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Torah Sparks

PARASHAT VAYEHI
January 10, 2004 - 5764

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Annual Cycle: Genesis 47:28-50:26 - Hertz, p. 180; Etz Hayim, p. 293
Triennial Cycle 3: Genesis 49:27-50:26 - Hertz, p. 187; Etz Hayim, p. 305
Haftarah: I Kings 2:1-12 - Hertz, p. 191; Etz Hayim, p. 312

Discussion Theme: What to say to the Mourner?

Joseph flung himself upon his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him. Then Joseph ordered the physicians in his service to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel… The Egyptians bewailed him seventy days; and when the wailing period was over Joseph spoke to Pharaoh’s court saying, “My father made me swear saying, ‘Be sure to bury me in the land of Canaan.’” And Pharaoh said, “Go up and bury your father, as he made you promise on oath.” (Genesis 50:1-6)

Commentary

  1. “After Abraham died, God blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:18). How is Abraham’s death relevant to God’s blessing Isaac? When Isaac was sitting shivah, God came and comforted him, and blessed him. (Talmud Sotah 14a)
  2. Before leaving a mourner, you say, in any language you prefer, “Hamakom yinachem etchem b’toch sh’ar aveilei Tzion v’yerushalayim” which means: “May God comfort you together with all the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” The mourners should answer “Amen.” (Prishah, Yoreh Deah 393: #3 and Pnai Baruch 11:5)
  3. Why should the bereaved be reminded of the troubles of Zion and Jerusalem? Doesn't the mourner have enough troubles? These words give us perspective. They serve as a reminder that we are part of a community that needs us. We find comfort in knowing we are not the only ones in mourning and in pain, and that we are needed to help assuage the grief of others. (Rabbi Jack Riemer, Jewish Wisdom for the End of Life, in Reform Judaism Magazine, 1997)
  4. We call upon God to comfort the mourner, even though the person visiting the mourner is supposed to be doing the comforting, because our human capacity to empathize with the bereaved is limited. Only one who truly understands and appreciates the person's loss can really offer comfort… Only God, who knows the secrets of the heart, is truly capable of fathoming such grief, and of providing comfort. When the person is really dead. The decree did not take effect for Jacob because his son was not dead… And we use the word "HaMakom" -- the Omnipresent (literally, The Place) because a person who has lost a loved one often feels that he has been abandoned by God; that there is no God where he is. We say to the mourner, therefore, that HaMakom should comfort him: We pray that he be blessed by a renewed awareness of God's presence, even in the grief-stricken place in which he now finds himself -- for that place, too, is HaMakom, the place of God. The latter half of the blessing -- "among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem" -- also requires explanation. (Based on Lekach Tov; Kli Yakar, and Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler)
  5. During Shivah, as Shabbat is welcomed, mourners attending services are welcomed by the congregation, who offer these words of comfort: “May God comfort you together with all the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” (Siddur Sim Shalom, Friday evening service)
  6. Consoling mourners is a Biblical commandment since it is in the general category of acts of loving-kindness, which are considered to be of Torah status. (Rabbi Yom Tov Lipman Heller, Toafot Yom Tov to Mishna Berachot 3:2)
  7. Consoling mourners is a general rabbinic enactment. (Rashi on Talmud Sanhedrin 70b)
  8. Everyday within the seven days of mourning, people should come to console the mourner. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning, 13:1-2)
  9. There is no mourning on Shabbat except for those things, which are private… But public acts are not followed. (Maimonides Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning, 10:1)
  10. Rabbi Haninah stated that reluctantly they permitted consolation on Shabbat (reluctantly, because it would cause pain and thus minimize the joy of Shabbat). (Talmud Shabbat 12b)
  11. The matter is clear: it is permissible to console mourners on Shabbat… and we do not worry that perhaps one will be caused pain or to cry out. (Rabbi Tzemach Duran, Algeria, 15th century)
  12. One may console mourners on Shabbat, but one should not do so in the same way that consolation is offered during the week. (Rabbi Josef Karo, Shulchan Aruch, Orach Hayim 287:1)
  13. Visitors do not customarily pay condolence calls on the Sabbath or Holy Days, as these are days when one should not mourn publicly. However, the mourners may receive company and condolences on these days. (Rabbi Maurice Lamm in The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning)
  14. There is a noticeable shift from the initial stages of the rabbinic tradition when a formulaic articulation was considered to be the act of consolation. Now, the formulaic pronouncement is seen as a way of drawing public recognition to those in mourning so that individuals in the community may fulfill their personal obligations to offer consolation. (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Igrot Moshe)
  15. In modern congregations… many people are not in daily contactwith one another. They see each other in synagogue on a weekly basis. A public announcement that an individual is in mourning creates an awareness of a personal loss. This enables other members of the community to seek out the mourner to listen to his or her grief and to offer personal condolence and support. Even the classical formula “May God comfort you…” need not be considered public consolation on Shabbat, but simply regarded as a statement that a person is in the week-long period of mourning… Accordingly, we have decided that since the community is obligated to offer comfort to mourners even on Shabbat, it is permissible for individuals to greetand welcome mourners during late Friday night services and during Shabbat morning services. As well, it is permissible for individuals and the congregation as a whole to extend condolences to mourners. The language of greeting may include the phrases “May God comfort you…” since these are formulaic in nature. Such greetings and condolences are not to be considered in violation of the sanctity of Shabbat nor should they be thought to be sufficient to offer true personal consolation…” (Rabbi Baruch Frydman-Kohl, “Welcoming Mourners on Shabbat,”The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement)

Discussion

When we visit a mourner, we are usually at a loss for words. It is for that reason that our tradition provides for us a formula, “Hamakom…” We say, “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” Why is that statement used? What comfort does it offer the mourner? How did the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards come to understand this formula when it is said on Shabbat? What other function does this statement serve?


 
 
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