Death, be not proud!

Death, be not proud!

Chayei Sarah — Genesis 23:1-25:18

When my student Richard was a few moments late, he mumbled an excuse as he entered the classroom. In the class, which included only a few students, I used the book of Genesis to teach some of the basic concepts of Judaism.

“I can’t believe how often the events of our personal lives have parallels in the biblical readings you assign,” he said.

I quoted the Yiddish maxim: “Ah Yid lebt mit der parsha” — “A Jew lives his life along with the weekly Torah portion.”

For me, hardly a week goes by without some personal life event that has an uncanny connection to the parsha. “But what happened, Richard,” I asked, “that paralleled the assigned reading, Genesis 23:1-25:18?”

“My great-aunt died. The funeral was this afternoon. That is why I am late.”

Richard went on to point out the connection between his aged great-aunt’s death and the second verse of this week’s portion, Chayei Sarah, which reads, “Sarah died…and Abraham proceeded to eulogize Sarah and cry for her.”

“There were plenty of eulogies at my aunt’s funeral,” Richard exclaimed, “but precious little crying. After all, she was 96 years old.”

I pointed out the Hebrew for eulogy and crying: hesped and bechi. “There was hesped all right,” said Richard, “but no bechi.”

Another student, Leon, chimed in: “I recall the tragic death of a teenage cousin of mine. At that funeral there was plenty of bechi, but no one had the composure to express words of hesped.”

Here was a small group of students who, barely a month before, had not even known there was such a thing as a weekly Torah portion. Yet, here they were, relating their life experiences to those of Father Abraham.

I proceeded to share with them what the classical commentaries had to say about the concepts of hesped and bechi through the early-20th-century commentary of Rabbi Mayer Simcha of Dvinsk, Meshech Chochma.

Interestingly, Rabbi Simcha does not offer his interpretation of these concepts on the verses in Chayei Sarah, where they make their first appearance in the Bible. Rather, he cites Deuteronomy 34:8, where we read of the death of Moses, our teacher.

The passage describes Moses’ death and the people’s reaction to it. My students shouted out the verse and noted what was missing: “Moses the servant of the Lord died there…and the Israelites bewailed Moses…for 30 days. The period of wailing and mourning for Moses came to an end.”

The people wailed and mourned; there was bechi, but no eulogies, not even one hesped, for the great man. “Why?” my students asked.

I shared with them the essence of Rabbi Simcha’s explanation: crying, wailing, bechi, are the products of emotion and sentiment. “If a nameless infant dies in a conflagration, even a heart of stone will melt like water and wail.”

But eulogy, hesped, is an intellectual response. One can only offer a eulogy if he can assess the life of the person who died. Abraham could deliver a eulogy for Sarah. They had known each other all their lives and had been married to each other for most of their lives. Of course, he could also cry for her.

The Jewish people, on the other hand, could cry for Moses. They could bewail their loss and mourn his absence. But they knew they would fail should they try to assess him. They did not know him sufficiently to deliver a hesped. He did not grow up among them, his wife was not one of them, he spent years away from them, he lived a life of solitude, he had spiritual experiences that were unique and unparalleled. They dared not even attempt eulogy. Tears did not fail them, but words did.

There were no longer tears to shed for Richard’s old aunt — just words. Hesped, not bechi.

For Leon’s young cousin, whose life was prematurely snuffed out, only emotions were appropriate, only bechi. Words uttered calmly and coolly, hesped would have been out of place.

I concluded that class by introducing another Hebrew phrase: “Torat chaim,” a living Torah to illustrate that the teachings of our Torah correspond to our life experiences, as they did in my class that day.

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