Chayei Sarah: Blessing and Consolation

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Chayei Sarah

Greetings from the Mid-Hudson Valley, where your humble correspondent
and only a select few other people are celebrating the valorous Red
Sox. . . . .but I digress, and we haven’t even started yet. Baseball
is on hiatus till next spring, but Torah study is a year-round
endeavor. This week’s portion is Chayei Sarah, which begins with the
death of Sarah and ends, more or less, with the death of Avraham.
After Avraham’s death, his son, Yitzhak, is blessed by God:

“After the death of Avraham, God blessed his son Yitzhak. And Yitzhak
settled near Beer-lahai-roi.” (Bereshit/Genesis 25:11)

Now, perhaps the simple meaning of this verse is to show that Yitzhak
is inheriting the blessing of his father’s covenant, but many
commentators (including our friend Rashi and our Conservative Etz
Hayim commentary) see God’s “blessing” of Yitzhak as directly
connected to his status as a mourner for his father. That is, the
“blessing” was really the comforting and consolation extended toward a
mourner. The Talmud (Sotah 14a) links God’s “comforting” of Yitzhak
with the example of visiting the sick that we discussed last week,
deriving both from a verse in D’varim/Deuteronomy:

“You shall go in the ways of the Lord your God, and revere the Holy
One and the Holy One’s commandments. . . (D’varim 13:5, my translation.)

Again, as we discussed last week, the idea of “walking in God’s ways”
means to emulate or manifest in our lives the compassionate ways of
being that we understand as holy. The mitzvah of “nichum avelim,” or
comforting the mourners, is not a separate mitzvah in itself but is
part of the general command to be compassionate and generous as we
believe God to be- which is to say, to the extent that we are
compassionate, generous and caring, we are true to the Image of God
within each of us.

However, although the mitzvah to “go in God’s ways” is a general one,
there are practical guidelines for the specific ways we practice it.
In the case of nichum avelim, this would include the way we greet
mourners (or, more precisely, allow them to greet us), the way we
conduct ourselves in their presence, what we bring if it’s a visit at
home, how we address their pain, and so on.

An excellent set of guidelines on how to comfort mourners can be found
below, but if I had to sum up Jewish wisdom on the topic in just a few
words, I might say: when it comes to offering consolations, less can
be more. That is, one’s presence is usually the greatest consolation;
many words or big piles of food or gifts are sometimes incongruous
with the mourner’s more stark and introspective state. To paraphrase
Woody Allen, perhaps 80% of the mitzvah is just showing up.

After the death of Avraham, God blessed Yitzhak- it is, in fact, a
blessing to be consoled by friends and community when life brings
loss, as it inevitably will. Judaism doesn’t pretend that life never
hurts; rather, Judaism gives us the mitzvah to bring the blessing of
love and companionship where there is pain and grief. The Holy One
blessed Yitzhak; it’s up to us to bless each other.

Shabbat Shalom,


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