if one is not there personally, he is not able to comfort the neshamah of the niftar. The words “HaMakom yenacheim…” are not the main part of the mitzvah of nichum aveilim, but rather the gemar, the end, to the words of comfort. It is appropriate to share heartening words to assuage the aveil’s pain. Even just coming to the beis aveil is part of the nechamah.
- It is a tremendous nechamah to talk about the impact of the niftar, what made him stand out, what his virtues and positive attributes were.
- All who are marbeh b’nechamos (console abundantly) will merit the ultimate nechamas Tziyon (comfort of Tziyon). In addition, we are told that if one was menacheim aveilim and therefore was menacheim the neshamos of the niftarim as well, when he leaves this world, his own neshamah will merit comfort and to be joyously escorted into the portals of Gan eden.
- Don’t be menacheim someone if there is animosity between you. He may feel that you are reveling in his pain.
- According to the Chazon Ish, as quoted by Rav Chaim Kanievsky, an aveil is not obligated to stand up for a gadol b’Yisrael who comes in, but he can if he wants to. It is proper to say HaMakom while sitting. The aveil should be sitting as well. (Incidentally, bikur cholim should also be done while sitting.)
- In order to actually accomplish the goal of nichum aveilim, there needs to be an atmosphere of nechamah. This is one of the reasons why doing nichum aveilim over the phone does not fully fulfill the mitzvah.
- Just as Hashem sends the gezeirah, the decree, He also gives the person experiencing it the strength to carry on
The Essence of Nechama
I welcome the opportunity extended to me by Rabbi Elchonon Zohn, the head of the chevrah kaddisha in Queens here, who has committed and dedicated himself for many, many years to chessed shel emes. And my berachos to him and to Chevrah Lomdei Mishnah is that they should be zocheh that HaKaddosh Baruch Hu should give them shefa berachah v’hatzlachah, simchah v’nachas mikol yotzei chalatzeihem ad bi’as go’el tzeddek bimheirah b’yamaneinu amein (abundant blessing and success, joy and pleasure from all their offspring, until the coming of the righteous redeemer, speedily, in our days, amen).
The first interesting thing we find about nichum aveilim (Maseches Sofrim 14) is regarding Shlomoh Hamelech, about whom it says, “Tikein sh’nei she’arim b’Beis Hamikdash.” Shlomoh Hamelech established two separate gates to the Beis Hamikdash, “kedei sheyeidu,” that people should know, “mi chassan oh mi aveil,” who was a bridegroom or who was a mourner; people should realize that if a person went into one gate he was a chassan, and if a person went into the other gate, he was an aveil. What was the purpose of this? “V’yishtatfu b’tza’aram u’vesimchasam shel Yisrael.” We see here the importance of Klal Yisrael being together and sharing, whether it is in the joyous occasions of other Jews or in their pain. The fact that Yidden would know that this is a chassan going through this gate, or this is an aveil going through the other gate gave the opportunity to Klal Yisrael to be able to join in either the tza’ar, the pain of the aveil or in the simchah, the joy, of the chassan.
Another important point about the mitzvah of nichum aveilim, which is part of gemilus chassadim, is that we find that HaKaddosh Baruch Hu in fact was menacheim Yitzchak Avinu when he lost his father Avraham Avinu. The passuk in parshas Chayei Sarah says, “Vayehi acharei mos Avraham,” it was after Avraham Avinu passed away; “vayevareich elokim es Yitzchak,” HaKaddosh Baruch Hu gave a blessing, a berachah, to Yitzchak. What does it mean, “vayevareich elokim”? Rashi says (c.f. Maseches Sotah 14), “shenichamo tanchumei aveilim,” Hashem was menacheim aveil at that time.
If you look a little bit in the sefarim, you will see that nechamah is not just for the aveil who is sitting shivah, but it’s also for the neshamah of the deceased. This is something people may not be so aware of because, of course, we don’t actually see the neshamah of the meis there. However, the nechamah goes not only to the aveil, but also to the niftar (Ma’avar Yabok). As a matter of fact, this is one of the reasons why we say when going to be menacheim aveil, “HaMakom yenacheim eschem,” in plural, even if there is one aveil sitting. People sometimes question that. Some of the posters that show the words of HaMakom say oscha if it’s for one aveil and eschem in brackets if there are many. If you look in the sifrei kabbalah, you will see that you should say eschem regardless of how many people are sitting there. What’s the eschem? It’s the aveil and the neshamah of the meis whom you are comforting. Therefore, there are always at least two that you’re being menacheim.
There is proof to the above from Chazal. The Gemara in Shabbos
(142) includes a fascinating halachah. It’s not our custom to do this – many of the things we find in Chazal have changed throughout the generations – but it is illustrative to see what the Gemara says there: “Meis she’ein lo menachamim,” one who has passed away and does not have relatives to comfort, “holchim asarah benei adam v’yoshvim bimkomo,” ten people go and sit in his place. In other words, you bring a minyan to sit in place of the aveil. But who are we comforting, if these are not the aveilim? These ten people sit in place of the aveil because the neshamah of the meis is there, and therefore, we are actually comforting the neshamah. The Gemara tells us that Rav Yehudah actually took ten men with him to do this. Chazal tell us that after the conclusion of the shivah, the niftar came and revealed himself in a dream to Rav Yehudah and said, “Tanuach da’atcha kemo shehinachta es da’ati,” may your mind always be at ease in the same way that you have comforted me.
Many, many, many years ago, a respected rav in my neighborhood was giving a shiur in Maseches Mo’ed Kattan in which the Gemara discusses the halachos of aveilus as we are familiar with them. This rav told me that one of the people at the lecture asked him for the source of the text commonly said, “HaMakom yenacheim eschem b’soch she’ar aveili Tziyon viYerushalayim.” If Klal Yisrael adopted this text, this nussach, there must be a reason or some legitimate source for it. The earliest mention I was able to find for this wording is in the commentary of the Derishah, at the bottom of the Tur. The Derishah says that it is the minhag ha’olam, the common custom, to say HaMakom yenacheim. This still does not provide a real source for that nussach. It occurred to me – and I believe this is really the truth – what the source for these words is. Everywhere in halachah – in Shulchan Aruch, Rambam – the halachos of bikur cholim and nichum aveilim basically go together. The passuk says, “es haderech asher yeilchu bah” (a person should follow in these ways); the Gemara explains that derech is referring to bikur cholim, and bah is referring to nichum aveilim. It’s an amazing thing that bikur cholim does have a nussach, but nobody says it. The Gemara (Shabbos 12) says that when you visit a sick person, you say the following: “HaMakom yerapei oscha b’soch she’ar cholei Yisrael” (Hashem should cure you amongst the other ill members of Israel). So when it came to nichum aveilim, they took the exact nussach but substituted HaMakom yenacheim in place of HaMakom yerapei, and instead of cholim they said aveilim. Now the only question is, why regarding bikur cholim, for which the Gemara does provide a text, you don’t hear it being used – and don’t try to say it or they’ll think you’re saying something else when you start off with that phrase. It does seem clear, though, that this is where we get the wording for nichum aveilim.
When we talk about nichum aveilim in general, there is a big question whether this mitzvah actually requires a personal visitation to the aveil or if it can be accomplished by telephone. It’s certainly, according to all opinions, the optimum to be there personally because then one is able to firsthand, face to face, look the aveil in the eye and share in his pain. It’s brought down in the poskim that if there’s really no other choice – whether you are far away or because of other constraints – b’sha’as hadechak, you can fulfill the mitzvah on the telephone. But nichum aveilim is not to merely saying the words HaMakom yenacheim. HaMakom yenacheim is very fine and is of course the text that we say, but really nichum aveilim is to add extra words. The Chafetz Chaim (Sefer Ahavas Chessed 5) says that yes, you can fulfill the mitzvah of nichum aveilim by saying HaMakom yenacheim, but “mikol makom yoser tov im yevo’u l’dabeir el libo,” it’s always better to say some heartening words, “u’lehafeik mitza’aro be’eizeh diburim, shezehu ikar hanichum,” to be able to neutralize his pain, as this is the main way of offering comfort. So HaMakom yenacheim is not the main comfort that one offers; rather, it is the attitude and the various different things that a person comes to say that are the most crucial.
In truth, just the fact that you have come, as Rav Elyah Lopian once pointed out, shows the aveil that you’re joining in his pain. So even if sometimes you did not say anything, the reality that you were there showed that you cared. You made the effort and came to that person; this itself is already a comfort. Sometimes actions really do speak louder than words. As a matter of fact, sometimes it’s better not to say anything at all because people say the wrong things. But when the aveil sees that you have come in, right away it offers comfort for him.
What does nechamah really mean? It doesn’t change the reality; the loss is still there. It’s a fact and you’re not going to bring back the niftar; rather, the idea is that the aveil should hear about the significance of the niftar, that the niftar made some sort of contribution to society. Rav Wosner writes in sefer Shevet Halevi that before one goes to do nichum aveilim there should be preparation, just as you’d prepare if you were commissioned to give a speech. You should choose your words carefully. Think what you are going to say: what is appropriate for this particular situation and this particular aveil – what might be appealing to him in terms of words of nechamah.
In choosing your words, try to find some sort of virtue, some ma’alah in the niftar that you feel was appreciated by society. When an aveil hears that the niftar really lived a life that made a difference, it can offer very significant comfort. People remember him for the good things that he did. Not everybody is a Rosh Yeshivah about whom you can say “He was a great marbitz Torah,” or a rav, or a leader of a kehillah or of a community, but if you really think into it, you will find that every Jew had a certain ma’alah. And if you’re able to somehow expand on that ma’alah a little bit and even share what a difference he made in your own life, that is a tremendous thing that releases and relieves some of the pain that the aveil is going through.
We find this concept in another area, and that is in the mitzvah of kibbud av va’eim. The Chayei Adam says that a person who honors his father in many, many ways, feeding him, giving him to drink – that is not enough. Rather, true kibbud av va’eim is to be able to find a virtue in your father or your mother so that you can respect him or her. Sometimes it’s very difficult. Sometimes people have parents whose lifestyles or characters are very far from anything they’d want to emulate. Yet, everybody has a ma’alah, and according to this Chayei Adam, it’s a tremendous responsibility to try to find it in one’s parents, no matter what the situation is – even if chas v’Shalom you have a father who is a drunk, or society looks down upon him, there has to be something positive there somewhere. And if you find a ma’alah – ah, because of that ma’alah you’ll see a reason to respect him. Kibbud means to respect. giving food and drink is one thing – that’s shimush, service; it doesn’t mean you have to respect the person as a person. Kibbud av va’eim means to find the ma’alah that shows he deserves respect.
When we’re talking now about nichum aveilim, it is also important to find a ma’alah in the niftar, and that is something that will certainly help to remove some of the pain.
The Shelah Hakaddosh, as a matter of fact, says very clearly in the beginning of Maseches Pesachim what we reiterated: “lo dai b’nichum levad, ela yeish lomar gam kein divrei nechumin,” it’s not enough to just go be menacheim aveil; you have to find words, devarim tovim, until he forgets his pain somewhat. So you see that the various words that are being said are very important. Many times people come to be menacheim aveil and are talking about everything except that which is really important. In some cases, that is also appropriate. The way each person reacts to tza’ar is unique; you will not find two people reacting in the exact same way. Some people become very, very depressed, so they need a distraction. But the distraction is superficial and artificial; that’s not what true nechamah is. True nechamah is dealing with the situation and yet trying to find ways to alleviate the pain.
The Mateh Moshe (a talmid of the Maharal) writes (perek 5), “Kelalah d’milsa y’dabeir divrei nechamos hamiskablim laleiv, v’chol hamarbeh b’nechamos yizkeh v’yireh b’nechamas Tziyon.” A person should try to find the right words [to tell the aveil], which are going to be received well, and all who increase their words of comfort will merit and see the comfort of Tziyon. This is an amazing berachah – one who puts forth this great effort to be menacheim aveil properly will merit the coming of Mashiach, a tremendous thing. Yet, it’s something people are not aware of. Certainly every mitzvah has great reward, and that is enough of course, but here you find a specific reward in the berachah that the Mateh Moshe gives. Marbeh b’nechamos means it takes some time to try to do the mitzvah in the best way possible; but if you do so, you’ll be included in the ultimate comfort.
Now, there's one more very important point that is so beneficial for someone who comes to be menacheim aveil to find,
and that is brought down in the Sefer Hachayim, written by the brother of the Maharal. We all know there is going to come a time when we are also going to have to leave this world, and it means that our neshamah is going to hopefully go to the right place. What will enable our neshamos, when the time comes, to be received by HaKaddosh Baruch Hu in the best way for us? one of the ways is if during one’s lifetime he was menacheim other aveilim, and therefore he actually comforted the neshamah of the departed; middah k’neged middah, measure for measure, when the time comes for his own neshamah to depart, he himself will find comfort in Shamayim. I am going to quote a very important lashon: “V’chol hamenacheim l’aveilim u’mari nefesh,” a person who comforts other mourners and people who have bitter hearts, “b’eis misaso,” when the time comes for the comforter to leave this world, “amar HaKaddosh Baruch Hu l’malachei hashareis sheheim memunim al hanechamah,” Hashem says to the malachim that are designated to give comfort. “l’holich nishmaso l’Gan eden b’chedvah v’gilah,” to escort the neshamah of the comforter to Gan eden with tremendous rejoicing. Here you have a ticket to Gan eden! “U’lenacheim oso middah k’neged middah,” and to be menacheim that neshamah measure for measure. “Shehu haya menacheim bechayav, HaKaddosh Baruch Hu nosein lo secharo hatov v’yosher l’fanav,” since when the neshamah was alive, it comforted other people, Hashem gives him this reward.
I would like to mention some situations in halachah pertaining to nichum availim. Ahavas Yisrael is a great mitzvah, but sometimes we have neighbors we just don’t get along with. I don’t want to use the term “enemy,” but that also happens sometimes. What is the halachah if a sonei, or someone you really don’t get along with, is sitting shivah? Basic halachah says, “lo yenacheim aveil shehu sono.” Halachah says that one should not go to comfort an aveil who is an enemy. Why not? Maybe now is the time to reach out – sort of like a reconciliation; now you’re going to be menacheim aveil and overlook the situation that you have between yourselves. But the downside is that if you’re going to be menacheim the enemy, there’s a chance that he will think you’re coming to see his misery. This is how we see how halachah really understands the psychology of a person. And we have to be sensitive. Sometimes when we think we’re doing something that is right, we need to be aware that maybe, yes, the intention is for the good, but in fact it might have just the opposite effect. However, halachah also says that it all depends how strong the feelings of enmity are – hakol lefi godel hasinah. Sometimes you just don’t get along with him, but it’s not that you really hate him. You have to juggle that and evaluate the situation when it comes to whether you should be menacheim aveil or not.
Here are some questions regarding nichum aveilim that were posed to Rav Chaim Kanievsky: “Ma hu l’nacheim aveilim derech hatelefon?” Can one be menacheim aveil via the telephone?
“V’shamati shebehayos chamav, Maran Hagaon Rav elyashiv, yosheiv shivah al bito” – the questioner said that he heard that when Rav Elyashiv, the father-in-law of Rav Chaim, was sitting shivah for his daughter, “higi’a telefon begaon echad, shlita,” someone called to be menacheim aveil via the telephone.
When he received the telephone call, Rav Elyashiv said, “Ki b’Rambam kasuv shenichum aveilim hu bishvil hachayim u’bishvil hameisim,” nichum aveilim is for the living and the deceased. Remember, as we mentioned before, that nichum aveilim is not only for the aveil; it’s also to comfort the meis. And the deceased is not at the other end of the telephone. This aspect of nichum aveilim is thus lost. Rav Chaim in fact replied that this is one of the reasons one should not rely, if possible, on nichum aveilim via the telephone.
The second question happened to me many, many years ago when I lost my father, and the Skvere Rebbe came to be menacheim aveil. It really says that an aveil does not get up for anyone, and the question is if an Admor or gadol b’Yisrael comes, what is the proper conduct? I asked the Rebbe’s gabbai about the minhag in Skvere; should one who is sitting shivah stand up for the Rebbe or not? You don’t want to do the wrong thing either. They said the custom is that you don’t stand up. This same shaylah was also asked of Rav Chaim Kanievsky. The basic halachah is that an aveil eino kam, an aveil does not stand up. How do we interpret these words? Does it mean he does not stand up, meaning he is not obligated to stand up for a talmid chacham, or does it mean that he is prohibited from standing up? The questioner said to Rav Chaim Kanievsky, “I heard that when Maran Hagaon Rav Shach came when Rav Chaim lost his mother, Rav Chaim asked Rav Shach this question.”
Rav Shach answered, “Freigt dem tatte,” ask your father, ask the Steipler. He didn’t want to answer this question. When Rav Chaim was asked this question more recently, he answered, “I’m not sure what my father said, but what I can tell you is that it was said in the name of the Chazon Ish that the aveil is only not obligated, but mutar lo lakum, it’s permissible for the aveil to get up.”
Now, let’s mention another important point, an area in which I noticed people make a mistake; it’s not a tremendous sin, but it’s something to be careful about. This question was also asked to Rav Chaim, but this ruling is found in several sources. The question is when one is menacheim aveil, should the person who is giving comfort be sitting or standing? Is it better to be sitting? We find that many times people get up to leave, and they say the HaMakom yenacheim while standing. Rav Chaim Kanievsky said that the proper way of performing nichum aveilim is b’yeshivah, sitting down.
Now, we know that the aveil should be sitting when he is receiving the words of comfort. As a matter of fact, the halachah says that if the aveil is standing, one should not say, sheiv, sit down, even though he should be sitting to be mekabeil tanchumim. Why? Because sheiv might mean remain in your situation, and of course, we don’t want to say that, and we don’t mean that. Although you’re not allowed to tell him to sit, the aveil should be sitting. Rav Moshe Sternbuch points out – this is something I noticed also – that in numerous congregations, on Tishah B’Av night, when it can be difficult to sit low, many people who are saying the kinnos, the lamentations, and Megillas eichah, do it standing. It’s the opinion of Rav Moshe Sternbuch that being that this is an expression of aveilus, the Megillas eichah that is said on Tishah B’Av night should be done while sitting.
This question was also posed to Rav Chaim Kanievsky: is it really more appropriate for nichum aveilim to be done sitting down? Rav Chaim brings together what we mentioned, that we find that nichum aveilim and bikur cholim go together. Rav Chaim brings a Gemara in Nedarim (39), which discusses bikur cholim – and this people don’t know either – and says that bikur cholim should be done while sitting. When you go to a hospital to visit someone, sometimes the ill person tells you, “There’s a chair. You can sit down,” and you say, “Eh, don’t worry. I don’t have to sit down on a chair; I’m standing.” This is not correct. Says Rav Chaim, well, if for bikur cholim we find that it’s more appropriate to do it in a sitting fashion, the same thing is true for nichum aveilim. Here is another indication of how we connect the mitzvah of nichum aveilim and the mitzvah of bikur cholim, and both should be done while sitting.
Let's summarize what we just discussed. First, remember that although HaMakom yenacheim eschem is the accepted text, those are not the main words of nechamah. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Ohr Hachayim) says the following:
“It is clear that the mitzvah to comfort mourners is not just to bless them with “HaMakom yenacheim…” Clearly this is not the main mitzvah, says Rav Moshe. He explains that the aveil is not comforted with this – especially if the words are being rattled off, as is commonly done by many, as if by rote. Do you really think the aveil has been comforted by you saying the words “HaMakom yenacheim”? Rather, the main thing is that the person should be comforted. So what are the words of nichum aveilim? R’ Moshe tells us that we can see this from Sefer Iyov, which is full of the suffering of Iyov. There we find that the friends of Iyov came to be menacheim, “shehirbu l’dabeir eilav,” and spoke to him at length. Rav Moshe says later, in a different paragraph, that we see that saying the HaMakom “heina rak gemar devarim shel tanchumim,” is just the closing of the nechamah.
