Shlomo Hamelech stated: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of celebration, and the living will give heart.” (Koheles 7:2)
Although simchos are beautiful and uplifting, most of the time we don’t leave inspired. In fact, on the way home from a wedding we often find ourselves reviewing and rating the event—the food, the flowers, the band, the attendance, the gowns and the hall. Sometimes we may even feel tinges of envy for different aspects of the wedding.
But no one feels any tinge of jealousy when walking out of a house of mourning. If anything, we have the opposite feeling—genuine compassion and empathy for the mourner’s loss. It compels us to find a few moments of contemplation before we quickly get lost again in the bustle of life.
Recently, Chani and I went to be menachem avel. I didn’t expect it to be anything more than a routine sad visit. But it ended up being a very poignant experience that helped put things in perspective.
The mourner is someone we have known and respected for most of our married years. She and her husband are great-grandparents.
She was mourning the loss of an older sibling who lived quite a distance away. After she shared with us some recollections about her sister, the mourner related to us that her sister’s death made her reflect about her own mortality. The sincerity of her next question was unnerving: “Now I have begun wondering what am I going to say when I get up there? I’m so afraid of that!” Then she proceeded to tell us about the added chesed she was planning on doing to help others. It was clearly something she gave a great deal of thought to. It should be noted that she already does much chesed for others and tries hard to live a Torah life. Yet she was looking to do more, to grab every opportunity.
It reminded me of the anecdote with Rav Yosef Yozel Horwitz, who was a hard-working businessman. On one occasion he met the great Rav Yisrael Salanter. After he told Rav Yisrael what he did, he commented that “one must have what to live with,” and Rav Yisroel replied that although that was undoubtedly true, “one must also have what to die with.” The words so shook Rav Yosef Yozel that he left the business world and eventually founded tens of yeshivos known as the Novardok yeshiva. Rav Yosef Yozel himself became known as the Alter of Novardok.
I should add that I told the mourner that the first merit she will be able to mention in the celestial courts after 120 is that she is a ba’alas teshuva. That means she willingly altered her entire life to draw closer to Hashem. It surprised me that she herself didn’t think of that. What greater merit is there than the willingness to adopt a totally different lifestyle to grow spiritually?
In our world, at times ba’alei teshuva may feel that they aren’t fully accepted or aren’t as great as those born religious. But in the World of Truth, where effort, yearning and desire have primacy, there is hardly anything greater.
I don’t know how long the inspiration stayed with me. But at least for a few minutes that experience reminded me that ultimately we are in this world not for taking (though we must care for ourselves properly), but to see how much we can give others—not merely money, but more profoundly in time, care and love.
When we take leave of a mourner we rise and state “Hamakom—the Omnipresent should comfort you amongst the mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim.”
Each morning in Hodu we recite the verse “strength and joy are in His Place” (Divrei Hayamim I 16:27). In the presence of God there is only happiness and vitality. That is the bracha we confer upon the mourner. Hamakom—the One on Whose presence there is only strength and joy—should comfort you—by granting you strength and joy, just as He will ultimately do so for Zion and Yerushalayim!
By Rabbi Dani Staum
Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW, is the rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead as well as a rebbe and guidance counselor at Heichal HaTorah in Teaneck, New Jersey, principal at Mesivta Ohr Naftoli of New Windsor and a division head at Camp Dora Golding. He can be reached at [email protected].
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