Jewish Words of Comfort

Judaism helps provide the words to comfort mourners.

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The second word of the classic farewell blessing is the Hebrew word for "console," but it is not one always used for this purpose in the Bible. When the Israelites betray God's trust, God is depicted as va'yenahem--"regretting" the creation of human beings or "regretting" taking Israel out of slavery. This seems to have everything to do with God's undergoing a change of mind, as it were, and nothing to do with God's consoling.

But we need to understand a link that is not immediately visible. Intrinsic to all consolation is a sense of deep regret. Regret gives rise to a need for change and triggers an acceptance of loss, which leads inevi­tably to profound consolation. It compels people to review, reassess, and readapt to a world that has permanently changed after a friend or rela­tive has died. It points to a change in direction--adjusting to a new status and new relationships among all members of the family or busi­ness or inner circle, and submitting to self-transformation, if that is possible.

Betokh She'air Avelei Tziyon vi'Yerushaliyim

The formula is incomplete, however, without its second half: "Among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." This phrase emphatically moves the consoler away from the natural tendency to focus solely on those presently grieving. It connects both the specific griever and grief in general in two salient and subtle ways.

First, the phrase broadens God's consolation to include "other mourners"--of Zion and Jerusalem--thereby expressing a critical im­perative in the process of grief work: the universal need for mourners to share their grief, the natural interconnectivity of all mourners. Griev­ers are not alone, and they must know this so that they do not feel singled out unfairly by God, specially targeted for suffering. The phrase also brings the mourners to the realization that death, in all its guises, is suffered by everyone, "other mourners," and that it is an inherent quality of life.

Subliminally, yet another level of meaning is implied: Others are genuinely able to share their pain.

More subtly tucked into the folds of the phrase "the other mourn­ers of Zion and Jerusalem" is the teaching that the mourners' past griev­ous losses are connected with their present loss. Indeed, within our life­time, we suffer and grieve for many losses: a loved one, a dear friend, a business relationship, a livelihood, or our prestige. Or we may mourn a ravaged community, perhaps a sacred city like Jerusalem, or a devoutly held idea like Zion. Many never resolve old grief; horrific incidents of the past may cast their long shadow over a new trauma. Even night has its shadows.

Grieving should be seen as an ongoing process of acknowl­edging cumulative misfortune rather than only a recent disaster. An entire collection of past losses thus insinuates itself surreptitiously into the fresh grief, though most mourners regard the new loss as a single monolithic burden.

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Rabbi Maurice Lamm

Maurice Lamm is the author of many books, including The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. He is the president of the National Institute for Jewish Hospice, and Professor at Yeshiva University's Rabbinical Seminary in New York, where he holds the chair in Professional Rabbinics. For years he served as rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation, Beverly Hills, CA.