Jewish World Review/ June 8, 1998 / 14 Sivan 5758
FUNERALS MAKE ME UNCOMFORTABLE. Like most people, I find it difficult to
encounter death, and confront the pain of a grieving family. However,
unlike most people, I attend 35 funerals a year; as a rabbi, performing
funerals is one of my responsibilities. Although I go to a lot of
funerals, each one is still discomfiting, a clear reminder of my own
by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz
But there is also something special, even uplifting about funerals.
There is a certain spiritual feeling pulsating underneath all the grief
and pain and tears. I was never able to put my finger on what this
feeling was, until I went to the smallest funeral of my career.
The smallest funeral of my career was attended by five people. Two
cousins of the deceased (let us call her "Leah"), along with myself,
our synagogue's cantor, and the funeral director attended the graveside
service. Leah had a story that was not too unusual. She had grown up in
Eastern Europe before World War II, and had survived the holocaust. Most
of Leah's extended family were murdered during the war. Leah and her
cousin were the only family members to survive. Unfortunately, her
experiences in a concentration camp left deep emotional scars. After the
war, she did not marry or hold a job, and was dependent on her cousin
to take care of her. Leah had lived the last fifty years of her life as
a broken person, unable to fulfill the potential of her youth. Leah's
cousin had died before her, and it was her cousin's two children who
attended the funeral.
A Rabbi's job at a funeral like this is a bit complicated. Jewish Law, or, Halacha, requires that a eulogy praise the deceased (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 344:1). That's the easy part. Halacha also requires that the eulogy tell the truth about the deceased (ibid). In some cases, it is difficult to find anything that is both honest and laudatory. The problem I faced at
Leah's funeral was: What sort of honest praise could I say about her?
What can be said about someone who lived most of her adult life as a
It occurred to me that there is a Talmudic statement that was
appropriate for this situation. The Talmud writes (Berachos 8b) that one
must honor a talmid chacham (Torah scholar), who has forgotten his
learning. The reason given is this. The first set of Tablets that were
broken by Moshe received the same honor as the second (and unbroken) set
of tablets, and both were placed in the Ark of the Covenant. The Talmud explains
that similarly, a Talmid Chacham, even if he has forgotten his
knowledge, still deserves honor, just like the broken tablets.
In many ways, Leah's life was a story of broken tablets. Her life had
potential and purpose, until it was destroyed during the holocaust. Her
tablets may have been shattered by the Nazis, but she was no less
deserving of our honor. She had a tselem Elokim, G-d's divine image, and
inside her there was a spark of holiness. This is what I said about
Leah's life, in front of G-d, Leah, and four other people.
It was at Leah's graveside that I got to see what the essence of a
funeral is. There is a great deal of pain and grieving that take place
at a funeral, as it is difficult for us to part with people we love
dearly. But there is something deeply spiritual at a funeral as well. By
showing honor and dignity to each and every person, even if their lives
were only broken tablets, we declare our belief in the innate dignity of
man. We assert that every person is important, every person is holy, and
that every person has a tselem Elokim, G-d's divine image. As much as I
hate funerals, I find this feeling to be uplifting.
New JWR contributor Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the spiritual leader of Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Cote St. Luc, Quebec.
©1998, Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz