Lessons From Our Leaders: How To Offer True Nechama

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb


One of the experiences that I think many Rabbis have-I know I had it, especially when I was working as a rabbi of a shul – is that someone in the community dies, and the family sits shivah. The family is an observant family, but in many families there are many members who are not observant and often who are just not knowledgeable at all about Jewish customs and Jewish practices. They too are part of the shivah; they may even be aveilim themselves halachically – brothers, uncles, children. And they all come together – the observant members of the family and those who are non-observant and not knowledgeable in Jewish matters. As a rabbi of the people who wanted to keep the laws of the Torah and all the minhagei Yisrael, our Jewish customs, I was faced with a challenge. How do you introduce the proper practice to people who do not know the appropriate protocol for sitting shivah? What makes it more difficult is that the custom has evolved in the Jewish world – which has no religious basis – that the shivah is almost like a party. A lot of food is served, people are sitting around and engaging in idle talk, sometimes even jokes. And it certainly is not appropriate. It’s the rabbi’s role to somehow explain in a very polite and courteous way that the family whose home we are in are an observant family, and they want to keep the Jewish custom in the way that it was traditionally done and the way that it should be done. Sometimes it’s very difficult because people don’t want to hear the rabbi come and tell them what to do; this is something they’ve always done. “Whenever someone dies we always break out the best whiskey. We have the special platters of food, and we talk about the good old days.” So the rabbi has to be very tactful and diplomatic and with appropriate derech eretz has to explain to the people what the proper way is. I’ve done that many, many times in my career. Almost without exception, after the first day or two goes by, these relatives come over to me and say, “You know rabbi, your way is the right way. It’s much more appropriate to do things in the customary way that you’ve taught us.” And I say, “Look, it’s not my idea. our rabbis from the Talmud and throughout the ages have taught us the way to do it.” They tell me, “Those rabbis knew what they were talking about. They understood human psychology; they understood.” You hear this from people who, to say the least, didn’t respect rabbis a few days ago. But when they see the wisdom of our Torah and our Chazal and our customs, they are impressed that not only is this religiously the appropriate thing to do, but from a humane point of view this is the proper way to say farewell to the person who has departed and the proper way to begin the cycle of mourning. It shouldn’t be thought that it’s only irreligious Jews who have a misconception about what shivah is all about. Even Jews who were raised in a frum environment, who received a proper religious education, who even received an advanced Jewish education, are sometimes unaware of what a nichum aveilim is supposed to be like, what the experience is supposed to be like at the beis aveil, the so-called shivah house. They don’t know what should be said and what should not be said. of course there are halachos about this – halachos that are in the Shulchan Aruch, not in some footnote somewhere, but that are explicitly spelled out and that are based in many cases upon ma’amarei Chazal, upon Gemaras. I’d like to speak about some of them. This is not going to be a lecture in all the halachos, but we will mention some of them that are especially important, perhaps from an interpersonal point of view, from the point of view of the emotional situation in which a person in mourning, an aveil or an aveilah, finds himself or herself. First of all, I want to point out that nichum aveilim, to comfort the mourner, is a mitzvah. There are Rishonim, early commentators, who feel that it’s a mitzvas aseih d’Oraisa, that it’s a positive command from the Torah. We find that the Ribbono Shel Olam blessed Yitzchak after Avraham died. And there’s a Rabbeinu Yonah on Maseches Berachos that says that that is the source from the Torah of the practice of nichum aveilim. The Rambam feels it’s a d’rabbanan, a rabbinical directive. one way or the other, it’s a very, very important mitzvah, and it’s one of the ways that we have of fulfilling what Rebbi Akiva calls the klal gadol baTorah, the great rule of the Torah, which is v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, you should love your fellow as you love yourself. How do you do that? The Rambam explains that there are various ways to fulfill this. one way is that when a person is in mourning – and of course if you were in mourning you would want to be consoled, you would want someone to help you to cope and deal with the loss that you suffered – you have a mitzvah