Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
As a rabbi, one of the life-cycle processes I accompany people through is the funeral. When a person dies, burying them with dignity is a mitzvah, a commandment, in Jewish tradition. But when I do a funeral, I am serving the living, bereaved loved ones at least as much as I am serving the person who has died, probably more.
It is a tremendous privilege and blessing to be asked to do a funeral. That may sound strange, and some funerals are more difficult than others. But it is a great honor to be let into people’s lives at the vulnerable time when they are just starting to realize that their loved one is gone. The memories that are shared, the stories told, the tears and, often, the laughter, are so meaningful.
There are questions that I ask family members or friends when a loved one died. Many of the questions are to elicit stories that they or I might use when we give the hespeds or eulogies, at the funeral. Questions like: What kind of a parent was he or she? What do you remember him or her as being like as a young person? What kinds of things did the family do together? How did the person meet his or her spouse? Were there any memorable trips or vacations? What was his or her sense of humor like? Family members and friends have told me about inside jokes, birthday celebrations, romantic courtships, accidents on vacations that were funny afterward, and how much he or she loved the family.
These are usually questions the family and friends can answer. There are other questions they have more trouble answering, and at the top of that list, especially if the person who died was elderly, is “What was their Hebrew name?” For Jewish family members who don’t attend synagogue regularly, or even if they do, go to synagogues where they are not called to the Torah by their Hebrew name, family members often have no idea what it is. This is made more difficult by the fact that even if you know the Hebrew name, for example, that the person’s name was “Yaakov,” a full Hebrew name includes the names of the parents, for example, “Yaakov ben (son of) Yitzchak v’Rivka.” I don’t mind using the English name during the funeral, but for a gravestone, usually Jewish families include a Hebrew name. Sometimes families regret that they don’t know what it is.
Talk to your family members. Ask them what their Hebrew names are, if they have them, and what their parents’ Hebrew names were. Ask about their childhoods, what their favorite family stories are. Write them down or record them. Shortly before my mother died, I happened to ask her if she had a favorite Psalm, and discovered for the first time that she did: Psalm 139, “except for the cruel parts.” I cannot tell you how many times I have been grateful to know that. It is a blessing to know these things about those we love while they are alive, and after they die.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.