The rabbis teach us that Torah should be a healing balm. In Jewish sacred literature, we find comfort and inspiration, especially when we need it most, in the emotional and spiritual wreckage that follows the death of someone we love. For some, the English words suffice. Others long for the comfort they feel only lives in the Hebrew language. Still others feel that the words — regardless of language — are chosen for their aural quality, allowing us to enter a meta-rational world of reflection, introspection and prayer. What follows are psalms, prayers and readings that those who are grieving may find particularly comforting.
The 23rd psalm is perhaps the best known of the 150 psalms, and is frequently recited at funerals. Because of its interpretation in Western culture, we often read it as something pastoral and tranquil. This is especially true in the poetry of most English translations. The Hebrew presents a much simpler word picture: The psalmist was a fierce warrior who protected his flock; similarly, we ask God for divine protection especially in the “presence of our enemies.” (Note: I have translated it in the second person to avoid any gender specificity.)
Adonai is my Shepherd; I lack nothing
You give me my ease in fertile pastures
You lead me to drink in tranquil waters
Your renew my soul
You guide me on straight paths as befits Your reputation.
Even though I walk through the valley of the deepest darkness,
I fear no evil
For You are [always] with me.
Your comforting rod provides me solace.
You prepare a table for me [to eat at ease] in front of my enemies;
My head oozes with oil; my cup is overflowing.
Surely merciful goodness will be mine throughout my life,
And I will always remain in Adonai’s precinct.
Three Other Psalm Excerpts
The psalmist found a way to articulate thoughts and feelings, especially when we are unable, or don’t have the strength, to do so. I use psalm texts as kavannot (sacred mantras), which I repeat silently to myself or aloud over and over again.
I lift up my eyes to the mountains — where does my help come from?
My help comes from Adonai who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1-2)
Adonai is my strength and song;
You have become my salvation. (Psalm 118:14)
You turned my mourning into dancing.
You have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. (Psalm 30:12)
“There Are Stars”
While this text by the poet Hannah Senesh, a Jewish heroine of World War II, does not come from sacred literature, it has entered the annals of folk literature and has thus been elevated to a similarly sacred level. Our lives may be diminished when someone has passed from this world, but what that person accomplished continues to leave its trace of light. As a result, it illumines our path as well.
There are stars whose life reaches the earth only after they themselves have disintegrated and are no more./ There are people whose scintillating memory lights the world after they have passed from it./ These lights which shine in the darkest night are those which illumine for us the path.
A Post-Kaddish Reading From Proverbs and Isaiah
Although the Kaddish doesn’t mention death, and there are a variety of forms of Kaddish, the Mourners Kaddish is the Jewish prayer most associated with death and mourning. This paragraph follows the Mourners Kaddish in many Jewish prayer books. It helps allay our fears as we enter the unknown following the death of someone we love.
Be not afraid of sudden terror, nor of the storm that strikes the wicked. (Proverbs 3:25) Form your plot — it shall fail; lay your plan — it shall not prevail. For God is with us. Even to your old age I will be the same. When you are gray-haired, I will still sustain you. I will have made you and I will bear you. I will sustain you and save you. (Isaiah 8:10, 46:4)
The Hasidic rebbes were often known for their spiritual insights. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809) took on a posture of what is called chutzpah chappei malah –chutzpah (moxie) in the face of God. He challenged God in a way that others did not — in this case around the issue of incomprehensible human suffering. And in so doing, we do are able to ask the same questions and find comfort.
Eternal Presence of the world, I am not asking You
to show me the secret of your ways,
for it would be too much for me.
But I am asking You to show me one thing:
what is the meaning of the suffering
that I am presently enduring,
what this suffering requires of me,
and what You are communicating to me through it.
Eternal Presence of the world.
I want to know
not so much why I am suffering
but whether I am doing so for your sake.
Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky is affiliated with Mersky, Jaffe & Associates, a multi-faceted consulting firm serving the nonprofit community. He is the author of many books and articles that bring Jewish wisdom into everyday living, including “Grief in Our Seasons: A Mourner’s Kaddish Companion and The Jewish Mourner’s Handbook” (with Ron Isaacs). He formerly served as the executive director of Big Tent Judaism and was on the faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.