The Value of the Individual within the Community

And Sarah died in Kiryan Arba – which is Chevron – in the Land of Cana’an. And Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to cry for her. (Sefer Beresheit 23:2)

1. Avraham’s response to Sarah’s death
Parshat Chayey Sarah begins with the death of our first Matriarch Sarah. The Torah tells us that Sarah died in Chevron. Avraham was not with Sarah at the time of her death. Avraham returned to Chevron to bury his beloved wife and to mourn her. The above passage describes two elements of mourning. Avraham cried over her and he eulogized her. Shulchan Aruch describes the requirements of the eulogy. The eulogy focuses upon the positive characteristics of the departed and should evoke the tears of the listeners. According to this interpretation, it seems that Avraham’s two responses are actually two elements of a single response. He cried over his loss and he gave verbal form to his anguish through his eulogy.

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno explains – based upon the comments of the Talmud[1] – that the eulogy is intended to honor the departed.[2] This comment seems to be self-evident. What alternative purpose could be attributed to the eulogy? What point is Sforno making with his comment?

Apparently, Sforno’s intention is to distinguish between Avraham’s crying over his beloved’s death and his eulogizing of Sarah. The comments of the Talmud that Sforno quotes make the point that the eulogy honors the departed. Unlike the mourner’s crying which is an expression of personal grief and pain, the eulogy honors the departed by identifying and extolling his or her character and virtues. Avraham’s crying was an expression of his own loss and the pain he was experiencing. He was deprived of his partner – his beloved, precious, beautiful Sarah. His eulogy honored Sarah by describing Sarah’s character, her greatness, her righteousness, her love of Hashem.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l expands on the distinction suggested by Sforno. Before considering his comments on this issue, it will be helpful to consider more carefully the relationship between Avraham and Sarah.

And the Lord said to Avraham: Sari your wife – do not call her by the name Sari because Sarah is her name. I will bless her and I will also give you a son from her. And I will bless her and she will be (the progenitor) of nations. Kings of nations will descend from her. (Sefer Beresheit 17:15-16)

2. Sarah and Avraham’s partnership in the covenant
Hashem’s covenant with Bnai Yisrael was first communicated to Avraham. Rav Soloveitchik notes that it is clear from the Torah that the covenantal relationship between Hashem and Bnai Yisrael did not begin with Avraham. Instead, it began with Avraham and Sarah. In the covenantal relationship Hashem was one party and the other party was Avraham and Sarah as a couple or unit. This is expressed in the above passages. Hashem tells Avraham that his name has been changed. He will no longer be called Avram; henceforth he will be called Avraham. This new name reflects the covenant. Hashem then reveals to Avraham that Sarah’s name has also been changed. No longer will she be Sari; henceforth she shall be Sarah. In other words, the covenantal relationship was expressed through both receiving new names reflective of the relationship.

Rav Soloveitchik points out that Parshat Chayey Sarah reinforces this lesson. Avraham lived for fifty years after Sarah’s death. Yet, with Sarah’s death, Avraham fades from the Torah’s narrative. He is no longer the central figure. Instead this role is assumed by his son Yitzchak and Yitzchak’s wife Rivka. Avraham and Sarah together were Hashem’s covenantal partners. With Sarah’s death, this covenantal role passed from Sarah and Avraham to Rivka and Yitzchak.

3. Avraham’s response – personal tragedy and communal loss
Based upon this analysis, Rav Soloveitchik explains the distinction between the mourner’s crying and his eulogizing of the departed. As Sforno implies, the mourner’s cries are an expression of the pain of personal loss. His cries are a verbalization of unrepressible sorrow and grief. The eulogy extols the character and virtues of the departed. Sforno explains that the eulogy honors the departed. However, it must be noted that the eulogy accomplishes its goal by objectifying the loss. Once objectified, the loss can no longer be viewed as merely a personal tragedy for the mourner. The eulogy transforms the loss into an objective misfortune. It is not merely the subjective, personal experience of the mourner. It is the objective misfortune of the community that has been deprived of a precious member.

