Comforting Thoughts

And the dwellers of the land – the Canaanites – saw the mourning at Goren-HaAtad and they said, “This is an intense mourning for Egypt.” Therefore, it is called by the name Avel Mitzrayim that is across the Jordan. (Sefer Beresheit 50:11)

I. The passing of Yaakov

Parshat VeYeche describes Yaakov's final days, his passing, and his burial. In the opening passages of the parasha, Yaakov summons Yosef. He asks Yosef to assure him that he will not bury him in the Land of Egypt. Instead, he must take his body to the Land of Cana’an and bury him in the Ma’arat HaMachpaylah – the Cave of the Patriarchs. He asks that Yosef vow to him that he will fulfill this request and Yosef vows.  

Immediately before his death, Yaakov summons his sons. He gives each a special message or blessing. Then, he directs his sons to bury him in the Ma’arat HaMachpaylah. After giving his sons these instructions, Yaakov passes away. Yaakov is mourned in Egypt for seventy days. After completion of this period of mourning, Yosef tells Paroh of the vow he made to his father. He asks Paroh to permit him to fulfill his commitment. Paroh agrees. Yosef, his brothers, and their families take Yaakov’s body to the Land of Cana’an for burial. They are accompanied by an enormous entourage. It includes Paroh’s ministers, his advisors, the elders of the Land of Egypt, and chariots and horsemen. 

The assembly arrives at Goren HaAtad on the east bank of the Jordan River. There, Yaakov is eulogized, and a second mourning period of seven days is observed. The above passage describes the reaction of the people of Cana’an to the events they observed on the far bank of the Jordan River. They were impressed by the intensity of the mourning. They concluded that Egypt was mourning a terrible loss. 

II. Comforting mourners

The narrative focuses on the mourning of Yosef, his brothers, their families, and the elite of Egypt. However, another aspect of the Torah’s response to death is not addressed in the narrative. Let us consider a comment of Rambam – Maimonides:

“It is a positive commandment of the Sages to visit the ill, to comfort mourners, to bring forth the departed [for burial], to bring the new wife [into her new home or chuppah], and to engage in all the needs of the departed… Even though all these commandments were established by the Sages, they are included in ‘You shall love your neighbor as [you love] yourself.’[1] All the things that you wish others to do for you, you should do for your brother in Torah and mitzvot.” (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avel 14:1)

Rambam enumerates various commandments established by the Sages. All these commandments are included in the Torah's mitzvah to love one’s neighbor. However, the Torah obligation is formulated as a general principle. Rambam summarizes this principle. We expect or hope that others will treat us properly and with kindness. We should hold ourselves to this same standard in our treatment of and kindness toward others. The Sages implemented specific obligations that express this principle. Some of these are listed in the above comments of Rambam. Among these is the obligation to comfort mourners.

III. Torah’s response to death

There are two general components to the Torah’s response to death. The first component is our treatment of the departed. This includes proper burial, eulogizing, and mourning the loss. The second component is our treatment of the bereaved mourners. 

Rambam’s treatment of the second component – our treatment of the bereaved is confusing. In the above comment, he explains that the obligation to comfort mourners is based upon the Torah's commandment to love our neighbors. But let’s consider another comment of Rambam. 

“[If] one passes away and there are no mourners to be comforted, ten reputable people come and sit in his place for the entire seven days of mourning. The rest of the community gathers before them….” (Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avel 13:4)[2]

Rambam explains that if a person passes away and is not survived by a family that will mourn him or her, then ten mourners are appointed to sit in the home or residence of the departed for seven days. The rest of the community visits these ten appointed “mourners” and presumably share words of comfort. 

Why is this necessary? Why are pseudo-mourners appointed for someone who does not have a family to mourn for him or her? If there are no mourners to comfort, why must ten people be appointed? Comforting mourners is an act of kindness. If there are no mourners who will benefit from this kindness, why appoint a group to receive comforting messages? 

IV. Honoring the departed

The most obvious explanation is that mourning honors the departed. When a member of the Jewish people passes away, his or her memory must be honored through mourning. This obligation is primarily upon the family. However, if there are no family members to provide this final tribute, then the obligation rests upon the community to assure that the departed is honored. 

It is clear from Rambam’s comments that this is not the only reason we appoint these ten people. If these people are appointed to serve as mourners, then he would have stated “we appoint this group when there are no mourners.” Instead, he states that they are appointed when “there are no mourners to be comforted.” Clearly, comforting mourners is not only an act of kindness to the bereaved. It is reasonable to appoint a group to serve as mourners. This honors the departed. But what is the purpose of appointing a group to be comforted?

V. Two aspects to comforting the bereaved

Rambam is telling us that we comfort the bereaved for two reasons. One reason we have identified. Comforting the bereaved is an act of kindness. The second reason is expressed in the appointment of “mourners”. Comforting the mourners honors the departed. No one should pass away and not leave behind anyone who experiences the loss. If the departed does not leave behind family members who naturally are bereaved and in need of comfort, then we must assign a group to act as the bereaved. They mourn the loss of a member of the community and receive comfort over their loss. They are not just pseudo-mourners and we are not just feigning comforting them. They sincerely mourn the loss to the community and we comfort them for their and our loss. Though these activities we provide the departed with the honor that he or she deserves as a member of our community.[3] The departed is honored through the mourning and also through the comforting of the mourners. Both activities acknowledge that the death is a loss. 

VI. Stepping up

When someone passes away in our community, we consider whether we should attend the funeral, or make a shiva-call. Often our calculations are based upon how well we knew the departed or know the mourners. Rambam is suggesting that sometimes this is not the only consideration. There is another consideration. Will the funeral be well attended? Will the mourners receive many visitors? The attendance of a funeral communicates solidarity with the bereaved family. With our shiva-call we will comfort them. 

However, this is only one aspect of the Torah response to death. Our response is also a demonstration of respect for the departed. And every member of the community and Jewish nation is due respect. Every person’s attendance at the funeral and shiva adds to the honor of the departed.

[1] Sefer VaYikra 19:18.

[2] See Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deyah 376:3. Mechaber quotes Rambam’s ruling. Rama comments that the practice of appointing mourners has not been sustained.

[3] Rambam deals with the laws concerning comforting mourners in chapter 13 of Hilchot Avel. He states that comforting mourners is a positive commandment based upon the obligation to love one’s neighbors in chapter 14. This is not Rambam’s typical manner of presentation. He usually states a commandment and then presents the laws governing its fulfillment. The reason Rambam discusses the laws concerning comforting mourners before stating the mitzvah is that there are two reasons we are obligated to comfort mourners. The first reason is that through comforting the bereaved we acknowledge their loss and honor the departed. In this context, Rambam discusses the law concerning comforting. He then adds that there is a second reason we comfort the mourners. This is because of the obligation to love our neighbors.