Rav Hutner (Iggros Pachad Yitzchak) discusses nichum aveilim on the telephone. It is interesting how he makes a distinction, in his opinion, between bikur cholim and nichum aveilim. Rav Hutner says that in this case they are not exactly the same. Bikur cholim one can pretty much fulfill over the telephone. What does bikur cholim mean? Well, the word bikur is colloquially translated to mean visit, to be mevakeir. Rav Hutner says no, that’s not really what bikur cholim means. Bikur is from the terminology of investigate, to try to find out what the ill person needs, to be busy with his needs. That can be done sometimes very well via the telephone. You can call and investigate and find out and ask questions: what to bring, what to do, etc. In such a situation, therefore, you can fulfill the mitzvah through the telephone more or less.
However, as far as nichum aveilim is concerned, it’s only literally without a choice that it can be done over the telephone. When it comes to nichum aveilim there is a mesibah shel nechamah, an atmosphere of comfort, that we have to create. It has to be a setting of nechamah. A setting of nechamah can be created if you’re there. This doesn’t happen when you call on the telephone. And that, by the way, also explains why you should be sitting when doing the mitzvah. Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s ruling then fits very well with Rav Hutner’s words. Rav Hutner says you have to have an atmosphere of nechamah, and that takes place when you sit. As we know, yeshivah, sitting, is always that which creates a kevi’us, a certain established setting. Rav Hutner points out that that’s why right after the kevurah we do a quick nechamah by making a shurah, a line of people by which the aveilim walk. Rav Hutner explains that this is because of the need for a kevi’us of nechamah; by making a shurah you’re creating an atmosphere, showing a setting in which the aveil can receive nechamah. over the telephone you don’t have that atmosphere.
Let me just conclude with some beautiful words from the Chafetz Chaim. The Chafetz Chaim himself suffered a lot of different tragedies in his lifetime, one of which was the loss of his son Rav Avraham. When Rav Avraham passed away,the Chafetz Chaim was in Warsaw selling his sefarim. While there he received a telegram to come back home right away. When he arrived at home, he realized what had happened. And the Chafetz Chaim, when he saw that he lost his son, said the following: “Hashem nassan, v’Hashem lakach, yehi sheim Hashem mevorach mei’atah ve’ad olam,” Hashem gave and Hashem took; may the name of Hashem be blessed from now and forever. We have to be mekabeil b’ahavah, accept Hashem’s will with love, and anything that HaKaddosh Baruch Hu gives, HaKaddosh Baruch Hu takes.
At the same time, the Chafetz Chaim related the following story – you see the level that he was on, from the way in which he related this true story, which is brought down in a sefer called Toldos Adam. This story took place in the year 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain. There was a woman who had two young children, and her children were murdered. This woman was now bereft; she had lost her children. So what does a woman like that do?
The Chafetz Chaim related that she raised both of her hands and spoke to the Ribbono Shel Olam: “Ribbono Shel Olam, there is a mitzvah in the Torah of ‘V’ahavta es Hashem elokecha b’chol levavcha,’ to love HaKaddosh Baruch Hu with all our hearts. Ribbono Shel Olam, I always had two children, which means that my heart had to share the love, the ahavah that I would have given to You. My heart was split in two because I had to share some of the ahavah with my children; I’m a mother, which means that I was not able to fully dedicate the ahavah of my heart to You. However, now that my children are no longer here, I’m able to fulfill wholeheartedly ‘V’ahavta es Hashem elokecha.’ I will not have to split my ahavah between You, HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, and the children.”
This was a tremendous, tremendous madreigah, an incredible level, and the Chafetz Chaim said the same thing. “A portion of my ahavah was, of course, to my son, Avraham,” who by the way, seemed destined for greatness – he had tremendous kishron (talent) – which compounded the tza’ar and the pain regarding the situation. The Chafetz Chaim pointed out that now, v’ahavta es Hashem elokecha, I have the ability, the opportunity, to be fulfill ahavas Hashem on the highest level.
Let me just conclude with a tremendous idea. The previous Skulener Rebbe, zichrono levrochah, the father of the current Rebbe, yibadel l’chayim, was occupied with mesirus nefesh, great personal sacrifice, in saving many Jews; that was what he basically dedicated his life to. He lived in Romania at the time when the Communists were in power, and if anybody did anything to further Yiddishkeit, they imprisoned him. The Skulener Rebbe was himself imprisoned – sentenced to jail for something like twenty-five years. He was put into a narrow cell with hardly any light; he was able to know when it was morning because there was some sort of a crack in the wall, through which some little rays of light came through. He thus realized that it was the morning so it was time to do some sort of davening. He didn’t have much water, so he took his hands and rubbed them against the walls in place of washing them. He realized he didn’t have his yarmulke, so he took his shirt and raised it up over his head.
He started to daven, seeing himself in this bitter situation. He came to the tefillah of Baruch she’amar. All of a sudden a tremendous kasha, a difficult question, came up in his mind. He said, “I never realized this: I’m saying “Baruch meracheim al habriyos,” HaKaddosh Baruch Hu should be blessed because He has mercy on mankind. “Baruch meshaleim sachar tov liyerei’av,” Hashem pays reward to those who fear Him. And we continue on talking about the benefits Hashem conveys, and we bless HaKaddosh Baruch Hu for all the good things that He does. All of a sudden, there is a turnaround, and we say, “baruch gozeir u’mekayeim.” This refers to a gezeirah ra’ah, a difficult decree. Is that such a good thing? Baruch, we bless HaKaddosh Baruch Hu that He decrees and fulfills? We find that Klal Yisrael always try to nullify the gezeiros; we don’t want those decrees to come to fruition. We go for a berachah to a tzaddik – we want to nullify the troubles. Here we are saying, among all the good things, “baruch gozeir u’mekayeim.” What does this mean?
All of a sudden the following came to his mind: baruch gozeir u’mekayeim means HaKaddosh Baruch Hu makes the gezeirah – u’mekayeim, and He is mekayeim, He supports, the person! He gives strength to the person! He gives him the ability to be able to endure all the tzaros. When a person is going through hard times, at that point he really thinks, This is going to ruin me; this is going to destroy me. I’m never going to be the same again; I’m never going to be able to go on with my life. In a time of tzarah a person is weak, he does not feel that. So the Skulener Rebbe said, no, no, no. That should never be the case; remember, baruch, we bless HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, Who is gozeir u’mekayeim. If He gives you a gezeirah, realize that together with the gezeirah is the refuah, the cure. U’mekayeim, He gives you the ko’ach and the ability to be able to endure and tolerate all of this suffering.
As a matter of fact, an adam gadol once said a beautiful explanation on words that we say in davening all the time. once you hear this, these words will never mean the same to you. We say in the Hallelukahs every day, “hanosein sheleg katzamer,” HaKaddosh Baruch Hu gives snow like white wool. When you shear a sheep, you have flakes of wool, which are white like snow. There is another explanation, a much deeper peshat. Sheleg is cold. There are many people who have no heat, and chas veshalom they can freeze. The passuk is telling us, hanosein sheleg, if HaKaddosh Baruch Hu gives you snow, if He gives you cold, katzamer, he gives it to you in proportion to the amount of wool you have, to have a coat to wrap yourself in to protect yourself from the cold. HaKaddosh Baruch Hu makes snow, He gives cold, yes. But He will only give you that much cold, katzamer, as the amount of wool you have to warm you. This is something that is very important to remember, and this is certainly something that can be imparted when one goes to be menacheim aveil, to relieve and reduce the tension that the aveil is going through.
HaKaddosh Baruch Hu should help all of us to merit to be protected from all types of suffering, whether communal suffering, or personal pain. We should be zocheh to all the good from Shamayim, and to finally see the fulfillment of the pasuk, “u’macha Hashem elokim dimah,” HaKaddosh Baruch Hu should wipe away the tears from all of Klal Yisrael. We should merit only simchos, and to the ultimate berachos and hashpa’os, full of simchah and nachas, abundant blessing and success, until the coming of Mashiach, bimheirah b’yameinu, amein.
• Many have misconceptions about the purpose of shivah and how to properly conduct oneself in a shivah house. It’s important to familiarize oneself with the halachos and hash- kafos associated with the mitzvah of nichum aveilim.
• Min HaTorah the source for this mitzvah is when Hashem comes to bless Yitzchak Avinu following the death of his father Avraham. The Rambam holds that this mitzvah is a rabbinical directive. In any case, it’s a very important mitzvah, the fulfillment of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha. Keep this in mind when paying a shivah call.
• Nichum aveilim takes priority over bikur cholim because in doing this mitzvah you are helping both the deceased and the mourner.
• Nichum aveilim is difficult to fulfill properly because everyone reacts to loss differently, and there are different types of losses. Therefore, it is so imperative to adhere to the halachah about letting the mourner open the conversation. This way you can take your cue from him or her about how to proceed.
• According to Rav Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach, if the mourner says nothing at all, wait a respectable amount of time, say “HaMakom yenacheim…” and leave.
• Another important halachah: leave when the aveil indicates to do so.
• It’s inappropriate to say, “How could this have happened?” “Did we do everything we could have?” or “What can you do?” We need to react with the perspective of “Hatzur tamim pa’alo,” Hashem’s ways are perfect, and therefore we accept this judgment.
• Sefer P’nei Baruch is a volume that can be very helpful for both the mourner and the one paying a shivah call. No one is ever totally orphaned because we all have a Father – Hashem.
• It’s important for the aveil to take care of his health and not to let himself go.
• The aveil’s loss is part of the greater loss Klal Yisrael suffers, which is what we express when we say, “HaMakom ye- nacheim…b’soch she’ar aveili Tziyon…” May Hashem com- fort…amongst the mourners of Zion…” This idea can pro- vide nechamah when expressed the right way, at the right time.
• one of the greatest divrei nechamah is that the niftar had a
sheim tov, a good reputation.
• It’s appropriate to bring the idea of Olam Haba, the World to Come, into the conversation at a shivah house.
• The passuk tells us not to mourn excessively because we are b’nei melachim, which means that when a Jew passes away, he is really a prince going back to his Father in the palace.
• Just being there for the aveil is the greatest thing you can do for him.
