Rabbi Weinreb’s Torah Column, Parshat Chayei Sarah

“Death, Be Not Proud!”

This time, it was not I who was a few moments late, but rather Richard, who sheepishly mumbled an excuse as he entered the classroom. You will remember that Richard was one of the three students, along with Leon and Simon, who comprised the class I gave long ago, which used the book of Genesis as a text to teach some of the basic concepts of Judaism.

“I can’t believe how often the events of our personal lives have parallels in the biblical readings you assign,” he said.

Both Leon and Simon nodded approvingly. This gave me an opening to quote a Yiddish maxim whose origin is obscure. “Ah Yid lebt mit der parsha,” “A Jew lives his life along with the weekly Torah portion.” I certainly know that for me, hardly a week goes by without some personal life event which has an uncanny connection to the parsha. I was surprised, but glad, that these novices at Torah study also experienced this coincidence.

“But what happened, Richard,” I asked. “What happened this week that paralleled the assigned readings, Genesis 23:1-25:18?”

“My great-aunt died. The funeral was just this afternoon. The cemetery was a long way off. That is why I am late.”

Richard continued to point out the connection between his aged great-aunt’s death and her funeral and the second verse of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Chayei Sarah, which reads, “Sarah died… and Abraham proceeded to eulogize Sarah and cry for her.”

“But,” he exclaimed, “Although there were plenty of eulogies at Auntie’s funeral, there was precious little crying for her. After all, she was 96 years old.”

As always, I drew the attention of the class to the Hebrew equivalents for eulogy and crying: hesped and bechi. “Yes,” said Richard. “There was hesped alright, but no bechi.”

Then, Leon chimed in. “I can vividly recall the tragic death of a teenage cousin of mine. At that funeral there was plenty of bechi, of wailing, but no one had the composure to express words of hesped, of eulogy.”

I could not believe my good fortune. Here was a small group of students who, barely a month ago, did not know that there was such a thing as a weekly Torah portion. Yet, here they were on the evening of this class session relating their life experiences to those of Father Abraham.

I proceeded to share with them some of what the classical commentaries had to say about the concepts of eulogy, hesped, and crying or bewailing the death of a loved one, bechi. I introduced them to the early 20th century commentary of Rabbi Mayer Simcha of Dvinsk, Meshech Chochma.

Interestingly, Rabbi Mayer Simcha does not offer us his interpretation of these concepts on the verses in our Torah portion where they make their first appearance in the Bible. Rather, he postpones his words of wisdom until nearly the end of the Pentateuch, to Deuteronomy 34:8. There we read not of the death of Sarah, but of the death of Moses our teacher.

I asked the class to turn to that passage which describes the death of Moses and the people’s reaction to it. In a flash, all three students excitedly shouted out the verse and noted what was missing. “… Moses the servant of the Lord died there… and the Israelites bewailed Moses… for thirty days. The period of wailing and mourning for Moses came to an end.”

The people cried, even wailed and mourned, there was bechi; but there were no eulogies, not even one hesped, for the great man. “Why,” they asked urgently, in unison.

Another opening for this master teacher! I had long before learned of how much more effective a lesson can be when it is offered in response to a spontaneous question, especially a spontaneous question asked by the entire class!

I shared with them the essence of Rabbi Mayer Simcha’s explanation: crying, wailing, bechi, are the products of emotion and sentiment. “If a nameless infant dies in a conflagration, even a heart of stone will melt like water and wail.”

But eulogy, hesped, is an intellectual response. One can only offer a eulogy if he can assess the life story of the person who died. Abraham could deliver a eulogy for Sarah. They had known each other all of their lives and had been married to each other for most of their lives. And of course, he could also cry for her.

The Jewish people, on the other hand, could cry for Moses. They could bewail their loss. They could mourn his absence. But they knew that they would woefully fail should they try to assess him. They did not know him sufficiently to deliver a hesped. He did not grow up among them, his wife was not one of them, he spent years away from them, he lived a life of solitude, he had spiritual experiences that were unique and unparalleled. They dared not even attempt eulogy. Tears did not fail them, but words did.

Back to the real life experiences of Richard and Leon. There were no longer tears to shed for Richard’s old Aunt, no strong emotions. Just words. Hesped, but not bechi.

For Leon’s young cousin, his life prematurely snuffed out without warning, only emotions were appropriate. Only bechi. Words uttered detachedly, calmly and coolly, would have been most inappropriate. Hesped would have been out of place given the circumstances.

I concluded that class by introducing another Hebrew phrase: “Torat chaim,” a Torah of life, a living Torah. That the teachings of our Torah correspond to our life experiences is a basic Jewish concept. The class discussion that evening was a case study in the connection between Torah and life.

Blessed is He who has given us a Torat chaim.