Mourning a Sister

Toledot By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Nov 29, 1997 / 5758 | Torah Commentary

The Shiva is over. I have reentered the world emotionally drained and self-absorbed. My sister, my only sibling, was also my friend. We shared so much of our adult lives. My wife and I were married in her home. Her first husband, an obstetrician for whom the practice of medicine was his calling, delivered our three children. Their spacious and relaxed home in Vineland, New Jersey provided us a refuge full of love, companionship and good conversation. We traveled together, mourned together and always celebrated the Passover sedarim together.

My sister’s name was Hanna, which in Hebrew is related to the verb hanan, “to be gracious,” or the noun hen, “grace.” How well chosen, for her name caught the essence of her being. She graced the world with goodness. She was a natural care-giver; the ethical ideals of the Torah were imprinted on her heart. As a juvenile diabetic, she first learned to care for herself, and then as a nurse, to care for others. After the sudden and devastating death of her husband in 1974, she filled the void by returning to school to become a social worker. At the funeral, a woman confided to me that her marriage had been saved by Hanna’s sensitive counseling.

At 68 Hanna died prematurely; more than five decades of diabetes had taken their toll. She was not a good candidate for bypass surgery, necessitated by several heart attacks, first undetected and finally detected. The surgery had to be performed at Dartmouth, because, as they had done every summer, she and her second husband came to visit us at our Vermont hideaway, and she was smitten on the way up.

Before I returned to New York, I gave my sister my most prized possession, a black pocket-size siddur printed in Germany in 1939. It had accompanied our great-aunt whom we both knew, loved and admired, through the nightmare of Theresienstadt. She too was a natural care-giver, a woman of courage, intelligence and good humor who lived for the welfare of others. Hanna recognized our aunt’s siddur at once and accepted it with evident relief. She dreaded the operation she faced and from which she never recovered. I would like to believe that the memory and faith of Tante Helene were by her side as she entered the ordeal that would reunite her with our kin.

As so often, the weekly parasha relates to the burden or blessing of the moment, offering a perspective from eternity. A comment by Rashi on the well-known story of Esau’s sale and surrender of his birthright to Jacob discusses the custom of starting the first meal in the house of Shiva after the funeral with an egg. The setting finds Jacob at home cooking a stew when Esau returns from the field ravished by hunger. Gruffly, Esau demands of his sedentary brother, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished… (Genesis 25:30).” Jacob exploits the moment to bargain for Esau’s status as firstborn and Esau complies scornfully. Calculation trumps impulse.

But then Esau is unworthy of the birthright. He is called “edom”, the man of blood, because he has no compunctions about eating blood. The word play on adomedom and dam, the Hebrew words for “red”, “Edom” and “blood” clearly evokes the behavior pattern: Esau the hunter, who drips with blood, pays no heed to the divine prohibition to No·ah to shun the consumption of blood (Genesis 9:4).

More to the point, Rashi identifies the “red stuff” as red lentils and recounts a Talmudic tale that contextualizes what happened: Why was Jacob in the kitchen in the first place? And why was he preparing lentils and not something else? Rashi’s answer is that on that very day Abraham had died, and Jacob was readying the meal for his father Isaac when he would return home from the burial of his father. God had cut Abraham’s lifespan by five years to spare him the grief of seeing his grandson Esau abandon a lifestyle of virtue and piety. According to the Torah, Terah had died at the age 205, Abraham at 175 and Isaac at 180. In the biblical course of events, Abraham should have lived at least as long as Isaac. But since God had promised Abraham that he would die without aggravation in a ripe old age (Genesis 15:15), God removed him from the scene before Esau went astray.

So Jacob is busy cooking the Seudat Havra’ah, the meal of renewal, for his weary and bereaved father, a meal that others must always prepare for the mourner. But why lentils? Because they are round and without an aperture, symbolizing the silence of those in mourning. Their grief is too acute to voice. Jacob’s friends came to comfort him, but stunned at the transformation wrought by his tragedy, they could not bring themselves to speak for seven days. Only when he began to curse his lot did they muster the strength to respond. Hence, the Talmud prescribes that during the entire Shiva, mourners are not obligated to greet any visitor, and only from the third day on may they respond to the greeting of another. The real comfort provided by friends is simply being present.

The second message conveyed by the lentils (and by the egg in Rashi’s day and ours), is that misfortune skips no one. Like a wheel, it circles the globe time and again, striking both individuals and nations. Thus the Rabbis chose an egg to represent the festival sacrifice on the Seder plate and to bring to mind the destruction of the Temple. There is comfort in realizing that we are not being singled out, that our fate is shared by others. The traditional words of solace offered to a mourner stress the extent of a community of afflicted humanity: “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Ritual spares us the need to grasp for the right words in an awkward situation.

What then is to be gained from sitting Shiva? Let no one be deluded, it is an exhausting rite of passage. Having gone through it once again, I would cite three benefits: First, the structure it imposes on our shattered lives helps keep chaos at bay. To pray and recite Kaddish thrice daily in the midst of a caring community restores a semblance of order and begins to fill the void with warmth, if not meaning. Second, the ritual gives us a language to express our pain and despair. The ancient words and acts become vessels designed especially for us to articulate the feelings that assault us. Finally, the unending flow of family and friends creates a unique opportunity to collect our disparate memories of the loved one we have lost and to compose a portrait for the years to come. Memory bridges the abyss. At the end of it all we are not wiser, but stronger, resigned to live purposefully in our ignorance.


Ismar Schorsch

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