• The right words are healing; the wrong words can be so painful.
• Seeing someone who carried through a similar circumstance is a huge comfort to the aveil. If you had a comparable experience, go to be menacheim aveil; just your presence offers comfort. Also, allow others to learn from your experience.
• There’s good guilt and bad guilt. good guilt is when you’re able to use your experience in a positive way. Bad guilt is when it eats away at you. Reassure aveilim that we all make mistakes and that there is no need for guilt about their treatment or relationship with the niftar.
• Women often know they need help and support. Men often don’t acknowledge their need until it’s too late. Don’t make that mistake; accept help.
• In Shamayim, there’s no such thing as time, so when someone is niftar, they are really still together with their loved ones. This is a difficult concept but can be a real nechamah.
• The niftar is okay; it’s the ones left behind who are having difficulty.
• After shivah, make sure you’re there for the aveilim. Shivah is an instructive process to teach us how to proceed and treat the aveilim afterward.
- Remember, you’re not going for yourself. You’re going to give chizzuk to the aveil and the neshamah of the The reason we say “HaMakom yenacheim eschem” in the plural is because we are there to comfort the aveil and the niftar.
- Don’t go to a shivah house too late. People need to rest and recoup their Allow the aveil time to eat. In general, do all you can to make it easier for them during this difficult time.
- Don’t stay too For most people, no more than ten minutes is an appropriate length stay. Move aside so that other people who have arrived can come forward.
- Try to elicit information about the niftar, about the family, about the ancestors, if
- Joking at a shivah house is give chizzuk in a mentchlichdike way.
- Don’t say things like, “At least the niftar didn’t suffer,” or “It’s good you had time to say ” Whatever the case may be, this is a painful situation.
- If you can, be mechazzeik the aveil by giving over the idea that there is a Hashem is watching, and He has a chesh- bon. The niftar did make a difference, a change in people’s lives, in the total picture, and Hashem knows this.
• Grief begins at the funeral and during the shivah.
• It is so important to allow the mourner to feel the pain. This is the beginning of the process of achieving comfort. Do not tell them to “be strong.” And try to share in the pain to some degree.
• Bereavement is a process in which you go from “loving a person in the presence to loving the person in the absence.” Shivah is a time when the mourners begin the transition in their relationship with their loved one who has passed away.
• Asking the aveil to share a story about the deceased is an appropriate way to aid this transition, as you are evoking memories that will be part of his new relationship with his loved one.
• The amount you offer comfort to the bereaved should be commensurate with the relationship that existed previously.
• Some common adolescent reactions to tragedy and loss:
◆ Challenging Divine justice
◆ Over-empathizing with those who have suffered a loss
• Even years after a person has suffered a loss, it is appreciated when you show that you remember their loved one.
• Death of a close family member will have an impact on an adolescent, but doesn’t make him different or “weird.”
• When parents are sitting shivah for an adolescent, his peers can offer unique comfort because they are showing that this young adult had friends, and they can share their distinctive perspective about what this person was like and what they accomplished.
• Include the parents of a friend who has passed away in your milestone events but do not pressure them to attend. They are likely mourning their child’s “loss of a future.”
• True living means to be productive. Think back to the challenges your loved ones overcame, the life lessons they gave over. These will never die.
• Give over the memories of your loved ones for your children to emulate.
• By carrying on the legacy of our ancestors we allow them to continue to live.
• The mishnayot and Torah we learn because of our forbearers, the teachings we carry on, keep our loved ones alive in us.
Rabbi Eytan Feiner
Rabbi Simcha Bunim Cohen
Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Dr. Norman Blumenthal
Rabbi Yissocher Frand
Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier
Rabbi Noach Isaac Oelbaum
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, PhD
Rabbi Hershel Schachter
Mr. Charlie Harary, Esq
Mr. Shmuel Greenbaum
Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky
Rabbi Aryeh Sokoloff
Rabbi Yaakov Klar
Rabbi Fishel Schachter
Rabbi Noach Orlowek
R' Aharon Margalit
Rabbi Paysach Krohn
Rabbi Yaakov Bender
Rabbi Y.Y. Rubinstein
Woman to Woman, Heart to Heart
• When you come to be menacheim aveil, remember, it’s all about the aveil, not about you. If you are uncomfortable, that’s okay; just sit quietly. The mitzvah is to come; then follow the cues of the aveil.
• It’s okay to cry; it shows you care and are sharing their pain.
• It’s never appropriate to talk about other topics, unrelated to the loss, no matter the circumstances of the death.
• You might want to ask the aveil to share something nice about the niftar. This brings comfort to the aveil and elevates the neshamah.
• Don’t give hashkafah or mussar, trying to explain what happened.
• Don’t give advice – whether about what should have been done or what should be done in the future.
• Don’t compare their experience to yours or to that of someone else you know.
• Don’t be physically demonstrative to the mourner, i.e., hugging, stroking her hand, etc., unless you have had that kind of relationship with her previously.
• Don’t forget about the aveil after the shivah is over. If you have enough of a relationship with her to have gone to the shivah, then you have a role to play, a responsibility to show you care.
• It is very appropriate and comforting to share memories of the niftar and what changes you might be making or have made in your life because of a lesson you learned from the deceased.
• There isn’t always something to be said. Coming and crying and sharing the aveil’s pain can be the most powerful and meaningful thing you can do.
• It’s inappropriate to ask details about what happened to the deceased.
• Although you might want to take away the pain of the aveil, it’s important to let the aveil experience this, as it’s part of the grief process, and ultimately, the healing process. If the aveil doesn’t feel and express the pain now, it will probably fester and explode at a later point.
• After the shivah is over, help the aveil, whether adult or child, find a mode of expression, i.e., writing, art, music, speaking with a mentor, etc.
• One of parents’ biggest fears is that the world will forget the child they lost. Anything you say to the parents, even months or years later, that shows you remember or were touched by their child, offers tremendous comfort.
• Little children don’t really know how to express their feelings. It is our job to look into their eyes, to watch them at play and interacting with peers, to determine their emotions.
• The grief process is very individual for each person and family. Respect each person’s manner of expression whatever it may be.
• Time is the best healer, but one who has lost a loved one should know their triggers, what will set them off. It’s important to get the support one needs to pull through these difficult times.
• When talking about death with children:
1. Preschool-age children don’t understand the finality of death and don’t have the capacity to express their feelings. Discuss what death means and keep a careful eye on them to determine their emotions.
2. School-age children will likely be focused on the details: how it happened, when it happened, where the person is now, etc. It’s important to answer their questions, as their imaginations can paint pictures worse than reality and you don’t want them to get their information from other sources.
3. Teenagers are often going to start by asking philosophical questions. Be prepared to answer them or to guide them to someone who can.
4. Put Mashiach into context. We’re waiting for him, but we’ve been waiting a long time.
5. If children have questions about burial, remind them about Adam’s creation. Then explain how the body and the soul of the niftar now went back to where they came from.
6. Keep the lines of communication open so that your children will come to you with any questions or concerns.
7. Remind children of all ages that Hashem loves us like a parent loves a child, even when we can’t understand His ways.
• The mourning period is not a time to party or a reunion for long-lost friends and relatives. Rather, it is a time to focus on the loss, to feel the pain.
• When paying a shivah call, often there are no words. It can be enough just to sit there with the mourner and show you care.
• Don’t try to distract the mourner, to cheer him up. Rather, speak about their loss and their loved one.
• The year-long mourning process allows the mourner to slowly move on.
• Sitting shivah brings merit to the departed but also pushes the mourner to focus on the meaning of life.
• There is much we can do to benefit the departed in the Next World. our good deeds on their behalf allow us to remain connected to our departed loved one and to help them move closer to the Almighty.
• After the shivah is over, don’t forget about the mourner. Reach out and see what you can do for them, whether to lend a listening ear or to help out in some practical way.
• Paying a shivah call can be painful or awkward, but not paying the call will also be painful in the long run. Think about that – and make the effort to go.
• Just like a flame continues to burn upward no matter which way you turn the candle, the soul never dies. Emulating the departed nurtures their soul.
• The mourners partake of a meal upon returning from the burial to remind them that as painful as their loss is, they must carry on and eventually go back to fully functioning.
• Only in the future will we be able to perceive Hashem’s perfect ways.
• Being in touch with our emotions and feeling the pain is not a contradiction to our emunah.
• Death is only a temporary mechitzah, separation.
• Hashem gives us new tools for the battlefield of today that we didn’t have yesterday.
• We must work to find the daylight in our lives every day. When we try to do this, Hashem helps us succeed.
• When we subordinate our intellect by acknowledging that we don’t understand Hashem’s ways, we are bringing Mashiach closer. At the same time we recognize this, we also must realize that Hashem is really holding our hands, so to speak.
• When you walk into a shivah house, remember it’s not about you. You are there solely for the aveil.
• “V’hachai yitein el libo,” pay attention to your life. going to a shivah house should open our eyes to appreciating who and what we have in our daily lives.
• When you walk into a shivah house, you should have no expectations. You’re there to react, not to pro-act.
• Everyone reacts to loss differently; it’s a personal experience for each person. We are not there to judge. We can’t say if it’s worse to lose someone after a lengthy illness or to lose them suddenly.
• Even if you went through the same circumstance as the aveil, you don’t know what she is feeling. Rather, you are there to validate her pain.
• The focus at a shivah home should be the deceased. Talk to the aveil about the niftar. Ask the aveil to tell you about the niftar, what they accomplished, their impact on the aveil and/or on others. Children don’t belong in a shivah house because they bring simchah, which distracts from focusing on the niftar.
• A shivah house is a place where we experience the galus haShechinah, the exile of the Divine presence, in a very real way. The pain of not understanding, the pain of loss, is the pain of galus.
• To the young aveil: Reach out the people you think can give you chizzuk. Know yourself and what you need, but recognize that your friends so often don’t know what to say. You can guide them in what you need.
- Only Hashem can offer pure nechamah.
- Grief is a process – and it is necessary to allow oneself to fully experience it.
- You don’t have a neshamah; you are neshamah. You have a guf, a body, and the neshamah is your essence. If we relate to others on a neshamah level, then we can continue the relationship even after their passing, on a soul-to-soul level.
