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Comforting the Mourner: Sermon for Parashat Chayei Sara

Updated: Nov 22, 2021

Three years ago, on Shabbat October 27, 2018, eleven people were gunned down during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. I know there are members of Ohr Kodesh connected to that community, who knew some of the eleven individuals who died that day.

I want to say the names of the victims of that attack, and dedicate our Torah study to their memory:

· Joyce Fienberg, 75

· Richard Gottfried, 65

· Rose Mallinger, 97

· Jerry Rabinowitz, 66

· Cecil, 59 & David Rosenthal, 54

· Bernice, 84 & Sylvan Simon, 86

· Daniel Stein, 71

· Melvin Wax, 88

· Irving Younger, 69

I remember hearing about it at Kiddush in our social hall after services were over. As soon as I turned on my computer after Shabbat and checked the news, the first image I saw was of a beloved, respected colleague of mine, Rabbi/Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, the spiritual leader of that community. He was being escorted out of his synagogue by armed police officers, his tallit still draped around him. I remember his response to our colleagues by email that he had received our outreach among the several thousands of emails, and he wouldn’t be able to respond to each one. And I remember hearing from Rabbi/Hazzan Myers as he spoke emotionally and powerfully later that year at the Cantors Assembly convention about the seven funerals he conducted in that one week, and about the power and the necessity of caring for one’s own community, and one’s own faith.

A year after the attack, when my son Ronen died at 39 days old from complications of a congenital diaphragmatic hernia, I set out to study the entire Tanakh—the Hebrew Bible—before his first yahrzeit. I invited members of the Ohr Kodesh community, colleagues, friends, and family, to join me in that study. I had sent the link to the sign-up to the email list of my colleagues, and Rabbi/Hazzan Myers was one of the first to sign up on my Google Doc. In December 2019, we studied the first part of the book of Bemidbar together. I felt blessed that Rabbi/Hazzan Myers took the time to meet with me, and it was among the holiest of my chevrutot. In our study together, I didn’t probe into Rabbi/Hazzan Myers’s own experience, though I shared deeply from my own. As we neared the end of our hour together by Zoom, I thanked him for our study together, and wished him ongoing strength. The final words my colleague said to me on that call were these:

Blessed is God every day.

בָּ֤ר֣וּךְ ה׳ י֤וֹם ׀| י֥וֹם.

To him I answered, Amen, and signed off.

I have said it before and I’ll reiterate now, how grateful I have been to members of Ohr Kodesh for supporting us through our loss.

And – leading and shepherding a community through their responses to a loss that is even closer to you is hard. Well-meaning people said many of the right things and some of the wrong things. I learned a lot of lessons for myself along the way, and I want to share some of these with you today.

“Ring Theory,” first presented in a 2013 LA Times op-ed by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman, suggests that, when a tragedy or crisis occurs, one should locate oneself in the concentric circles around the person or people at the nexus of the event, and “comfort in, dump out.” This has been a helpful tool for me as I talk with people about how to respond to crises. It’s a simple rule: Don’t vent your feelings to someone who is closer to the nexus of the event or issue, do that to someone further away. And, when you’re responding to a crisis, your only responsibility to those closer to the crisis is to offer support and to listen.

To Silk and Goldman’s concise point I’ll add a corollary of my own:

Identifying where you are in the concentric circles around the tragedy, loss, or crisis is as important as its simplest rule. If I am the nexus of tragedy, are you a close friend of mine? Friends of a friend?

Identify the person next closest to the bereaved who is in your friend group, and you’ll have your answer. If you have questions, talk to that person. If that person is in the bereaved person’s primary support circle, ask: how can I support that friend? Let that person ask, on your behalf, what they need, if anything, from them. Please don’t come directly to the bereaved person. They are likely to see that as an intrusion, not as a help.

Parashat Chayei Sara is bookended by the deaths of the two first-generation Hebrew ancestors: Sarah at the beginning of this week’s parashah, and Avraham at the end. Between these, we have the narrative in which Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, to find a wife for Isaac.

In the opening of the parashah, Genesis 23:2-4 (page 127 in the Etz Hayyim Chumash), Sarah dies.

(2) Sarah died in Kiriath-arba—now Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her.

וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן--בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן; וַיָּבֹא, אַבְרָהָם, לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה, וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ׃

(3) Then Abraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying,

וַיָּקָם, אַבְרָהָם, מֵעַל, פְּנֵי מֵתוֹ; וַיְדַבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי-חֵת, לֵאמֹר׃

(4) “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.”

גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁ֥ב אָנֹכִ֖י עִמָּכֶ֑ם תְּנ֨וּ לִ֤י אֲחֻזַּת־קֶ֙בֶר֙ עִמָּכֶ֔ם וְאֶקְבְּרָ֥ה מֵתִ֖י מִלְּפָנָֽי׃

In a critical reading of the text, I want us to notice that after Abraham “mourns and bewails” Sarah, her name is not mentioned again in this narrative. He refers to her as “my dead,” meiti. The Sages, in their various commentaries, are so preoccupied with the beginning of the transaction here between Ephron and Abraham, that they miss the emotional lesson here.

Now, I am not presuming anything here about the nature of the relationship between Abraham and Sarah; certainly, retrofitting our modern standards of marriage onto their relationship would be both misguided and inaccurate. But we can, and do, read ourselves into the texts and here I want us to learn this:

In acute grief, we sometimes need to be dispassionate, to have tunnel vision in the logistics. Whether we are in a state of shock or just needing to “get stuff done,” the fact that Jewish practice is to bury our dead quickly means that decisions need to be made and logistics need to be handled with alacrity. In calling her “My dead,” without either using her name or even naming his relationship to her as his wife, Abraham distances himself from the death in order to ensure her burial place. Her name is only then used again in verse 19 of this chapter, once the deal is in place and he has been able to bury her there.

From Ephron’s response, we can learn to mirror the language of the bereaved. Whether Ephron knew Sarah or not, which is not clear, he uses the same terminology, meit’kha—your dead—as he talks to Abraham.

The first-century Greek philosopher Epictetus is credited with teaching, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” We learn that in shiva we are meant to enter into space with a bereaved family silently – and I want to emphasize the importance of this.

Listen to what the bereaved person is saying. If I’m using direct language, please don’t introduce metaphor. In the immediate time after Ronen died, I was disturbed to hear anyone describe him as anything but “dead.” Not passed away, not “with God,” not “angel.” As you listen before you speak, pay attention to the subtleties of what’s being said – what language is being used, tense is being used for the deceased, what subjects are brought up and what is being avoided?

And please, Do not say “There are no words.”

Certainly don’t say these words in a public arena as you preside over shiv’ah minyanim or in public remarks. Don’t give others permission to use them – actually, actively persuade others not to. There are two diverging counterarguments here:

First, Tradition gifts us words.

Jewish tradition is wise. There are two traditional auto-responses we are offered. In the Sephardic tradition, tenuchamu min hashamayim – “May you be comforted from Heaven.” In Ashkenazi-Eastern European tradition, hamakom yinachem etchem betokh she’ar aveilei tsiyon viy’rushalayim – “May the Omnipresent comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem,” sometimes shortened to its first two words: hamakom yinachem – “May the Omnipresent bring comfort.”

These scripted responses are important. For the consoler, there is a convenience to scripted responses, though certainly this requires a certain education on their part. But perhaps more importantly, there is consolation to the bereaved in hearing a repeated trope. In the ear of a tired, grief-wrought recipient, scripted responses are a relief. Novel statements feel like they require novel responses, and needing to come up with novel responses is a chore.

Second, the most important words spoken right now are not yours.

In the weeks and months after my loss, “There are no words” became a phrase I heard from almost everyone I encountered. Words of what? I would ask, internally. Advice? I don’t need your advice. Consolation? Of course not, my son is dead. Personal experience? I didn’t need you to compare my loss to anything that’s ever happened to you anyway.

The worst part about these words is that they are not comforting, they are a cop-out. In most cases, they seem to entitle their speaker to give me an awkward pat on the shoulder and walk away. The speaker of these words doesn’t know what to say, and so fills the void with an aphorism that means nothing. What I needed was your presence. Learn from Job’s friends when they arrive at his doorstep. Say nothing. Wait for me to acknowledge my loss. Be patient, and stick around, even though when I do speak it will undoubtedly be uncomfortable for you to hear. Ask questions. Ask me how I’m doing. Whatever you ask, I’ll respond in whatever way I am comfortable. Know that I’ll be clear if I don’t want to answer your question.

Above all else, please learn that it is not your responsibility to offer any words of consolation, comfort, advice, or experience. It is your responsibility to make space so that I have somewhere to scream that isn’t a lonely void.