of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha, of expressing your love for your fellow Jew by going to him or to her and expressing how bad you feel, how much you’re with him, and also how to put his loss in perspective if you can do that, to assign to it the proper religious spiritual significance, or simply to be there. Just being there is also a way of making the person feel better, that he is not alone, that he’s supported; his friends, his family, his community are with him. These are all ways that we can fulfill the mitzvah of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha. That’s extremely important. One of the things we find as our communities have baruch Hashem grown and become larger and larger is that often we feel that nichum aveilim is almost a chore: “Oy, I have to go be menacheim aveil someone. I have to go and do it.” And you take it upon yourself as a chore, another job to do. You have a list: “okay, today I have a 9:00 appointment, a 9:30 appointment, and at 10:00 I have to ‘pay a shivah call.’” It becomes burdensome. A mitzvah is not supposed to be that way. The nevi’im, particularly Yeshayah Hanavi, decry mitzvas anashim melumadah, that sometimes a mitzvah becomes a habit, routine. You wake up in the morning, you put on your tefillin. A mitzvah is supposed to be something much more than that. It’s supposed to have a certain degree of seriousness, of awareness of what you’re doing, whether it’s halachic intent or just realizing that you are doing something extremely important, something that is a fulfillment of v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha. This is something very powerful. Chazal say that if a person has a choice between nichum aveilim and bikur cholim – let’s say you have twenty minutes and your choice is to go to a hospital to visit someone who is sick or to go to a house of mourning to console someone who is in mourning – nichum aveilim takes priority. The reason for this is that when you do the mitzvah of nichum aveilim, you’re doing something for the deceased. You are honoring his family and his memory by showing up at the beis aveil, and you are doing something for a person who is alive, the mourner. Bikur cholim is only for the person who is ill; it’s only for the person who is alive. So nichum aveilim on the scale of things is very, very high up. Just being aware that you’re doing such a tremendous mitzvah itself puts you in the proper frame of mind. Let's go one step farther. You come to the beis aveil, and you’re confronted with somebody who is sitting on a lower chair or on the floor, and who just lost a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, or g-d forbid, a child. obviously the person is distraught; the person has suffered a great loss. You are there to be menacheim him, to somehow comfort him. What do you do? Almost everyone I’ve met and discussed this with tells me, “I feel uncomfortable; I don’t know what to say.” That’s natural. That’s very natural. Many times I’ve had the experience of accompanying a great rav, a great Rosh Yeshivah, a great Rebbe in a couple of cases, to a beis aveil. And in so many of those instances I remember the person saying to me after we left, “This was difficult. It’s always hard to find the right thing to say.” And I wonder: Here is a person who is a great talmid chacham, who has so much experience in so many areas of Jewish practice. Why does he find this so difficult? I once had this experience with a great Rosh Yeshivah and rav, Rav Dovid Kviat, who passed away some years ago. He was still from the old school, a European rav. He served as the rav in the Agudas Yisrael on 18th Avenue in Borough Park, and he wrote some beautiful sefarim. We were at a beis aveil, and when we were leaving he expressed to me how difficult this was. So I asked him the following question (we had a certain relationship, and I felt comfortable enough asking him): “The rav has so much experience with these kinds of things, and you still find it so difficult?” He told me, “Ich vil zich masbir zein, I’ll explain it to you. The problem is az yeder mentch is different.” Every person is different. You can’t have a stock phrase that goes for everyone. There are many mitzvos, baruch Hashem, that you know exactly how to do. You follow the prescription, you say the proper berachah, and the mitzvah is done. But when you’re dealing with people, he explained to me, there’s never one way to do it. Bikur cholim for one person requires one approach; bikur cholim for another person requires a different approach. The same thing is true with nichum aveilim. Everyone reacts to loss differently, and there are different types of losses. There’s a loss of a parent, which is one thing; there’s a loss of a child, which is a different thing. There’s a loss of an old person, there’s a loss of a young person. There’s a loss of someone with whom you had a wonderful relationship, and sometimes there’s a loss of a person with whom you