- The transition from life to death can be the most frightening change we will ever face. If we can face that with equanimity, we can face any challenge.
- Life is how Hashem wants it to be. Life is about the challenges we are given and how we handle them; we have it within our spiritual DNA to overcome every challenge, every test.
- The challenges we face are part of a larger picture. Perhaps they are a tikkun for a different gilgul, a different life we lived. or they may be a tikkun for the world and not specifically about us.
- We cannot measure life by life only in this world, since life here is just a preparation for the Next World. It is not about the quantity, the number of years one lives, but the quality – what he did with them. Ultimately, the goal is to fulfill our personal potential.
- In handling our tests, we might be creating reservoirs of strength upon which others in similar situations can draw.
- Grief is compounded by unfinished business. If you have the opportunity before the death of a loved one, do what you can to bring closure in your relationship.
- Appreciate the value of life and live it to its fullest.
- When going to be menacheim aveil, keep in mind the unique circumstances and needs of the mourners.
- Consider the aveil’s physical needs. Allow him time to eat, give him space and time to take a break.
- Don’t overstay your visit.
- It can be very helpful to send a letter to the aveil. This is something he can draw upon for encouragement after the shivah is over.
- Offer concrete help and support after the shivah. Validate the ongoing pain of the aveil.
I would like to thank Rabbi Haikins and Rabbi Zohn for orchestrating this project. Obviously, there is a need for it, and I hope that it will bring comfort to many people.
I find this to be rather a daunting task. We know that the foremost menacheim is HaKaddosh Baruch Hu Himself, as we say at the end of a shivah visit: “HaMakom yenacheim eschem.” However, I will do my utmost with the tools Hashem has given me to hopefully help you and also give you some chizzuk and nechamah along the way.
Before I begin, I’d like to share my own personal story and how I actually came to be sitting here, sharing these thoughts with you. My favorite phrase from Hallel is, “Mah ashiv laHashem kol tagmulohi alai,” how can I repay You, HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, for all You have done for me? Normally, we would translate tagmulohi from the term gomel, for example gomel chassadim tovim, one who grants kindnesses. We’re thanking Hashem for all He has done for us. But there is another interpretation. Avraham Avinu made a se’udah for his son Yitzchak after he weaned him, as the passuk says, “b’yom higamel es Yitzchak,” on the day that he weaned Yitzchak. The term higamel is used, related to the root of tagmulahi alai. So when I am saying “mah ashiv laHashem,” I’m actually thanking Hashem for having weaned me.
I realize now, in retrospect, that Hashem did a pretty good job of weaning me some thirty-five years ago. I lost my father suddenly at a family gathering. I got married soon after, and then I was expecting, but unfortunately – and I still get teary over this – we lost our first pregnancy when I was seven months pregnant. It was a very difficult time for me. This was all within twelve months. At the time I was in social-work school, and I basically made a promise to myself that afterward, when I was qualified to do so, I would help other people who are going through difficult circumstances; baruch Hashem I have had the opportunity to help many others over the years.
So I recognize that Hashem weaned me at the time; He was saying, “Miriam, dear, until now everything has gone okay, but forgive Me, I’m going to have to make life a bit tougher for you. I want you to grow up and I want you to become more sensitive. I want you to be able to reach out to others. There is a journey you have to travel on; these losses are going to project you into a certain journey, and we have to get started now.” It’s now so many years later, and I can thank Hashem for having weaned me, although it was so difficult at the time.
Over the years I picked up a lot, both from experiencing life and as a voracious reader, and I am very eager to share with you many of the beautiful thoughts and concepts that I have picked up. So, let’s begin.
Nechama – Time to Evaluate
I’d like to start first with a beautiful concept that Rabbi Yechiel Spero discusses in his sefer on Tishah B’Av. The chapter is entitled, “What is True Nechamah?” Rabbi Spero quotes from Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, who always discusses etymology, to go back to the first time nechamah is mentioned in the Torah. It says in reference to the Dor Hamabul, the generation of the Flood: “Vayar Hashem ki rabah ra’as ha’adam ba’aretz,” Hashem saw that there was evil, He saw the wickedness of man upon the earth; “v’chol yeitzer machshavos libo rak ra kol hayom, vayinacheim Hashem ki asah es ha’adam,” Hashem reconsidered having made man. And the next passuk tells us, “Vayomer Hashem ‘emcheh es ha’adam,’” I will wipe out the man; “asher barasi, mei’al penei ha’adamah mei’adam ad beheimah, ad remes, ad ohf hashamayim, ki nichamti ki asisim,” because I have reconsidered My having made them.
It wasn’t a nechamah for Hashem at that point that He had created man. He was disappointed in man. Rather, we are told to interpret the word nechamah differently. The word nechamah means that it’s a time, an opportunity, to reconsider, to reevaluate, to look at the situation from a different perspective, to reorient one’s viewpoint. That is really what nechamah is; it helps us to reorient ourselves and look at the difficult situation from a different perspective. I hope to share with you different thoughts today that will help reorient you and give you a different way of approaching a painful loss.
Time to Mourn
Before we do that and share more philosophical solutions to our pain, first we have to talk about the fact that grief is a real process. There is a grieving process one must go through after a serious loss. Dr. Miriam Adahan, a prolific writer, a wonderful psychologist and a dear friend of mine, has written many books and many articles too. Amongst them is a beautiful article called Good Mourning, which first appeared in The Jewish Observer. She allowed me, very graciously, to reprint it in the book called Saying Goodbye that I had the privilege of writing about nine years ago or so. She talks about grief as of the waves of an ocean; there are times when it peaks, when the grief is unbearable, and there are times when it dissipates a bit and you are able to get on with your life. But this is a process one has to go through. You must give yourself time to mourn before starting to look at the loss from a more intellectual perspective.
I would like to mention the book I just mentioned, which I wrote. It’s interesting – I wasn’t looking to write a book, and Hashem sort of propelled me on a certain journey. I began writing about twenty-one years ago. Because of that, I was approached by Dr. Neil Goldberg, with whom I work in the A TIME (A Torah Infertility Medium of Exchange) office – I became involved in that because of the loss of my own pregnancy – and he asked me to be a ghostwriter for him. I asked, “What’s your book about?” and he told me it was about grief and mourning. So I told him I had been collecting articles about that just for myself.
When I had my losses there was no support whatsoever. There were no support groups. No one was available to discuss my losses with me. My husband and I were totally on our own. As I said, I was in social-work school at the time, so I attended conferences on grief and bereavement. I read everything I could find on the subject – from the Torah perspective and from the secular perspective because there was very little out there then in the Torah literature. Everything I collected then, all the hard-earned wisdom, is contained in this book called Saying Goodbye. If you take a look at the cover, you see two hands releasing a butterfly. of course, we know the analogy that a man is here in this world, and the neshamah goes up to Shamayim and becomes a butterfly released from its cocoon. But I questioned the fact that the image was of a child’s hands, and this book is not written for young children. Then I realized that the truth is when we lose someone dear to us, when we lose a parent, we’re all young children who just want our mommy back or want our daddy back. Deep at heart we are young ones who just want the affection and caring, and we want to be with those whom we love.
There is one final thought I’d like to share with you before we really get into the crux of the matter. There is a beautiful vort from the Kotzker Rebbe. We say in Shema several times a day, “v’hayu hadevarim ha’eileh asher anochi m’tzavecha hayom al levavecha,” and these words that I commanded you today should be on your heart. Why on your heart? I would think the mitzvah, the commandment, should be within our hearts, bilvavecha. Why al? So the Kotzker says so beautifully that if we learn the concepts, absorb them, put them on our hearts, then when we need them they’ll fall in. But if we never learn and never hear these concepts, they are not there for us to absorb at the time when we need them. So even if you’re not ready right now to hear these words of nechamah, perhaps you’re still feeling very raw, perhaps your loss is very recent, but still read them, take note of them. Some of them are really very, very insightful and words of wisdom that could be helpful for you. In the future you might want to share them with your spouse, friends or siblings because I really believe it is these concepts that will help bring healing.
Connect on a Neshama Level
I’d like to discuss with you a little bit of the Torah perspective on death, which is really a very positive one. In fact, we talk about this in Saying Goodbye. I maintain that if we would talk about death in the elementary school years, when Sarah Imeinu or Avraham Avinu dies, when it’s not so personal and doesn’t hit home, it’s not so terribly painful. If we would become accustomed to the concept, it wouldn’t be so jarring and horrendous when it hits home and it hits close.
Rabbi Zev Leff asks a wonderful question: “Do you have a neshamah, a soul?” Certainly you are going to respond, “of course I have a neshamah!” He answers, “I beg to differ. You don’t have a neshamah, you are a neshamah, and you have a guf, a body.” Because we get so carried away with our world, we often forget that in essence we really are the soul, not the body.
Someone who takes it further along is Rabbi Itamar Schwartz. In one of his sefarim, Da es Atzmecha, he discusses the concept that man is primarily a neshamah – not a guf. He illustrates this in various ways that really hit home for me and are very relevant. He says, for example, that if we see ourselves as a neshamah primarily, then if we have a loved one who is living across the ocean, even if we are not with them physically, we can be with them emotionally. We can have a soul relationship even if we’re not there together with each other in one room. I have a daughter who lives in California – I live in New York – and I called her one day and said, “Racheli, do you feel me? I’m there with you right now.” It was such a comforting thought for me to know that we’re really together even though we’re far apart.
L’havdil, when I was sitting shivah for my mother about a year and a half ago, Rebbetzin Ruthy Assaf shared with me a wonderful point. We were discussing my relationship with my mother, and like many of us, there were ups and downs in our relationship. Rebbetzin Assaf pointed out that whatever differences we may have had during her lifetime, at this point, now that my mother had reached the realm of being purely neshamah, everything else just fades away. All the extraneous details that we would get caught up on were totally irrelevant now. She advised me to now work on building a new relationship with my mother, on a soul-to-soul level. That was very, very comforting for me. So if we see ourselves as a soul, we can relate to even these who have gone on to a better world.
