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Comfort and Consolation
by Rabbi Berel Wein

Judaism has a formula for dealing with tragedy when it strikes. That formula is contained in the halacha of aveilut, mourning itself. The recognition of death and tragedy as being inescapable parts of one's life experience is what forms the underpinnings of that process of halacha which eventually leads to the ability to move forward in life even though one's heart may be forever irreparably broken. Judaism realizes the futility of asking "why?" The Torah itself told us "that no living creature can ever see (understand) Me." Job's pursuit of an answer to "why" is answered by God's thunderous statement of man's inability to comprehend the infinite. Better not to question for the answer to such things lies beyond our realm of comprehension and competence. It is only the arrogance of a generation of technological greatness somehow coupled with a society that often sinks into moral depravity that assumes that it can know the answer to the question "why". The great philosophy exam at a noted university consisted of only one question: "Why?" The two possibly correct answers were: "Why not?" and "Because". That pretty much sums up the attitude of Judaism towards this troubling matter, one that has vexed all humans from time immemorial. All human answers to this question are superficial and artificial. Only God knows the true correct answer to the question "Why?"

The halacha requires the mourner to sit low and accept visitors for the better part of seven days. The conversations are to be limited to memories, hope, consolation and comfort. No one is to overly bemoan the fate of this particular event or of tragedy generally in human experience. Rather the emphasis is to be on how to continue, how to grow spiritually and emotionally from the experience, bitter as it may be. Therefore the words of consolation are couched in the remembrance of Zion and Jerusalem, destroyed but yet remembered and rebuilt and eventually restored to their previous glory and status. Tragedy is never the last act in the human drama. The challenge of human life, especially of Jewish life is to rise from tragedy and proceed onwards, to build and teach and inspire. "A generation leaves," said King Solomon in Kohelet, but "a generation arrives" as well. Solomon concludes the verse by saying: "and the world stands forever." It continues to require nurturing and protection, inspiration and progress. There is no justification to wallow in one's own sorrow when there is so much yet to do and accomplish in one's life span. The periods of mourning are limited by halacha -- a week, thirty days, twelve months for parents. The Shulchan Aruch warns us not to grieve excessively no matter how bitter the loss. Rather one should achieve consolation in positive accomplishments, in the continuity of family, the strengthening of Judaism and Jews and advancing the cause of Torah, morality, and goodness throughout the world. That is what the prophet Isaiah meant when he formulated the words of Jewish consolation: "And with Jerusalem shall you be comforted." Our task was and is to always build an strengthen Jerusalem and all it represents. That will be our eventual consolation and comfort.

The mitzvah of visiting and comforting the mourner is biblical in its origin. God Himself, so to speak, visits Yitzchak and consoles him after the death of his father Avraham. Judaism always demands of us to copy the ways of the Lord. The mourner has to hear from others about the importance of life, the value of time, the challenge of family and continuity. The visitors who strengthen the mourner in his or her moment of grief and bereavement allow the mourner to be raised from grief and to see the opportunities that yet lie ahead. It is because of this inspiring goal of emotional and spiritual uplift that banalities, clichés and unnecessary words should be avoided when visiting and speaking to mourners. Remembering what was accomplished by the past generation can help focus the mind of the mourner on what is yet to be accomplished in the future. The ache in one's heart over the personal loss of loved ones may be dulled by time but never completely disappears. But that ache can in itself become the impetus for further achievements and accomplishments in life. One should always ask, "When will I achieve the status and accomplishments of those who have gone before me?" That is certainly a much more meaningful and positive question than merely asking "why?" May we all find comfort in ourselves and our behavior and achievements.

Reprinted with permission from Rabbi Wein.com

 
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