Posted on November 16, 2011 by Shibley
Over the past weeks, I have used afternoon seder to study the laws of aveilut (mourning). As with many areas of halakha, there are numerous details and caveats. I have found myself troubled by the seemingly impersonal details of the halacha, which is brings me to Chayei Sarah, our parasha this week. Sarah dies in the first verse, and is mourned in the second verse by her husband, Avraham. We are told that he mourns (hesped) and cries for her. At the end of Chapter 23 (verse 19), Avraham buries his wife in the place that he has purchased, the cave of Machpelah.
Reading about the preparations for Sarah’s burial got me thinking about my own learning and other places in the Torah that we are told about the deaths of significant characters. Just to highlight two, Aharon and Moshe. When Aharon dies the Torah informs us of the location of his burial, a place called hor ha-har, and the length of time of the weeping, but nothing about any sort of eulogy. When Moshe dies, we are told about the length of the mourning, but not about the place of his death. The place of burial becomes very important in later halakhic literature, as an expression of kvod met. This hodgepodge of information about the deaths of these important figures, brought to my mind a question that is asked in the Rabbinic literature, for whom are mourning rites intended, the living, or the deceased? As we might expect to find, there is evidence in both directions.
The Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Brachot, 6b, teaches that there is a reward for wailing for the dead, which could suggest that it benefits both the bereaved and the deceased. The Shulchan Arukh, the code of Jewish law in Yore De’a 344:1presents the eulogy as a great mitzvah. Other sources, Masechtot Ktantnot 4:10 and Yore De’a 341:1 however, teach that we should not embellish on the eulogy, or make up falsehoods, lest the living come to resent the dead. In cases where the person has few merits, we are also instructed to find praise, even about the family of the deceased.
Before his death, a dying person can instruct his survivors to dispense with the eulogy, but they may not dispense with other mourning practices, even at the insistence of the dying person (Yore De’a 344:9-10). It would seem then that the eulogy, like that which Avraham gave to Sarah is for the deceased, supported by a braita (tanaitic statement) in Sanhedrin 46b-47a, but the crying and mourning is designed for the mourners parallel to the crying that the Torah presents following the deaths of Aharon and Moshe.
One final dimension is the kavod that must be given to the dead, an idea that Avraham espouses when going through the process of purchasing the cave for Sarah’s burial. Throughout the halakhic discourse, kvod meit (honor of the dead) remains a strong theme, one that is expressed with a proper burial and the marking of the grave, thus creating a place to which visitors may return, and a location that should be respected by the community.
So what can we take away, now that we can say with relative comfort that portions of the mourning practices are for both the living and the dead? My read of the kavod and mourning that Avraham does in honor of Sarah is an indication that it is incumbent upon us to live lives that our successors will be proud to remember, with deeds that they will be proud to recall once we have departed this world. Therefore, our goal should be create a legacy that endures because of our compassion and loyalty.