My dear friend Mrs. Chani Juravel tells an incredible story. She had a friend, a woman who unfortunately passed away recently. Toward the end of her illness, Chani went to visit her. This young woman said to her, “Chani, do you recognize me?” The truth was that Chani did not recognize her, so she said to her, “Well, you know, you look a little bit different, but when you talk, I know it’s you. I know that you are my dear friend.” And this woman said to her, “Chani, don’t feel bad. I’m actually happy – when I look in the mirror I don’t recognize myself either, and that’s when I know that who I am is not my face. It’s not my facial features or my body. Who I am is something much, much deeper. It’s my neshamah, it’s my soul.” So that was a gift. This woman understood that this was a gift from HaKaddosh Baruch Hu to help her understand that it is the soul that is the essence of who we are, and the soul will last on to eternity.
For those of us who have lost loved ones, there are so many ways we can still connect. I mentioned before how Rebbetzin Assaf suggested I connect to my mother on a neshamah-to-neshamah level, a soul level. I know that when I lost my father very suddenly many years ago, it was really a wrenching time for me, and I was trying so desperately to hold on to him. I had his sefarim, his sefer Tehillim, his siddur, but on a more physical level, I had his sheepskin gloves that I used to wear. I still remember walking home with my father from shul as a young girl, and we would walk hand in hand. By wearing his gloves I felt that I was connecting with him again, in a physical sense. Then at some point, I misplaced the gloves, and I was heartbroken. until I realized, you know what, Miriam, you don’t need his gloves anymore. He is part of you. Who I am is so much who my father was. I really modeled myself after him to a great extent, and he is within me. I was able to connect with him on a neshamah level, and that was very comforting for me.
Focus on the Eternal
Chani Juravel wrote a beautiful article (Binah, July ‘08), in which she writes about the kohanim, the priests in the Beis Hamikdash. The word kohen comes from the word l’kavein, to direct. She is actually quoting Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, who says that the kohen’s job is to guide us and direct us in every aspect of our lives. When Aharon died, he didn’t die a death as we know it; Hashem took him up to the Next World. Moshe Rabbeinu asked Aharon, “Tell me what happens.” He was trying to understand this mystery of death. What is so frightening about death is that what happens is unknown to us, and the unknown is always very scary.
The medrash tells us that Moshe asked him, “Mah atah ro’eh,” what do you see? Aharon understood that he was not able to share the details of what he saw at the time, but he did tell him, “Halevai kodem zeman basi lekan,” if only I would have arrived here even earlier. He found that the Olam Ha’emes, the World of Truth, was a wonderful place to be. It was not a frightening place, it was not a scary place; it was a wonderful place to be. Reb Shimshon Pincus takes a further lesson from these words. He says that the transition from life to death is probably the most frightening transition we will make in our lives. There are many transitions that we come across, but if when touched by death, we can face it with equanimity, as Aharon did, then we’re able to face anything that life throws at us. We have to understand that it’s from HaKaddosh Baruch Hu and that we will be able to handle it all with the tools HaKaddosh Baruch Hu has given us.
There is a wonderful line that singer Mordechai ben David shared after Hurricane Sandy, when unfortunately, his studio in Seagate was totally destroyed. “When I took stock of all the damage, and it was very significant, I called my Rebbe, Reb Yitzchak Meir Morgenstern in Yerushalayim, and he said to me, ‘Mordche, the important thing isn’t what’s left downstairs, but what remains upstairs; that’s what needs to last.’” (Mishpacha). I think we all understand the idea that we have to work on that which is eternal and not get so caught up in the physical world down here.
Opportunity for Growth
I’d like to share with you a fabulous article by Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginsburg (Mishpacha, December ‘10). The article was called “This Is Not The Way It’s Supposed To Be.” We all have an image of how our life should turn out, but we very often face detours or roadblocks, and it can be very disconcerting. Rabbi ginsburg discusses how life is the way Hashem wants it to be. We each have a journey we have to travel along. He tells the story of a very impoverished Yid who traveled to Radin to discuss with the Chafetz Chaim his difficult situation. This man asked for a berachah and commented, “Would it hurt if I only had it a little easier?” The Chafetz Chaim responded, “How do you know? Maybe it would hurt you if it was a little easier! HaKaddosh Baruch Hu is kulo rachamim, Hashem is compassionate. Don’t you think Hashem would make it easier for you if He could? Obviously the reason he doesn’t make it easier is because these are the best circumstances for you to be in. You have every right to ask for it to be better, but you cannot say that it wouldn’t hurt you to have more.”
Rabbi Ginsburg also shares a story: Rav Sternbuch was walking with his beloved rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Schneider, and a student approached him for a berachah. Rabbi Schneider said, “What kind of berachah would you like me to give you?” The talmid replied, “A life without any problems.” Rabbi Schneider replied, “A life without problems – that’s not a berachah. There is no such thing as a life without problems. I believe that the definition of life includes the challenges we go through. Rather, ask for a berachah that whatever challenges Hashem sends you, you should be able to cope with.”
And now here comes a line that I’m so enamored with. Rabbi Ginsburg quotes Reb Tzaddok Hakohen, who says that we see our responsibilities in dealing with challenges in the very laws of nature. Seeing the sunshine in the middle of a dark gloomy day is how we can manage to overcome our challenges and deal with them. We each have to experience a spell of darkness before we see the light. The night comes before the day, and the dark storm clouds fill the sky before we are blessed with rain. So we have to realize that these are the challenges that Hashem has given us so that we can grow and develop. Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, the famed Lakewood Mashgiach, says, “We need to put less faith in our efforts, and more efforts in our faith.”
We know that HaKaddosh Baruch Hu is challenging us to become stronger people. Rav Yitzchak Hutner (sefer Pachad Yitzchak) says that the level we can attain through our own personal Akeidas Yitzchak surpasses any level that can be reached through other means. The truth is, there is a concept of ma’aseh avos siman labanim, the deeds of our forefathers guide us, their children, in how to behave. As Avraham Avinu went through ten nisyonos, ten tests, each of us is also faced with challenges. And we have the strength from Avraham Avinu, from Yitzchak, Ya’akov, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, and Leah. They created for us a reservoir of strength, of courage, of fortitude, of perseverance. We’re coming from very strong stock. We look at the generation that went through the Holocaust and how they rebuilt their lives. We have it within us to withstand the challenges. We just have to have the faith in ourselves to be able to pick up the pieces and move on.
And we are fortunate that there is so much chizzuk and encouragement out there for us in overcoming our challenges. I’m thinking of the literature we have today, the CDs, the DVDs, and just the support from friends and family, which really was not available thirty, forty years ago.
Focus on the Bigger Picture
Let me share with you another article by Chani Juravel, again from the Binah, on parshas Chukas, quoting Rav Mattisyahu Salomon. Rav Mattisyahu Salomon discusses the difficult concept of parah adumah, the red heifer used to purify the impure during the time of the Beis Hamikdash. Rashi predicts that this mitzvah will be questioned because on surface it seems to be such a strange request. Rashi says, “gezeirah hi milfanai,” it is a decree before Me; “ein lecha reshus leharher acharehah,” we are not able to probe further to understand the parah adumah; we have to take it at surface value.
Rav Mattisyahu Salamon says that this statute, this chok, the parah adumah, is very much akin to the whole concept of death. Just as we cannot understand the concept of parah adumah, we can’t question the whole concept of death. Why a person goes, why his time has arrived, it’s a gezeirah milfanai, a decree from Hashem that is beyond our comprehension. The deepest of exiles that we are in is the exile of doubt and depression. We hope that the divrei chizzuk will help bring us out of this particular galus and that with all the divrei chizzuk we should be able to serve HaKaddosh Baruch Hu with equanimity; the challenges can be difficult and daunting. But there is a greater picture that we can’t fathom right here.
I think to myself often that Hashem took Avraham Avinu out and showed him the stars and told him that your children will be like the stars of the heaven. I have been looking, studying and researching different analogies. one of the analogies is that ideally we have to be like the stars, to rise above, so that we can see the world from a more global viewpoint. We can’t understand what happens when we look at our life just from our more narrow view; but if we rise above, we can go up to the heavens and see. We can understand that there is a rhyme and reason to the world and the way HaKaddosh Baruch Hu runs the universe. We have to take ourselves above, out of the picture, and try to see it from a more global perspective.
Another idea about the stars that really hits home for me too is that the universe is quite incredible. Hashem created the celestial beings, and many of them are orbiting around up in the heavens. What is incredible is that each has its own orbit, and they don’t collide with one another. Similarly, each of us is a star. HaKaddosh Baruch Hu put us here with our own journey and our own orbit that we have to follow. It’s like we’re catapulted out into the universe, and we have to follow our orbit, our destiny. And I won’t collide with anyone else; Hashem gave me the tools that I need. My destiny is not going to interfere with someone else’s. We each have our own journey, replete with all its own challenges.
When I go through a nisayon, I often think to myself, “Okay, HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, You tested me, and I hope I passed. Do not test me again, please! Enough! I hope I passed this test.” There is a beautiful article by Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum (Yated Ne’eman, April ‘06) taken from the Penimim al Hatorah. He discusses the parshiyos of Tzav and Shemini, when Aharon lost his two sons, “vayidom Aharon,” and Aharon was silent; he didn’t respond. Rabbi Scheinbaum talks about other gedolim and other great people, how they dealt with their challenges. He talks about the Chafetz Chaim who lost a cherished son, Reb Avraham. And he points out that the anguish the gedolim felt is as great as our anguish. But they were able to transcend their personal emotions because they saw the total context. They understood that Hashem directs and guides world events, and all that occurs is the manifestation of Hashem’s Divine will. We too have to keep that in mind.