And, don’t just mirror the bereaved's language but their affect as well. Loss is a roller-coaster; for many, it’s not a dark hole in the basement from which they never emerge. When a bereaved person is having a moment of levity, of logistical tunnel-vision, or if they are talking about something other than their loss—even if they are deflecting—don’t introduce your own sadness about their loss into that moment.

I like to think about this like that scene in the King & I where Anna must sit lower than the King of Siam, no matter how low to the ground he sits. Perhaps a real-time extension of Ring Theory, when talking to someone who is bereaved, please don’t let your own low countenance create sadness where it wasn’t before.

As we read through the narrative of Sarah’s burial in chapter 23, you might note that Isaac isn’t once mentioned. In chapter 24, Abraham tasks his servant with finding Isaac a wife – and Isaac isn’t consulted in this either. It is true, in fact, that Isaac and Abraham never interact in the text after the Akeidah, when Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac.

Do we presume that Isaac is there? Does he even know that his mother has died? If we presume that Isaac is born when Sarah is about ninety, then her death at 127 makes him about 37 years old.

Even though Isaac is not a young child, I want to think with you for a moment about the inclusion of children in death rituals. I like to take our students to the cemetery to bury geniza material – that is, Jewish texts that we bury in the ground rather than recycling or disposing in the trash. We’ll get to do that later this year as we find a final resting place for our Silverman siddurim. Annually I take our sixth grade Mitzvah Scholars to Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home to see where we do Sh’mirah and Taharah. Perhaps today, on the eve of Halloween, and noting that some of our neighbors have decorated their yards as “creepy” with tombstones and cobwebs, I would say that we need to de-creepify the cemetery and death for our children, and for ourselves.

I have been studying grief treatment in a course by thanatologist Alissa Drescher. She teaches that children can perceive that those involved in the rituals around a death are for those who “belong,” and when we withhold children’s participation in death rituals, they feel like they are less important to the family system than those who were included. If we withhold information about death from our children it can create a trust crisis on top of a grief crisis. Let’s not pretend that the children don’t know what’s going on.

We get a hint into Isaac’s state of mind when he brings Rebecca into his tent in Genesis 24:67 (p. 138):

(67) Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.

וַיְבִאֶ֣הָ יִצְחָ֗ק הָאֹ֙הֱלָה֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִמּ֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֧ח אֶת־רִבְקָ֛ה וַתְּהִי־ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּׁ֖ה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ׃

Ramban/Nachmanides on this verse notes that because of the construct of the first phrase, it is clear that Isaac brings her not just into any tent but into Sarah’s tent, and it’s translated that way by JPS. Nachmanides continues,

The [significance] of the verse is to tell of the honor that Isaac bestowed upon his mother for from the time that Sarah died they did not take down her tent because they said, “Let not another woman come into the tent of the honorable mistress.” But when he saw Rebekah he brought her into that tent in her honor and there he took her as his wife. This is the meaning of the words, and he loved her, and he was comforted, indicating that he was deeply grieved for his mother, finding no comfort until he was comforted by his wife through his love for her. […]

The text of the Torah is often stark, and not emotionally deep. We hear that Isaac is comforted, but don’t explore deeper into his state of mind. Perhaps gleaning from the text or reading into the text my own experiences both personally and as clergy, I want us to understand this: Just because someone dies at a “ripe old age” doesn’t mean their death is not traumatic or complicated for the mourners. It is clear from the text that Isaac does not have community surrounding him after his loss, but the presence of his new wife – whether he knew her before or not, and whatever personality traits she shares with his mother – brings him comfort.

I would be remiss if I didn’t use this opportunity to share an invitation to join our Chevra Kadisha. Speaking with first-hand experience on both sides, so much of the stress and logistics of loss are alleviated when our Chevra Kadisha jumps in to manage everything that needs to happen – from coordinating with the funeral home and clergy, to accompanying the body in sh’mirah until burial, to the ritual cleansing in taharah, and everything in between. There are so many roles to play, most of which are never even known by the family suffering the loss. Not every congregation has as active a Chevra Kadisha as we have, if they have one at all – and it’s a real blessing for our community that we are able to support each other in this way. If you’re not yet involved in the Chevra Kadisha, but are willing to do so, please feel free to reach out to Gidon, to Rabbi Helfand, or to me, and we can certainly find a place for you to help in these important rituals. (Read more about the roles of a Chevra Kadisha here.)

We are blessed to be a community that cares deeply about each other. May we continue to be of comfort to one another to our friends in Pittsburgh and in other communities, and may those who are commemorating yahrzeits this week be comforted from Heaven.

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