Following In The Ways of Hashem: Halachos and Hashkafos of Nichum Aveilim
Rabbi Eytan Feiner
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.