In parshas Chukas we read the phrase, “Zos haTorah adam ki yamus b’ohel,” this is the teaching regarding a man who dies in a tent. Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank (The Torah Treasury, Sefer Otzar Hatorah, Artscroll/Mesorah) presents a question. This passuk is talking about the parah adumah atoning for tumas hameis, the impurity from a dead body. Why do we say “ki yamus b’ohel,” a man who dies in a tent? Why don’t we say a man who dies in his home, in a bayis? Rabbi Frank refers us to Koheles, where Shlomoh Hamelech talks about man returning to his eternal home in the World to Come, and he uses the phrase, “ki holeich adam el beis olamo,” when man goes to the house of eternity. Why in parshas Chukas is it a tent, and there we are referring to beis olomo, the house of eternity? Because this world is a temporary world. We started off talking about how we get caught up in the materialism in this world, and we have to remind ourselves constantly that this is not the Olam Ha’emes, this is not the World of Truth. We are living in tents. Chag Hasukkos, when we dwell in the sukkah for eight days, is supposed to reinforce within us that we are really living in a temporary world now.
Rabbi Ezriel Tauber shares a phenomenal concept in an article in which he addresses a group of childless women (Mishpacha, April ‘13): “I am not a navi. I cannot tell you if you will have children; but if you don’t have children, please don’t think of it as a punishment. You must have raised your large families in your previous lives, and now you are here on a different mission.” Isn’t that amazing? You must have raised that family in a different life.
The Zohar talks about gilgulim. We can’t understand this, but perhaps in a previous life you have had those children that you so desire now. We hope everyone should be blessed with children, but when we have a difficult time in this world, we can remind ourselves that perhaps we had it easier in an earlier life. In this life, however, Hashem wants us to grow and reach heights that we had not reached before, therefore we are being challenged to strive for a higher level.
Another beautiful thought I’d like to share is from Rebbetzin Ruchoma Shain. At one point she was having a difficult time: she had fallen and fractured her arm, her house had been robbed, her sister Esther Stern had just passed away. She cried out to her friends, “What’s going on? Why am I being punished? Did I do something so terrible?” She approached her nephew, Rabbi Moshe Aharon Stern, the Mashgiach of Kaminetz Yeshivah in eretz Yisrael, to explain to her what was going on. He answered, “This is part of a gezeirah, a decree, for Klal Yisrael. This is not about you personally.” Rebbetzin Shain derived tremendous comfort from that. When we are going through a hard time, it’s not always about us personally; it’s about the world. Perhaps the world needs a tikkun, some kind rectification, and our pain and suffering will help bring a tikkun to the world. Perhaps it’s an atonement for us or for someone else, but again, it’s one of those things we cannot understand. This is a chok, just as the parah adumah is beyond our comprehension. And we really don’t have too much choice in the matter. We have to accept it and move on.
Rebbetzin Leah Cohen is a very beloved educator, the initiator and director of the Jewish Renaissance Center located in my neighborhood. The JRC was originally started by Rabbi and Rebbetzin Cohen and by Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner, who unfortunately passed away at a young age. This was a tremendous loss for all of Klal Yisrael, but especially for the Jewish Renaissance Center, where he taught on a regular basis. What’s amazing is that in his last years and last months, when he was undergoing very difficult treatment, he continued teaching. His students had no idea that he was ill. Rebbetzin Cohen says what a blessing it was that he did not lose his hair when he went through treatments, so the women who sat in his class had no idea that he was undergoing such a difficult time. What’s even more amazing is that while he was going through his treatments, he was giving a series of classes on dealing with challenges!
In an article from a book called Jewish Matters: A Pocketbook of Knowledge and Inspiration (Targum/Feldheim), Rebbetzin Cohen talks about what a loss it was for her personally and for the whole Jewish Renaissance Center when Rabbi Kirzner passed away. She writes beautifully about death and about Rabbi Kirzner’s passing in particular: “Rabbi Kirzner was a melameid, a teacher par excellence who had an impact on so many people – women, men, young and old alike. Was it fair that he left this world so prematurely? It’s not fair if your measuring stick in life is this world only. We can’t measure life by the way we see this world. Reality for us today is our everyday lives. Intellectually, we know there is life after life, but this awareness does not participate in our daily reality. In truth, life here is only a preparation for life after life, for life in the eternal world. We are all passing players in this world, and what we’re doing is accumulating merit and working toward the Next World.”
Incredibly, she says the following: “We might wonder, could Rabbi Kirzner have earned a better eternity if he’d had more years here in this world? Not so. our earnings in the World to Come are based solely on the degree to which we actualize our potential. It’s the quality of our deeds, not the quantity; did we reach our potential?” Rabbi Kirzner obviously reached his potential within those short number of years, and he was taken, but what a loss for all of us.
Rebbetzin Cohen says that death is not negative, it’s not a punishment; rather, it’s a night between two days, between this world and the Next World. It is the corridor that will bring us to the Next World. It is not easy, but HaKaddosh Baruch Hu did not leave us alone. Hashem is here with us all the time, and Hashem also blessed us with the ability to invest in new relationships, to form new relationships and extend our world even further, to find other vessels for our love and for our affection, to find others to guide us and to help us along the way.
Acceptance and Grief Simultaneously
In an article in Mishpacha magazine, author Leah Gebber profiles Miriam Mazlin, a doula and grief therapist in eretz Yisrael who works, very sadly, with young women and couples who delivered stillborn babies or who lost babies shortly after childbirth. She realized that many women try to deny the pain and move on. They try to intellectualize the loss. Miriam encourages them that one has to grieve after going through a loss. She says in a very expressive fashion, “I can accept that this loss has been given to me by G-d with love, but still, I can acknowledge that I am in pain. I must honor both places in order to ultimately heal and come to a place of wholeness.” It is a very profound concept. We have to honor both places: honor the pain, but also honor the fact that HaKaddosh Baruch Hu gave us this challenge with love.
A woman was having a very difficult time after her loss, and Miriam said to her, “Did you take time to mourn?” The woman said no, she was too busy, she was working, she had other children to care for at home. Miriam said to her, “Take fifteen minutes a day for yourself; take the time to grieve.” The woman did so, and baruch Hashem it was very helpful to her, and she was able to move on with her life. Miriam reinforces the concept we said before that every woman has her own journey; all we can do is help each other along the way. Just as every star has its trajectory, its own orbit, every woman has her own journey. We hope and pray that we shouldn’t be tested, but what we can do is to be there as enablers and help people to emerge from the difficult segments of their journey.
A Part of the Growth Process
We are told that every year we start the year anew. The word shanah doesn’t only mean a year; it also means l’shanos, to change. We just celebrated Rosh Chodesh. Chodesh means month, but it also means new, it means to renew. We are given the power and creativity to be able to renew ourselves, to rejuvenate ourselves and to start all over again. Rabbi Avigdor Miller says that very beautifully. He says that we go through our lives, and each of our lives is really a storybook. We go through different chapters in our lives, and every chapter has potential within it for tremendous joy, for fulfillment and for growth. It is the transitions from one chapter to the next that are so difficult. Once we have made peace with the new station in life, there is certainly opportunity for growth and much happiness.
Let me quote now from a beautiful article taken from the Hamodia Magazine. The Maharal MiPrague asks, “Why are we called adam, man, from the word adamah, earth? We’re told that we resemble HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, and we have a cheilek elokah mima’al, a part of Hashem within us. If that’s the case, why do we refer to ourselves as adam, created from the ground?” The Maharal tells us that what we have in common with the ground is our pure potential. When you plant a seed in the adamah and go through the whole process – you plow and you winnow, you water and prune – there is tremendous potential for growth and development. So too with man; we have the potential to become great, and it is the nisyonos, the challenges that we go through, that will bring out this potential. Says the Maharal, through struggle and even through failure, a man can transform his inner potential into actual greatness.
When we’re going through a difficult time, we always have to remember that this is part of the growth process. Hashem is watering us, Hashem is pruning us, weeding us, and this is a journey to help elevate us. This is a nisayon that we’re going through. The word nisayon interestingly also contains within it what many of us are familiar with, the concept of a neis, of a banner; we can hold up the banner that we have persevered. But it’s also from the word nasa, to travel. It’s a journey we’re going on, a journey through the different chapters in our lives.
An article I read just recently by Leah Gebber had a huge impact upon me (Family First, December ‘12). A woman tells what a difficult time she was having. What was her challenge? This woman dreamed of having a big family, and unfortunately, because of medical reasons, she was not able to have one. So she was in mourning, on her own level. Then she started to read. And she realized that there is an entire library out there – which I am encouraging you to delve into – dealing with suffering and how people emerged from their suffering. They emerged through the darkness, the nisyonos, into a place of great light and radiance. She said: “My struggle became another stitch in the tapestry that is our nation’s history. It was a chance to personalize my relationship with Hashem.”
When we go through nisyonos, we are really bonding with our imahos, with our fellow women, because we’re all in this together. None of us can emerge through a nisayon on her own. We need to consult with others, and we need the courage from others. As we go through a difficult time, we may wonder to ourselves, what is the purpose? Perhaps we’re the role model for others. Perhaps we’re the ones creating a reservoir of strength for others to delve into in order to strengthen themselves.
Before we review some major concepts, there is one more item I want to mention. grief is compounded and very much complicated when there is unfinished business. I experienced two very major losses in my life. We know that death is very much a part of life. As birth is, so is death. I lost my father very, very suddenly, and there was no time for me to say goodbye. There was no time for any closure, there was no time to ask mechilah, to ask for forgiveness. It was painful for me that I had never had a chance to express my absolute adoration of my father. My mother was ill for a long time, and I saw her basically fading away, which was very, very painful. They say there is a grief that takes place, a prolonged grief, when a person goes through a lengthy illness. That was a grief in its own right. But with my mother I did have a chance to have closure, and I really made a point of taking the time to ask for mechilah, to express my affection and do a good job of the closure so I would have no regrets afterward, no qualms and no unfinished business.
I would like to share with you something extraordinary. HaKaddosh Baruch Hu had given me a wonderful concept that I was able to share with my mother, and this made a world of a difference to me as we ended our relationship in this world. our relationship had not always been ideal, and I was determined to end off on a very positive note. I davened to Hashem to help me find this positive note that we were going to end off on, and that it should be a natural ending to our relationship. Dr. Miriam Adahan has a line that resonated within me. She says that often we have one child who challenges us a bit more than the others, and we might say, “HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, this is the child I davened for? This is the one I dreamed of for years? This one?” And the answer is, yes. “Yes, Miriam dear, this is the child your neshamah needs. You need this child to grow and develop.”
