Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reflections Of A Mourner.

I just got up from Shiva after the passing of my Mother A”H and I would like to share some thoughts that I reflected upon during this time. I will return to discuss Tefilah – Prayer – later.

It is interesting how Rambam presents the Halacha of Evel – mourning. In his presentation, there is only a Mitzvah of Evel where the first day is De’oraita – a biblical obligation – and the rest of the days are Derabanan. Unlike other Rishonim and the Shulchan Aruch, he does not refer to the period between death and burial as a Halachik period of Aninut. There is only one obligation of Evel which is practiced differently at the various stages of pre and post burial. Aninut on the other hand describes a de facto state of mind rather than a Halachik imperative. There is an obligation of Evel during that period of Aninut but because of the circumstances the person is in, the Halacha requires different practices before burial. Until the body is buried, the close relatives are in a state of shock, depression and grief[1]. That is why -

אבל כל הרוגי בית דין--אין מתאבלין עליהן אבל אוננין, שאין אנינות אלא בלב

Those who were condemned to death by legal authority (Beit Din as opposed to the Monarchy) one may not practice the mitzvah of Evel for them. However, Aninut applies to them because Aninut is an emotion. (Hilchot Evel 1:7)

Halacha does not prohibit mourning these people as it is an emotion that relatives feel for the dead and Halacha does not require suppressing it. Evel on the other hand is not an emotion but an obligation and is required even for family members that one feels no emotional distress upon their passing. Aninut is mourning and Evel is the Mitzvah of Evel. So what is the concept of the Mitzvah of Evel?

כל מי שלא מתאבל כמו שציוו חכמים, הרי זה אכזרי; אלא יפחד וידאג ויפשפש
במעשיו, ויחזור בתשובה. ואחד מבני חבורה שמת, תדאג כל החבורה כולה.

Whoever does not perform the Mitzvah of Evel as prescribed by the Rabbis is cruel. One should be fearful and worried, introspect about his deeds and repent. When one member of a circle of friends dies, all should be worried. (Hil Evel 13:13)

The Torah requires us to introspect and take stock of ourselves at different times. Yom Kippur is a day for such introspection on a yearly basis. When a calamity befalls the community, another time for introspection is legislated as I quoted in the previous post from Hil Ta’aniyot. When someone close to us, a family member, dies we are commanded to introspect and repent. That is why there are similar Halachik requirements during all three of these periods such as not wearing shoes, not washing or having sexual relations.[2] It is also noteworthy that both, both in Hil Ta’aniyot and here in Evel, Rambam says that refusal to introspect and repent is considered cruel. Refusing to look upon such occurrences and trying to understand them in a proper light is cruelty. Lack of introspection is cruelty when a calamity befalls us because unless we change our ways, the same mishap will repeat itself. But why is introspection so important when a close member of the family dies?

Viduy – admission – is a component of the process of Teshuvah. Rambam in Hil Teshuvah 2:8 –

הווידוי שנהגו בו כל ישראל--אבל חטאנו . . ., והוא עיקר הווידוי.

Viduy that all Israel says customarily is “but we sinned…” and that is the core of Viduy.

This is further expanded in the template of Tefilah Rambam has at the end of Sefer Ahavah –

אבל חטאנו אנחנו, ואבותינו

But our parents and we sinned.

Our personality is formed by our own experiences and by the deeds and experiences of our parents, grandparents and ancestors all the way back to the beginning of times. That is the idea behind Zchut Avot and Yichus. When we invoke the memory of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov in our prayers, we are saying that their lives played a role in what we, their descendants, are. When a person that is close to us passes away, a parent, a sibling or a child, we are told to stop and take stock where our relationship with the deceased has taken us. That person will no longer be able to affect any change in us. Are we in a good place? Do we have to fix what we are doing? Are there things that we are doing that should be changed so that we do not continue harming ourselves, those who depend on us, or future generations? It is in this context that I understand the idea of death being a forgiveness – a Kapparah (see Hilchot Teshuvah 1:12). Certain actions may have a negative impact on others for a long time. The death of the perpetrator elicits introspection in those that were impacted by his deeds and allows them to reorient themselves.

It is in this context that I experienced Nichum Aveilim. In Israel, after the burial, we sat for about four hours in Bnei Brak at the hotel. During that period, several hundred people passed through the conference room we were using, mostly family members but also friends of the family. A great part of the conversation revolved around my mother A”H, her parents and grandparents. Some, who knew my mother A”H and her parents, recounted their impression of them while others repeated stories they heard from their parents and grandparents about them. The same continued during the days we were sitting in Boro Park at my parent’s house. In addition to the relief brought to all of us, the catharsis afforded to us, it also gave me a lot of material for thought and reflection. That is how I understand Rambam (Evel 14:7) –

ייראה לי שנחמת אבילים קודמת לביקור חולים, שניחום אבילים גמילות חסד עם החיים ועם המתים.

It seems to me that comforting mourners is prior to Bikur Cholim, for Nichum Aveilim is a Chesed to the living and the deceased.

The process of comforting Aveilim, in addition to helping the mourners come to terms with the passing of a beloved person, helps in the process of introspection and self-analysis. It is a key component of the mitzvah of Aveilut, the Teshuvah element. It forces the survivors to reflect and make the necessary changes in their lives for the better, thus mitigating any negative influence that the deceased may have had on their descendants. It is indeed a Chesed to the survivors and the deceased.

I always struggled understanding the idea of Kaddish and leading the davening during the year of mourning. Seeing it as part of the process of Teshuvah changes its complexion. Aveilut changes intensity as time passes. We are human beings and after a time we lose focus. Halacha requires us to maintain a certain amount of focus after the first seven days for the remaining thirty days and, when a parent passes away, someone who affected us a lot, the remaining 12 months. It manifests itself through the practical restrictions Halacha imposes on us during that time. When properly understood and practiced, this keeps us in a state of introspection and reflection. Meiri in his Chibur Hateshuvah explains that the role of the Ba’al Tefilah is to elicit introspection from the congregation. He is supposed to be a model of how one prays. That is why, on the Holy Days the Ba’al Tefilah has to meet certain conditions before being approved. An Aveil, who supposedly is heartbroken and in the process of Teshuvah, meets some of the criteria required for a Ba’al Tefilah. I believe that this is at the root of the custom of Kaddish and the meaning of it. It is in this context that I understand the popular belief that these processes affect the soul of the deceased. Introspection of the survivors certainly mitigates any negative influence the deceased had on them changing that into positive actions.

[1] RYBS in Out Of The Whirlwind sees Aninut in a similar fashion.
[2] See Hil Ta’aniyot 3:4, Hil Shevitat Assor 1:5 and Evel 5:1.

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