Portraits of Grief

Vayehi By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Dec 29, 2001 / 5762 | Torah Commentary

At the end of a tumultuous life, Jacob dies what was once called “a good death.” Two things are granted him: the time to prepare for his death and the comfort of dying in the midst of family. In his 147th year, as his life forces ebb, he exacts a promise from Joseph not to bury him in Egypt, but in the ancestral burial ground in Hebron. He bestows on Joseph an extra portion over that of his brothers by elevating his sons, Ephraim and Menasseh, to a status equal to that of Joseph’s brothers. And he shares with each of his own sons portents of things to come, concluding with the repetition of his wish to be laid to rest in the cave of Machpelah. In short, Jacob dies unwracked by pain, with his wits about him and nothing left unsaid. The final verse of his biography conveys a sense of closure and completion: “When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and breathing his last, he was gathered to his people” (49:33).

How utterly different was the cruel fate of those who perished in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and the hijacked planes on September 11. To its everlasting credit, The New York Times in its daily “Portraits of Grief” has been compiling the fragments of a eulogy for each individual whose life was so suddenly obliterated at the World Trade Center. Grief is compounded by the lack of preparation, by the absence of all remains. As I read these personal vignettes of largely young people bursting with zest, in pursuit of dreams and borne aloft by so many relationships, I must constantly remind myself that they are no longer. Nothing left to mitigate the anguish of their loved ones but memories that need to last a lifetime. Even the comfort afforded by rituals of mourning has been rendered elusive because of the insubstantial nature of the loss, the arduous need to establish death legally.

“Portraits of Grief” illuminate one of the fundamental purposes of the Jewish mourning rite of sitting Shivah. For seven days after burial of a parent, brother or sister, husband or wife or child we withdraw to the seclusion of our homes to grieve and be comforted. It is a time to gather up memories. Each relative or friend brings a fragment of the whole, an incident, comment or perspective, to help us construct a mosaic of the loved one whose death has left us bereft. The composite is fuller than what we started with. Repetition not only numbs the pain; it deepens the image. In the void, memory is summoned to stand in for presence.

Some have thought that the rite of mourning for seven days began with Jacob’s funeral procession from Egypt to Canaan. At Goren Ha-Atad just southwest of the town of Gaza, Joseph and his entourage, we are told, stopped for a period of seven days to lament Jacob’s death (50:7). Narrative appears to be the seedbed for law. But the Palestinian Talmud rejects the idea that a halakhic practice could originate before the Torah was given at Sinai (PT Moed Katan 3:5). And Maimonides in his code accepts that view. Joseph’s mourning was no more than an anticipation, not a precedent. Indeed, Maimonides says, the Torah commands us to mourn only on the day of death and burial. It was Moses rather than the Torah who instituted the legal requirement to mourn for seven days as well as to feast with the bride and groom after their wedding for a period of seven days ( Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Avel 1:1). In other words, in halakhic parlance, both injunctions are of rabbinic rather than biblical provenance.

Of great interest to me is the equivalence that Maimonides attributes to the celebration of marriage and the grief of death, each to be confined to a seven-day period. Again, Jacob appears to be the source of the halakhic version of the honeymoon. Deceived by Laban into marrying Leah, Jacob bitterly protests that he had worked for Rachel. Laban responds coldly, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older. Wait until the bridal week of this one ( shevua zot ) is over and we will give you that one too, provided you serve me another seven years” (Genesis 29:26-27). The incidental reference by Laban to the bridal week suggests that feting bride and groom for a whole week was common practice. Yet, as we have seen, Maimonides prefers the alleged ordinances by Moses (undocumented by the Torah) to a plausible narrative origin to this practice.

Jewish law, like every other legal system, consists of encoded values. Life turns on polarities. In the classic words of Ecclesiastes: “There is a time for tearing down and a time for building up, a time for weeping and a time for laughing” (3:3-4). Jacob’s life is paradigmatic, a mixture of joy and grief. To indulge the one while repressing the other courts psychic and spiritual disaster. Mastering the peaks and lows calls for measured balance. Hence the equivalence. We are to celebrate the formation of a new family in the same time span that we grieve for the contraction of one that already exists. To be effective, both require the presence of a caring community, a minyan.

But life is often unsorted. What is the prescription if occasions of joy and grief converge on us at the same time? In such a maelstrom, Jewish law expresses its ultimate priorities. Life takes precedence over death. Or in the legal language of Maimonides, “The seven days of the wedding are like the seven days of a festival (i.e., Passover or Sukkot). And anyone who loses a relative during the days of feasting, even a parent, should complete the days of feasting and only then observe the seven days of mourning” (MT Hilkhot Avel 11:7).

The inimitable Shmuel Yosef Agnon has a short story about an early settler in Palestine who just before the onset of Shavuot receives word of the decimation of his hometown in a Russian pogrom. The grievous news is not allowed to disrupt or diminish the transcendent joys of the day when the Torah was given. Only after the festival ends does the settler permit the consciousness of the horror to possess him. The inviolability of halakhah keeps the vagaries of history at bay. To endure is a triumph of will and values.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Va-y’hi are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.