How Not to Comfort Mourners

Compassionate thoughts sometimes lead to insensitive comments.

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Rabbi Yehoshua said, "Job had sons and daughters, and they all died. Yet he was consoled."

"Not only do I have my personal suffering, but now you also wish to remind me of Job's suffering," said Rabbi Yohanan.

Rabbi Yossi entered and said, "Aaron had two great sons and they both died on the same day, and he was consoled. You also should accept consolation." Rabbi Yochanan said, "Not only do I have my personal suffering, but now you also wish to remind me of Aaron's suffering."

Rabbi Shimon entered and said, "David, the king, had a son who died and he was consoled, you also should accept consolation." And Rabbi Yohanan once again said, "Not only do I have my personal suf­fering, but now you wish to remind me of David's suffering."

Finally, Rabbi Eleazar ben Arah said: "I will give you an analogy to your situation. The king entrusted a precious object to one of his subjects. The subject became nerve-wracked and in a constant state of worry. 'When will I be able to return the object undamaged and un­soiled to the king?' My teacher, Rabbi Yohanan, you are in a similar situation. You had a son who was a Torah scholar and left this world without sin. Be consoled that you have returned in a perfect state that which the king has entrusted to you."

Rabbi Yohanan sighed: "Eleazar, my son, you have indeed properly consoled me."

Of course Rabbi Yochanan was a spiritual giant, and he undoubt­edly processed this spiritual consolation in the depths of his soul, and it was framed by his relationship with God. In fact, the sage was con­soled by Rabbi Eleazar's words more than by any others.

But we are not likely to meet such spiritual heroes in our communities, and the ques­tion that a comment such as "God took him before he could sin" might trigger is that if indeed the child is without sin, why did God see fit to take him or her at all? Even the thought of this question might cause the mourner more grief than consolation.

Some years ago the four-year-old child of friends of ours in Palm Springs, in an unguarded moment, walked into the family pool and drowned. My old friend Herman Wouk, the celebrated author, who delivered one of the eulogies, expe­rienced a similar tragedy with his own child at his home in the Virgin Islands many years before. In his eulogy he made this the essence of his remarks: "You are returning your child to God in a state of innocence."

It proved comforting for the distraught parents, as indeed it must have proven so to the Wouks. Midrash refers to God's taking special care of children's souls, and in contemporary times, the renowned rabbi Ezekiel Bennet willed that he be buried only among the infant dead

There is an additional spiritual benefit that derives from this idea of returning to God in innocence. Faithful Jews lay great emphasis on purity, especially at the end of life. The body of the deceased is very carefully ritually cleansed with water in a ceremony called Taharah, which means purification. The shrouds in which he or she is dressed are simple and white. The Vidui confessional prayer that should be recited before the onset of death is designed to purify the person's soul so that he or she appears before God guiltless. Returning to God after death in innocence, therefore, holds a very high place in the spiritual life of the believing Jew.

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Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.