didn’t have a great relationship. Sometimes you come to a family where two brothers did not get along so well all their lives; now one passed away and you are going to be menacheim the other one. What do you say and what don’t you say? It becomes very delicate, and you have to be very careful. It takes a lot of thought and a lot of siyata d’Shmaya to say the right thing and to do the right thing. This was something extremely important that Harav Kviat taught me. People are different, and therefore they have to be approached differently. Some of the halchos help with just this problem of dealing with different people in different ways. There’s one halachah that is almost the key to everything. That halachah, based upon a Gemara in Mo’ed Kattan, is that when you’re menacheim aveil someone, you don’t start talking until the aveil starts talking. The mourner has to start the conversation. Sometimes, the mourner will say nothing. He’ll just sit there; either he’s so distraught or he just doesn’t know what to say, and you’re sitting there and he doesn’t say anything. What do you do? No one likes to sit there and not make conversation, so the natural temptation is to think of something to start the conversation. Sometimes that’s appropriate, but you have to be careful because the halachah is to wait for him. I saw recorded in the name of Rav Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach that in a situation where the mourner does not want to speak, you should say nothing, wait a respectable amount of time, say “HaMakom yenacheim eschem,” may g-d comfort you together with all the mourners of Tziyon and Yerushalayim, and then you leave. If the mourner said nothing, maybe the best thing is igra d’vei tamya shetikusa, to remain silent. You are just expressing, “I’m here, I’m with you.” But most times the mourner does say something, and that gives you a clue as to what your next step is. In general, this goes way beyond just nichum aveilim. When you are dealing with people, one of the things I learned long ago is that you can’t go wrong if you just listen. If you say something, you might say the right thing, you might say the wrong thing, but if you just simply listen, then it’s extremely appropriate. The person feels he’s being heard. There is a concept in the secular world, but it makes good sense in every world, of active listening. Active listening means you don’t only listen with your ear and shake your head – although that’s fine too – but you say something that is really telling the person, “I understand what you are saying.” So when the person says, “Ach, this is a terrible loss,” and you say, “It must be really a terrible loss. You had such a wonderful wife and she’s not here anymore,” you’re not telling him anything he doesn’t know; you’re reflecting his feelings. And then he can go on to the next step and tell you specifically what he’s feeling and why he’s feeling this way. The key is to take your cue from what the aveil says. If he opens up on a certain tone, then you pretty much know what your next reaction should be. Listen, say a little bit more than what he said, and take your cue from the aveil himself. This is an extremely important guideline, and this is a halachah in Shulchan Aruch. There’s another halachah in Shulchan Aruch that is interesting, and that is when the aveil gives you a signal, which could be just a nod of his head, that tells you enough, time to go – you go. People think, “Kol hamarbeh harei zeh meshubach,” the more the better. In certain areas of Torah that’s true. For example, when relating the story of yetziyas Mitzrayim on Seder night, the more the better. of course, when learning Torah, the more the better. And in many other areas, such as tzeddakah, the more the better, although there too there are limits. But when it comes to nichum aveilim, it’s not always true; sometimes the less the better, and more becomes a burden to the aveil. He is embarrassed, he’s tired, he’s distracted, or there are other people in the room he wants to hear from. Learning that it’s time to go is a very important halachah and a very important thing to do. Very often, when I teach or speak about different aspects of the Torah, I think back to the first time in my life that I experienced this particular mitzvah or this particular situation. I remember the first time I put on tefillin, a month or so before my bar mitzvah. I remember it like it was today. I remember long before that, when I was four or five years old, sitting in the sukkah with my grandparents. When was the first time I remember a shivah situation? In this case my experience wasn’t really with sitting shivah, but rather with dealing with death and with the reaction to death by someone who in some sense was an aveil. I had an aunt and uncle – who are both since gone – who had three children. Two of them are still alive and well today, and baruch Hashem, they are wonderful Jews, disseminators of Torah. one of them, his name was Simchah, died