Jewish Words of Comfort

Judaism helps provide the words to comfort mourners.

Print this page Print this page

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.

In English, "grief" has no singular, no plural, only a comprehensive sense. Similarly, the Hebrew word for grief, "avel," is a comprehensive term. So, too, is "hefsed" (loss)—we speak of hefsed merubah (great loss) and hefsed mu'at (minor loss), but not in the singular or plural as such. On the other hand, "nehamah" (consolation) has a ready plural—"tanhumim" (many consolations).

Thus, centuries of Jewish usage, ex­pressed in the common forms of daily language, shine a light on the significant contrast between accumulated grief and separate consola­tions. This linguistic insight into Judaism teaches two counterintuitive truths: First, all mourners, no matter how diverse their losses, share a common sadness, forming a communal net of sorrow, although each is unique. And yet a single mourner's particular experiences of grief form a personal net of troubles, shared by no one else.

sad woman

Jewish tradition, in its Ashkenazic and Sephardic formulas, requires that this special Hebrew phrase be spoken because it incorporates a fundamental tenet of Judaism: We are the concerns of God, not only as unique individuals but also as one among many others who are suffer­ing and who must always be included. In fact, an oft-repeated teaching of Judaism is that God heals us only if we first ask God to help others.

This is particularly true when we turn to God not to seek comfort for a personal loss, but for the survival of Zion and Jerusalem. That is why, when extending God's blessing to sick people, we mention "she'ar holei Yisra'el" (those others in Israel who are sick). We affirm that God is concerned not only with individuals but also with the whole commu­nity of Israel.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.