It was basically the last week of my mother’s life, and I shared this idea with her. I said, “Mommy, I know our relationship hasn’t always been ideal, but for me to be the person whom I turned out to be, it’s obvious that you were the absolutely perfect mother. I needed a mother exactly like you. You have been perfect for me from day one.” And my mother, although her eyes were not open anymore at that time, and she really wasn’t verbal anymore, smiled. I went on and said, “Mommy, even more than that. Even if you thought I wasn’t the perfect daughter, I was the daughter Hashem wanted you to have, so in actuality I was the perfect daughter for you.” Every day until the end of her life, I reminded her and reassured her that she had been the absolutely perfect mother for me and how much I loved her and how much I learned from her. It was a huge berachah that Hashem gave me personally, to have such amazing closure, that there is no guilt and no qualms afterward; there was no unfinished business.
This is not an easy task to undertake, but there is a berachah when there is a prolonged ending and you do have this opportunity. When someone dies suddenly, it is difficult that there is no closure whatsoever. The truth is, one doesn’t have to wait until the end, of course, to express one’s affection and to ask mechilah. I’m told that there were even gedolim who would say vidui every single day of their lives, never knowing if they would wake up the next morning. There is no guarantee for any of us.
The Value of Life
Perhaps the most important message of this entire session, this entire project, when we discuss grief and bereavement and moving on to the Next World, is to teach us to appreciate the value of life. The Kotzker Rebbe would say that it’s a great accomplishment to be mechayeh meisim, to resurrect the dead, but perhaps it’s an even greater accomplishment to be mechayeh hachayim, to resurrect the living. There are people who are living but are not really alive and not living vibrant lives. Hashem gave us life; it’s a blessing that we wake up every morning, modeh ani l’fanecha. We need to use our time well and make each day count. Don’t count the days, make each day count. And we should make sure our lives are meaningful and full. We should enrich our lives with relationships, with good deeds and by working on our middos.
In terms of bidding farewell to a loved one, I want to mention some aspects that might be important to cover. First of all, it’s an opportunity to express appreciation and thanks and to ask for forgiveness. It’s an opportunity to express one’s assurance to a loved one that those who remain in this world will be okay. Very often, elderly parents need the assurance. They’re afraid to leave us and are afraid that perhaps we won’t manage on our own. We can assure them that they have been such wonderful role models and have taught us so well, that as much as we will miss them, we will be able to manage in this world. That could be a wonderful chizzuk and comfort for a parent as they journey on to the Next World. We might want to assure our parents that we will keep the Torah to the best of our abilities. I hope those who have the opportunity for this kind of closure can use it.
Referring back to the Kotzker Rebbe, we have the expression, “v’chai bahem,” we must live with the Torah and mitzvos. V’chai bahem really means to have a vibrancy to our lives. We shouldn’t live lives on a low, quiet, even keel; sometimes we need the vibrancy, we need to have a life, to be mechayeh hachayim.
So in closing, let me review with you. First of all, I hope that I offered you divrei nechamah, a different perspective on looking at the loss, although the only one who can really offer pure divrei nechamah is HaKaddosh Baruch Hu. But I hope that I and others who participated in this project were able to open your eyes and help you see your loss from a different perspective. I would like to suggest that we see ourselves, those of us dealing with loss, as playing a larger role in this world. Perhaps I am a mentor for someone else or a role model; inadvertently people will look up to you and see how you are coping. Perhaps we are adding to the reservoir of strength, hope, and courage in this world by facing a nisayon with equanimity. Perhaps we are increasing the level of spirituality in this world.
We can see ourselves acting upon the precept of ma’aseh avos siman labanim; Avraham had gone through nisyonos, and we too are going through our own nisyonos. We are following a pattern that was set before us many, many years ago in how we handle our nisyonos. Perhaps our role in dealing with loss is to be mekaddeish Sheim Shamayim, to sanctify the name of Hashem. If we are able to grieve as necessary but then accept the nisayon with equanimity and rise above our pain to use it as a stepping stone in serving HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, to turn it into a meaningful act in our own lives, to grow through it, we will be creating a kiddush Hashem in this world.
I would also like to suggest that we be creative in meeting our own needs. We have to keep expanding our world, and we have to keep learning and davening.
I’d like to review with you some of the books that were very helpful to me and I’m sure will be helpful to you also. one is Da es Atzmecha, which people find helpful in getting to know themselves. Rabbi Yitzchak Kirzner’s sefer called Making Sense of Suffering, which I believe is taken from the series of lectures he gave while he himself was very, very ill, is an extremely powerful book. I would like to recommend the book that I co-authored together with Dr. Neil Goldberg called Saying Goodbye. I believe what is very valuable in this book are the essays in the back. These were the essays that helped me to a tremendous degree when I experienced my own losses, and I had no one to talk to and minimal support from the outside world. There is another very powerful book by Lisa Aiken called, Why Me, G-d? A Jewish Guide for Coping with Suffering.
I’d like to recommend Forever with Me by Shoshana Rube. Shoshana writes about the loss of her mother, dealing with her illness and her passing, in a very powerful way. Gesher Hachayim is a classic, written by Rabbi Tukachinsky, dealing with the passing from this world to the next, seeing this world as a bridge to the real life. And of course, I’d like to mention The Neshamah Should have Aliyah, probably the newest of all these books, which has had a profound effect upon many families, turning the loss into meaningful acts, helping to elevate the departed to the next level in Shamayim.
Pointers for Shivah
So just a couple of pointers. Every shiva different. There are so many determining factors. Is it the death of a loved one who was ill for many years? Was it a long drawn-out illness? Was it an elderly person who passed away, or was it, unfortunately, a young person who died suddenly? It does make a difference in how the mourners will react, so keep the needs of the mourners in mind when you enter a house of shivah. I’d like to mention from my own experiences that sometimes there is a shivah house where there are hundreds of people coming and going, a huge amount of action, while other shivah homes are quiet, and they really appreciate when people come and sit for an extended period of time. Take that into account. If you’re in a home where you see there is a tremendous amount of traffic, you could sit for ten minutes or twenty minutes, but don’t overstay. Please get up and allow others to take your place. It is disconcerting for people who travel a long distance to be menacheim aveil, and then they never get a chance to even talk to the aveilim because those in the front just sat there for half an hour, an hour or an hour and a half, which I have actually seen happen. This can be very painful for everyone involved.
Time is an issue, but I believe space is as well. one should not sit on top of the aveilim. Sometimes we just crowd on top of them, and physically it becomes uncomfortable. A friend of mine told me she had a horrible neck ache because people stood over her while she was on this very low chair, picking up her neck the whole time. So besides the emotional comfort of the aveilim, we should take into account their physical comfort. I understand that there are certain communities where they set certain times, perhaps between twelve and one, when the family takes a break and the community knows not to come between those hours. I think it would be very helpful to institute such a concept in other communities. It’s a long day, and sometimes people are sitting literally from eight in the morning until midnight, and they do need a break once in a while. Even health-wise, they need to stretch their legs, use the restroom and eat something – and it’s not comfortable to eat in front of other people. It would really be a tremendous chessed to the aveilim to allow them that space to move out for a couple of minutes.
I would like to suggest that one can also send a letter; having something in writing, a portfolio of letters expressing nechamah, is incredibly helpful for the family. We all know that the aveilus is not over in a week’s time, and to able to open up letters and see concrete words of nechamah can be so incredibly comforting for the family after the fact. I see that in some homes they put out a notebook and ask people to write words of nechamah so that the family can review it and derive the comfort they need when necessary.
I’d also like to suggest that although the formal aveilus is over in one week, those who have had a serious loss need comfort for weeks and months afterward. If you can, call on a regular basis, drop in and visit and offer concrete help. Don’t say, “Call me when you need help.” Rather say, “Can I help you do your grocery shopping today?” “Can I help with the children?” “Can I do carpool for you?” – offer whatever is necessary for them to feel that you are there for them.
Just last night I met with Mrs. Sarah Freund, a therapist who for many years has been working with children of Holocaust survivors. She asked me to share the following, which really applies to all those who are in aveilus. You can read a book, you can watch a video, you can attend a workshop, but the most important thing for those who have suffered a loss or trauma is to talk it out, to express their pain and then to receive the validation that they need. Again, the need for this doesn’t end after a week. So be there to validate their pain. Yes, it’s beautiful to send appropriate books; I think a beautiful gift would be, for example, to give the aveilim The Neshamah Should Have an Aliyah. But carry it out further by calling up after a couple of weeks and saying, “I’m here. Can I come over? I’d love to chat a bit.”
When people would bring up my father’s name, even years later, I would cry. But I loved it. I loved it, and I wanted to hear about him. I craved the opportunity to talk about him. I’ve learned a lot from my own losses; I hope I’ve been able to incorporate everything I’ve learned to help others through this journey and transition in life.
And with all this, we pray that we should not be faced with nisyonos of any sort. HaKaddosh Baruch Hu should bring Mashiach Tziddkeinu, and we should be reunited with our loved ones and receive only happy tidings to share with one another in the future.
For the mourner:
• Support during times of grief is crucial.
• Children are often the silent victims in bereaved families.
• If you are dealing with loss, it’s important to create from the pain.
For the comforter:
• If you are comforting a mourner, the emphasis is on the bereaved person, not on you.
• Don’t ask what you can do to help one who has suffered a loss, just do.
• You can step in at any time because grief continues for a long time after shivah is over.
• Support is crucial to recovering from the pain of pregnancy loss and stillbirth.
• Acknowledge the pain of the one who has suffered the loss. Do not try to brush it away with reassurances or explanations.
• The barometer to determine if you should be there to offer support for your family member or friend is if you’d also be there for her in a time of simchah. If that is the case, offer practical help as well as emotional support.
• The time immediately following the loss is not a time to offer solutions. Allow her to go through the stages of grief that will bring her to recovery: shock, blame, guilt.
• Remember that your loved one just gave birth and needs time to recover. The emotional upheaval involved makes the recovery harder.
• Be sensitive about discussing topics related to pregnancy and children.
• Be attuned to what your loved one needs; sometimes she will want you to step back.
• There is no set time table for recovery. give her time, and when she’s ready, she’ll move on.