as a very young child; he was maybe two or three years old. It was a sudden death; the baby went to sleep, and the next morning he was gone, and they were not sure what happened. Nowadays, maybe they would know what happened, but when this happened, about sixty years ago, they didn’t know. I remember my aunt and uncle lived in a distant city from where we lived, but we found out about it. My parents were upset of course – this was my father’s brother who was the father of the baby – and obviously the parents of the baby were upset. one of the things they decided was not to tell my zaidy, the zaidy of this baby. He was an old man, and they figured it would be too difficult for him. So they didn’t tell him right away. My zaidy came to visit us in our home several months later – at the time I was not yet bar mitzvah, probably about twelve years old – and they told my zaidy the news. My zaidy was a Yid from the old school — a chasiddishe Yid who learned literally day and night. He was a big talmid chacham, a very, very special Jew. He was old and sick, but it was very interesting. When he heard the news that his grandchild had died, he of course was upset, and of course his immediate response was to burst out crying, but he took it better than everyone else because he was able to put it in a certain perspective that I certainly didn’t have and neither did my parents. The day that they broke the news to him, he sat and talked about it and then got on the telephone with my aunt and uncle in the distant city and spoke to them. And then he called me into a room. He wanted to talk just to me. That experience was my first experience in a sense with nichum aveilim because of something he taught me. And this is what he told me. He said, “You know, you were in the room, Heshele, when we were talking about this loss, and you remember what everyone was saying. Everyone was saying, “Did they do everything they could have done? Did they call the right doctor? They tried everything, they did everything, etc.” He took out a Rav Ya’akov Emden siddur, in which is printed the halachos related to aveilus. But I later found out that what he showed me is a halachah in the Shulchan Aruch too. The halachah is that you shouldn’t be saying things like that. You shouldn’t say, “Ma lecha la’asos,” what can you do? You shouldn’t even say, “That’s what happened; you can’t change it.” Why? Because that implies that if you could change it, you would change it. And our reaction has to be – not everyone is able to have this reaction – but our reaction should be tzidduk hadin, accepting Hashem’s judgment. “Hatzur tamim pa’alo,” g-d’s ways are perfect, and this was g-d’s will. To say words that imply, oy, if we could have changed it, if we could have done this in time, done that in time, administered the right medicine, found the right doctor, the right procedure – we could have changed it. obviously, when the person is alive you have to try everything you can possibly do – find the best doctors, the best procedures, etc. But once there is nothing more to do, then your attitude has to be – and it’s difficult many times to have this attitude, but a religious Jew has to try – this was the will of the Ribbono Shel Olam. g-d wanted it this way, and I accept it. Again I stress, it’s tough to do that; not everybody can do that. Sometimes we feel angry at the Ribbono Shel Olam. Why did this have to happen and why to me, etc., and those feelings are understandable. But a Jew, a believing Jew, believes that Hashem runs a perfect world. Even though many times we don’t like the perfect world that we have, and we think we could do better, we have to say to ourselves, “No – this is what tzidduk hadin is; I accept it – Hashem nassan v’Hashem lakach, g-d gave and g-d took.” That’s what we have to work toward. Therefore we have to avoid the kind of conversation that says we could have changed it somehow. once it’s done, once it’s the end, it’s the end. g-d is the Dayan Ha’emes, g-d is the true judge. There's a sefer on mourning called P'Nei Baruch which I have found very helpful; it has been translated into English as well. There are many, many books about aveilus; some are better than others. Some are excellent on halachah but don’t really help in practical situations, and some tell you a lot about practical situations but don’t tell you about the halachah. This is one sefer that I personally use a lot; it helps me in my rabbinical work and in the personal aveilus I experienced, losing both parents. In P’nei Baruch there’s a chapter on nichum aveilim, which includes some of the laws and rules about nichum aveilim, some which I won’t even mention here. For example, what do you do about nichum aveilim on Shabbos – what do you say, what do you not say? What do you do if you meet an aveil after the shivah? What if you meet him two, three weeks later, or six months later, or five years later? These are all important areas that are covered in this sefer. (There are