Avraham cried over Sarah and he eulogized her. Avraham’s eulogy of Sarah was not merely the verbalization of his crying – his personal anguish and despair. It was the objectification of the loss – a description of Sarah’s greatness. Avraham described the Sarah’s character, her virtues, and her role in welcoming others into their community of service to Hashem. Through this eulogy, the entire community was included in mourning of the loss of the Matriarch.[3]

4. Death and spilling water
Rav Soloveitchik’s insight provides an explanation for an interesting practice that is described by Shulchan Aruch. In order to understand this practice, one must recognize that in earlier eras people generally passed away in their homes. Also, homes in earlier times did not have plumbing. Instead water was supplied to the home from wells. Water was drawn from a well and stored in the home for use when needed. Shulchan Aruch explains that when a person passes away, the water stored in the home in which the person died and the water stored in the adjacent homes should be spilled out.[4] Shulchan Aruch does not provide an explanation for this seemingly strange practice. However, other authorities do discuss the practice, its origin, and meaning.

And Bnai Yisrael – all of the assembly – came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month. The nation dwelled there and Miryam died there and she was buried there. And there was no water for the assembly. And they gathered against Moshe and Aharon. (Sefer BeMidbar 20:1-2)

5. Miryam’s death and its impact
Aruch HaShulchan relates the practice to the above passages. These passages discuss the death of Miryam and the subsequent events. Miryam was Moshe’s sister and a prophetess. The Torah explains that after Miryam passed away the nation found itself without any supply of water. The juxtaposition of Miryam’s death with the absence of water suggests a connection between these two events. Rashi quotes the explanation of our Sages. During the nation’s journey through the wilderness, it was miraculously provided with water. The nation’s wondrous supply of water was a reward for Miryam’s righteousness. With her passing, this miracle was suspended and the nation had no water.[5] Aruch HaShulchan suggests that the Shulchan Aruch’s practice makes reference to this incident. It reminds us of Miryam’s righteousness and that through her merit the nation was provided with water.[6]

Aruch HaShulcan’s explanation of the practice requires examination. Certainly, Miryam’s righteousness is worthy of recognition. Also, we perform various mitzvot that recall the miracles that sustained Bnai Yisrael in the wilderness. However, the death of a person seems to be a very odd occasion upon which to recall Miryam and the miracle of water in the wilderness.

In order to understand Aruch HaShulcan’s comments, the above passages must be reconsidered. These passages communicate that Miryam had an enormous impact upon the nation. Through her merit, the nation was provided with water. Perhaps, during her lifetime, Miryam was even taken for granted. However, with her passing, her huge impact became evident. Suddenly, there was no water. If the people had not previously appreciated Miryam’s righteousness, now they certainly were very aware of her impact.

6. Every member contributed to the community
It is an error to conclude that Miryam was unique insofar as she impacted her community. A community is a collective of individuals. Each contributes his or her talents, energies, and gifts to the whole. Miryam’s contribution became very evident with her passing. However, every person – like Miryam – contributes to the welfare and wellbeing of the community. Therefore, the death of any individual member is a tragic loss for the entire community.

Rav Soloveitchik’s insight suggests that the practices of mourning be evaluated from the perspective of two paradigms. Mourning is an expression of personal pain and grief. It also focuses upon the loss to the community. According to Aruch HaShulchan, the pouring out of the water is an expression of our recognition of the community’s loss. How does the practice communicate this message?

Aruch HaShulchan is not suggesting that we empty the water from the home of the departed and the surrounding homes simply to recall Miryam and her righteousness. Instead, he is suggesting that this practice is intended to communicate an analogy between the death of the recently departed and the death of the prophetess Miryam. In Miryam’s instance, the loss to the community was obvious; suddenly there was no water. Not every person’s contribution to the community is as profound or obvious as Miryam’s. Yet, the practice of spilling the water declares that the death of any member of the community is analogous to Miryam’s passing. The community has lost a member and is deprived of this member’s unique contribution to the collective wellbeing.

1. Mesechet Sanhadrin 46b.

2. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 23:2.

3. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Recorded Lecture on Parshat Chayey Sarah, BCBM.org, 1973.

4. Rav Yosef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 339:4.

5. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 20:2.

6. Rav Aharon HaLeyve Epstein, Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh De’ah 339:9.