A Divine Partnership

And Hashem said to Moshe: Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and say to them: Let none [of you] defile himself for a dead person among his people. (Sefer VaYikra 21:1)

I. Mourning relatives

This week’s parasha discusses the prohibition upon a kohen to defile himself. This prohibition includes defiling himself for the sake of mourning or caring for the departed. However, the Torah specifies six exceptions on whose behalves the kohen may or is required to defile himself in order to provide for their proper burial. In addition to the six relatives specified in the Torah, the kohen is also permitted or required to defile himself on behalf of his departed wife. [1] Our Sages derive from this section of the Torah that we are required to mourn the passing of these seven relatives.[2]

The Torah does not indicate the duration of the mourning period. In practice, the duration depends upon one’s relationship with the departed. For example, one mourns a parent for twelve months, a spouse for thirty days. This raises an interesting question.  Why is the period of mourning for a parent longer than the period for a spouse?

And man said, "This time, it is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. This one shall be called ishah (woman) because this one was taken from ish (man)." Therefore, a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Sefer Beresheit 2:23-24)

II. The impact of loss

This phenomenon seems to contradict the above passage. The Torah tells us that the bond between spouses is stronger than the bond with one’s parent. A child eventually separates from his or her parents and enters into an enduring relationship with a spouse. Based on this passage, one would expect that the mourning for the loss of one’s spouse should be of greater duration that the period for a parent. 

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l elaborates on this theme. One feels the loss of a spouse more intensely than the loss of a parent. First, as explained above, the attachment to one’s spouse is more intense than the attachment to a parent. A spouse is a soul-mate. One confides in a spouse one’s dreams, fears, and intimacies that he or she would not reveal to a parent. Spouses have the most complete and penetrating understanding of one another. 

Also, we more easily accept the loss of a parent because it is natural. We anticipate outliving our parents. We expect to eventually be confronted with their deaths. We do not regard the loss of a spouse as a natural event. We certainly realize that one of the spouses must survive the other, but we do not accept the loss as the natural course of events. Consequently, we experience the loss more intensely. In short, the deep sadness at the death of one’s spouse reflects the depth of the relationship and the unexpectedness of the loss.

III. Overcoming acceptance

Rav Soloveitchik explains that precisely because we may more easily accept the loss of a parent we mourn the death for twelve months. We anticipate the demise and death of our parents. Furthermore, with marriage, we move on from our relationships with our parents into our relationships with our spouses. To some extent, this new relationship supplants the closeness between child and parent. In effect, with marriage, the relationship with one’s parents becomes a relationship from the past. Therefore, one might be almost dismissive of the loss of a parent.

In response to this concern, the Torah requires we mourn a parent for a period of twelve months. This extended period of mourning speaks to and counters any tendency to too easily accept or discount the loss. We recognize and demonstrate the significance and tragedy of losing a parent through the extended period of mourning.

IV. Partnership with Hashem

Rav Yitzchok Hutner Zt”l offers a different response to our question. He notes that our Sages teach that every person is created through a partnership between three parties – one’s mother and father, and Hashem. His contention is that this partnership underlies the mitzvah to honor and revere our parents. Our parents were biological participants in our creation; they sustained, raised, and molded us. However, one’s obligation to honor and revere one’s parents is not only an expression of gratitude for these contributions to our existence. Rav Hutner suggests that through honoring our parents we also acknowledge their unique partnership relationship with the Creator. Based on this insight, Rav Hutner suggests that the extended period of mourning for a parent is also an acknowledgement of their partnership with Hashem in one’s creation.

V. Complementary interpretations

This interpretation does not contradict Rav Soloveitchik’s perspective. It may even compliment it. Rav Soloveitchik’s insight is that a twelve-month period of mourning is required for a parent to communicate the significance of the loss. It transforms a loss that might otherwise be minimized into a more impactful and meaningful event. It focuses and encourages us to recognize and contemplate the loss. Rav Hutner’s insight addresses the nature of the tragedy in the death of a parent. This parent who partnered with Hashem in one’s creation has been lost. 

VI. Overcoming baseless pride

Let us consider more carefully Rav Hutner’s position. Why does the parent’s association with Hashem in the creation of a child demand the acknowledgment of the child through his or her respect and reverence? It seems that this acknowledgment is the Torah’s response to the innate human tendency to obscure or even deny the role of Hashem in one’s life. We easily deceive ourselves regarding success and achievement. It is tempting to claim the full credit for these accomplishments and to dismiss the role of Hashem. How does our honor and treatment of our parents address this human weakness?

When we honor and revere our parents as our progenitors, we recognize that they provide only the biological components of our being. We are more than biological creatures. We are forced to ask ourselves from where our spiritual selves are derived. This question leads us to acknowledgment of Hashem as our personal creator. With acknowledgement of Hashem as one’s personal Creator, one is more prepared to recognize and accept His role in one’s accomplishments.[3]

[1] Mesechet Sotah 3a. According to Ribbi Yishmael, he is permitted to defile himself. According to Ribbi Akiva, he is required to defile himself.

[2] Mesechet Moed Katan 20b.

[3] The comments from Rav Soloveitchik and Rav Hutner are quoted by Rav Moshe Soloveitchik. He attributes Rav Soloveitchik’s comments also to his father, Rav Aharon Soloveitchik Zt”lhttps://www.yutorah.org/sidebar/lecture.cfm/857084/rabbi-moshe-soloveichik/kedoshim/