other sefarim like this as well.) What I want to bring to your attention is a precious document that’s found in this sefer, and I’m sure it can be found in other places too. It’s a letter that was written by one of the greatest Torah giants of all time, and certainly of his time in the 18th century: Rav Yonasan Eibishitz, popularly known as the Rebbe Reb Yonasan. The Rebbe Reb Yonasan wrote powerful, masterful halachic works: on Choshen Mishpat he wrote the Urim V’tumim, on Yoreh Dei’ah he wrote the Kereisi U’pleisi. He also wrote many works delving into Torah sources and ideas, such as Ya’aros Devash. I had the privilege of visiting his grave in Hamburg, germany. At the end of his life he was the rav in the community known as AH”u: Altona, Hamburg, and Vandsbek. These were once three cities; now if you go to Germany, there is one city of Hamburg with two suburbs. Reb Yonasan’s matzeivah still stands there – even after the Holocaust. In any case, he wrote a letter to his sister-in-law following the death of her husband, in what’s called Jargon, a kind of a german-Yiddish. The letter was translated into Hebrew, and we have a copy of this letter here. When you read the letter you realize how she was his sister-in-law. The man who died was Rav Yonasan’s wife’s brother. So this was his wife’s brother’s wife, not a very close relationship and certainly not a blood relationship. In Hebrew the word for brother-in-law is gis. So it says, I’m writing this “l’achar petiras gisi ha’avreich,” after the death of my brother-in-law, the young man. In this letter, he writes divrei nechamah. It’s a long letter, and I’m not going to read the whole thing, but I recommend it to everyone who is interested in such matters because it shows you how a gadol b’Yisrael writes to another person, who is a woman, who is not directly related to him. At first he apologizes to her about why he can’t come to see her in person. This was about 300 years ago, and you couldn’t just take a plane and hop from once place to the other, so he apologizes for not being there in person. But he writes to her, “I want you to know that this past zayin Adar, the seventh day of the month of Adar, which was the yahrtzeit of Moshe Rabbeinu, when I of course gave a eulogy for Moshe Rabbeinu, I also included words of eulogy for your late husband, alav haShalom. To us this might sound like no big deal. But he’s apologizing for not being there in person. That says a lot. That’s so important in guiding us in how to behave. I’m sorry, sister-in-law, I couldn’t be there in person. It’s too far, but I want you to know something that I did do – something that obviously would make her feel good. She can now think, my brother-in-law, who is a big rav, when he spoke about Moshe Rabbeinu in public, also spoke about my husband, alav haShalom. You know what that opening line must have made her feel in terms of nechamah? It made her feel important, that her loss was important. A great rav, who happens to be her brother-in-law, recognized the importance. other people, whom she never met and probably never would meet, heard about her loss and her wonderful husband who died. This was so encouraging to her. Even if there was nothing more than that, it would have already been a nechamah for her. He goes on to say many things. First of all, he tells her, you now have the task of raising orphans. And you wonder, How am I going to be successful raising these orphans? This is what he writes to her: “Rov hane’arim hamaztlichim b’Torah v’chachmah v’yirah u’masa u’matan, heim yesomim.” Powerful. Most of the young people who are successful in Torah, in wisdom, in fear of g-d, and in business, are yesomim, orphans. orphans – as he goes on to say – have a special degree of success in life. He explains why, but first of all he’s telling her, “Don’t worry about your children.” She was surely thinking, Oy! How am I going to pay tuition? How am I going to raise children without a husband? Who’s going to teach them? Who is going to do their homework with them? Who is going to learn mishnayos with them? How am I going to do this? How will they possibly be successful? How will they ever have a livelihood? I’m a poor woman, a widow.” “I’m a man of experience,” he tells her. “I know the best boy in the yeshivah, the best boy in the school, the best businessman and the most religious Jew; they’re orphans. They all grew up as yesomim – a special thing. This is very comforting to her on a practical level. You’re not talking about philosophy. These are the woman’s worries. Who’s going to make these children into mentschen, into functional adults? He tells her, “Don’t worry, my experience tells me they’ll be fine. They’ll be wonderful; they’ll be better than others.” A tremendous nechamah. But then he says why – and this brings me to tears just sitting here: because they lost a father who was flesh and blood. They lost a father who was a human being, a mere mortal. Now, g-d is their father because g-d is the Avi yesomim, g-d is called the Father of orphans. So g-d is their Father, and He’ll see to it that they’ll be successful. They have a father. Don’t think they don’t have a father. I saw a phrase in the writings of Rav Yitzchak Isaac Sher, who was the mashgiach in the Slabodka Yeshivah in Slabodka and eventually in eretz Yisrael. He says that when we say the phrase “yesomim hayinu v’ein av,” we are orphans and there is no father, this is incorrect. He goes on to say that very often we say nowadays, “oh, our generation is a dor yasom, an orphaned generation; there are no great leaders.” Rav Sher doesn’t say it’s heresy to say this, but he says it’s wrong to say it. The passuk in the haftorah we read on Shabbos Shuvah, the Shabbos between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, says, “Ki becha yerucham yasom,” you, Jewish person, have to understand that the Ribbono Shel Olam recognizes and shows compassion to the orphan. The orphan is not an orphan. The orphan is not abandoned. The Ribbono Shel Olam is becha, in you. The yasom always has a father. So if it’s a poor child that lost his father, or if it’s we who feel that we are an orphaned generation, g-d forbid, neither one is the case because we have a father. That father is the Ribbono Shel Olam. This is part of the comfort that Rav Yonasan Eibshitz gave to his sister-in-law. I’m giving you this as an example of how one person speaking to one desperate woman at a great geographic distance was able to deliver words – and some of these words we can use in our own contexts – of great nechamah, words that would be very powerful to her. There's more here, I first realized one of the things that he emphasizes from learning this particular letter, but as I’ve gotten more and more experience I found out just how important this is. He says to her and to the children that there are non-Jews who when they suffer a loss like she suffered, committed suicide. “Kevar hayu miyamim kedumim harbei goyim she’ibdu aztman lada’as b’chashvam latzeis min ha’olam hachashuch u’lehagi’a el olam shekulo ohr.” They make a mistake and think: This is so terrible a loss, why do I have to stay in this dark world? I’ll kill myself and I’ll enter into the world of light, the Next World. The Jewish way is not to do that, chas v’Shalom. When I first saw this paragraph, my reaction was that these are pretty strong words, talking about suicide. obviously there are aveilim who are thinking those kinds of thoughts, but we hesitate to mention it to them, and I’m not recommending that we do. But he goes on and says to her, “You know, there are many ways of committing suicide.” I’m going to give you an example from our world: you can jump off a bridge. There’s another way of committing suicide, which is much slower, but it’s also a kind of suicide. We would call it “self-destructive behavior.” That is when you don’t take care of yourself. You don’t exercise, you don’t eat properly, you let yourself go. “Be careful,” he says to his sister-in-law. “Al kein, achos v’hayeladim,” my dear sister – it’s not really his sister, but he’s calling her his sister – and my dear kinderlach, my dear children, “hashgichu al beriuschem,” be careful about your health. The natural tendency is to say, “Oy, my world is lost, my husband is gone; I’m not going to take care of myself. I’m not going to eat properly; I’m going to eat what makes me feel better.” What makes you feel better is a lot of carbs and a lot of sugar, and that’s not going to help you. You know, a good piece of cake with icing is going to make you feel better – actually physiologically, it stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain and it makes you feel better when you are in mourning – but it’s also not very good for you. So “hashgichu al beri’uschem,” take care of your health. Nowadays we would say, watch your nutrition, exercise, go for a walk, whatever it takes, because you have to stay healthy. our attitude is not like those goyim. We don’t want to jump away from this dark world. We want to stay in this world and make it lighter. And to do that we have to be healthy, we have to do what they call nowadays “self-care.” Then he adds something, which is really his halachic ruling: “Zeh hu yoseir chashuv mimah sherak tomru Kaddish avur avichem, z”l,” your health is more important, he tells these little children, than saying Kaddish. You’re a six-year-old, eight-year-old; there are going to be people in the shul who are going to say, “Come, come, say Kaddish!” That’s important, but it’s not as important as your health. He doesn’t fill in the blanks, but I can fill in the blanks. A child needs his sleep. The minyan is at 6:00 am, the child is seven years old, and he has to go to school. Maybe it’s more important that he sleeps another hour than he goes to say Kaddish. That’s what he’s telling us. “Zeh hu yoseir chashuv mimah sherak tomru Kaddish avur avichem, z”l, ki zos hi mitzvah yoseir gedolah,” it’s a bigger mitzvah, “shetashgichu al beri’uschem” to take care of your health. “U’tekablu hakol mei’HaKaddosh Baruch Hu beahavah u’b’chibah,” take everything that g-d gives you with love, “v’zeh niskabeil me’od lirtzonas HaKaddosh Baruch Hu,” this is something HaKaddosh Baruch Hu wants. HaKaddosh Baruch Hu wants you to be healthy, and that takes priority over many things that people think are more important. He’s not saying they shouldn’t say Kaddish, but these are children; sometimes you have to suspend certain things in the interest of their mental health or physical health, and this is what he’s telling his sister-in-law. He also tells them something that useful and practical. The words that Chazal gave us to say at a shivah are, “HaMakom yenacheim eschem,” may the Ribbono Shel Olam comfort you, “b’soch she’ar aveilei Tziyon viYerushalayim,” along with all the other mourners of Tziyon and Yerushalayim. Rav Yonasan says – and this is in my words, not in his words – you have to put everything into a certain perspective. You are an individual person who suffered an unspeakable loss. You are also part of the Jewish people. And the Jewish people are all widows and orphans. In his words, “v’hineinu kulanu yesomim v’almanos,” we are all in galus. We are a people who have suffered all sorts of losses: national losses, community losses, personal losses. We are all part of that. And even this woman who now can’t see beyond her own loss has a part of her that’s aware that she’s part of a bigger picture of Klal Yisrael, and Klal Yisrael is in mourning al Tziyon viYerushalayim. Somehow that lesson is also a nechamah. I’m not alone. I’m part of this bigger picture. What do we say nowadays? It’s not just all about you. But you can’t go to a woman who’s crying and say it’s not just about you. You can, however, begin to give her a context. You are a person, but you are a part of the rest of aveilei Yisrael. You are part of a bigger picture. You have to begin to give the aveil that context in a way that’s appropriate, and of course, when he or she is ready to hear it. Rav Yonasan then goes on to tell an interesting story about a gentile king, Daryaveish, Darius, a Persian king. “Melech gadol hayah u’ben yachid,” Darius was a great king, an only child, and he died as a young man. Before he died he called over his mother and his wife and said to them, “I’m dying. I don’t want you to cry until someone comes to you and tells you something bad about me.” This is the wisdom of King Darius. Don’t cry until someone comes and says, “oh, your son, your husband Darius, he was a terrible king.” Then you can start crying. Now, of course, we understand this was a ploy. He didn’t want them to be very upset. of course they were going to cry, but whenever they were crying they would remember that their son or husband told them just before he died not to cry until somebody said something bad about him; and he could bet that no one was going to come to the queen or the queen mother and tell them, “Your son was a horrible fellow,” so they would always feel the need to hold back those tears. That’s the story that the Rebbe Reb Yonasan tells about King Darius. But then he brings it back to a Torah perspective. What he says is this. Your husband had a sheim tov, a good reputation; he was a talmid chacham, he was a kosher Jew, he was an honest fellow, he had good friends, he was a popular fellow – that is your biggest nechamah, that there is nobody who is going to come to you and have a bad word to say about him. The nechamah is in all the good things he accomplished in his life. If you want to mourn, when someone comes and says, “Ach, your husband was a crook,” then you have to mourn. The good reputation that a person leaves behind is his biggest legacy; that’s what he leaves over, and it’s also some of the greatest words of nechamah you can tell a person. He ends the letter with the following words: “Al kein achos v’hayeladim,” again, the way he addresses them three times in the course of this letter, my sister and the children, “bazeh rotzeh ani l’sayeim,” here is my conclusion, “heyi b’simchah,”– in the feminine, please be happy, “shehu niftar b’sheim tov u’beli dofi,” he died with a good reputation, with no faults. “V’eizehu ben Olam Haba? Kol shek'neged zekeinav kavod.” one who is worthy of his portion in the World to Come is someone who dies and everyone can say he was a wonderful person. Therefore, he concludes, “u’vechein achos,” my dear sister, “nichyeh b’tikvah laHashem,” let’s live together – in the plural – with hope to g-d. “V’kovei Hashem yachalifu ko’ach ya’alu eiver kanesharim,” he wishes her the special strength and energy that the Ribbono Shel Olam gives to those people who have hope in Him, who have bitachon in Him. He writes, “mimeni, gischa,” from me, your brother-in-law, “hakatan, Yehonasan ben Harav Nassan Nata, choneh poh Metz.” He was then living in the city called Metz, where he was the rav before he became the rav in AH”u. The footnote says this letter was printed in a book called Gedulas Yehonasan, b’lashon Jargon, in Yiddish-german, v’turgam l’lashon hakoddesh, and it tells you who translated it much more recently into Hebrew. This letter for me is a model of how a person can give comfort and must give comfort. It sets such a powerful example. One of teh subjects that in my experience is hardly ever brought up at a beis aveil but should be is the whole concept of an Olam Haba, the World to Come. It’s fascinating because sometimes people feel, I don’t want to talk about philosophy at a beis aveil; I want to talk about how the niftar died. Did he have pneumonia or did he go into cardiac arrest? That’s neither here nor there. Rather talk about techiyas hameisim, that there is resurrection of the dead. Talk about Olam Haba, the Next World, and about what the Next World might be like: the tzaddikim yoshvim v’atroseihem b’rosheihem, the righteous sit with crowns on their heads, v’nehenin miziv haShechinah, and get pleasure from the radiance of g-d. Sometimes we think these things are way up in the clouds. I can’t talk to the aveilim about that. You know what I say to people when they tell me that? You daven three times a day or sometimes four, even five times a day [on Shabbos, Yom Tov and Yom Kippur]. What do you say in the very second berachah of Shemoneh esreih? “Baruch atah Hashem, mechayeih hameisim,” blessed are you Hashem, who revives the dead. We have a whole berachah about this in Shemoneh esreih; it’s not a philosophy that only appears in the Ani Ma’amins, the Thirteen Principles of Faith recited at the end of the davening. It’s part of the davening we say every day. The Ribbono Shel Olam is mechayeih hameisim, He revives the dead. You can talk about that. How you talk about it, what words you use, depends upon the person, like Rav Kviat says. But this too has to be part of the conversation. And for that there's a bautiful idea that's alos in the same sefer. The author quotes it in the name of likkutei Anshei Sheim. I’ll conclude with this because this is very powerful. The passuk says, “Banim atem la’Hashem elokeichem,” you are sons, children of g-d, “lo sisgodedu v’lo sasimu karchah bein eneichem lameis.” You are not sup- posed to react to the death of a close person by scratching yourself and tearing yourself and pulling out your hair. This is Torah prohibition. Why shouldn’t you have this extreme grief reaction? “Ki am kaddosh atah laHashem elokecha u’vecha bachar Hashem lihiyos lo l’am segulah,” because you are such a holy people to Hashem, chosen to be His treasured nation – therefore you shouldn’t have that reaction. So the likutei Anshei Sheim quotes someone, I’m not sure who, but a gadol b’Yisrael who asked a question – a powerful question: This knowledge should make us want to tear out our hair even more. If you’re nothing, you’re an animal, you’re one kind of a monkey, like evolutionists say, and another monkey dies, so what are you going to tear your hair out for? But if you are “banim atem laHashem elokeichem,” if Hashem chose us, if He is calling us His princes, and one of these precious sons of royalty dies, that’s all the more reason to tear out your hair. He gives a mashal, a parable: If I lose a diamond that’s worth a thousand dollars, are you going to tell me, “oh, that diamond really wasn’t worth a thousand dollars. It was worth a million dollars!” Is that going to make me feel better? It’s going to make me feel worse! Then he gives another mashal, which answers the question beautifully: Suppose there’s a king, and he has a son, the prince, whom he sends to marry a princess in a distant country. The prince grows up in the other country and lives his life there supported by his father-in-law, the king, living in a beautiful palace, with a royal coach and crown. And then the father says, “okay, prince, my son, it’s time to come home.” So the prince is going to have to give up everything he had by his father-in-law – the foreign king – but he’s going to come home; he’s going to come back to his father, where he’ll have a bigger palace and more royal coaches and a chance to get the royal crown, to become the king, so he doesn’t mourn. He knows that he’s going to an even better and higher place. This is what the passuk is telling us. Don’t mourn – because you are princes. We need to realize that the person we are mourning for, whoever he or she was, however precious they were, is going back now to their Father, they are going back to the ultimate palace, and therefore we have to mourn for them, but “lo sisgodedu v’lo sasimu karchah,” extreme mourning is wrong. Mourning has to be appropriate and measured. The Rambam tells us that at a certain point the grief has to stop because we are ma’aminim, we are believers, and we believe that the person we lost is now in a better place, a different place, a higher place. He or she has gone back to his or her Father.
Return to Complete Set of
To Comfort and Be Comforted / Nichum v'Nechama Videos