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Mourning

by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen


Rabbi Jeremy Rosen
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen

Most of us are in a state of mourning at this moment. If not for our personal losses, then for the nation’s deaths, wounded and abused. And frankly, there is much to mourn for in the malaise of our Western societies as well. Of course, there is a lot that is good too, but that does not help when one is in mourning, in a state of anxiety or fear.


How are we to deal with this? Far too many experts of all denominations think they have solutions and therapies. But in the end, we all have our private ways of coping and mourning. 


The Torah contains no specific rules about death and mourning. There are of course plenty of references to death itself, from the Garden of Eden onwards. But there is a strange phrase “He ceased living, he died, and he was gathered to his people.” It is repeated of Abraham (Genesis 25:8) Ishmael (Genesis 25:17) Isaac (Genesis 35:29), and Jacob (Genesis 49:33).


The Biblical words “gathered to his people” are unclear. They could reflect the Mesopotamian custom that when a person died the body was left to decompose, then afterward, the bones were collected and placed in a cave or ossuary.  And this seems to explain Avraham’s burial of Sara after what looks like a time-lapse. However, most traditional commentators prefer to say that this refers to life after death. 


So, what are the traditional laws of mourning? The Torah mentions crying, mourning, and eulogies. Sarah (Genesis 23:1&2), Jacob (Genesis 50: 1.2.3.10), Miriam (Numbers 20:1), Aaron (Numbers 20:29) and Moses (Deuteronomy 34.5). But only in the cases of Moses and Aaron does it refer to a specific time of official national mourning as thirty days. When Jacob is given an Egyptian burial, it involves forty days of embalming and seventy days of mourning. Even then seven additional days when they arrive at Transjordan before going over to the Cave of Machpelah. But none of this is specified as Torah Law. 


It could be that the Torah does not specify life after death or indeed go into details about burial because the Torah is essentially a document about how to live. Hence all the customs and laws prevalent today in Jewish communities are post-Biblical. And in practice apart from a few basics, every community has its own traditions and customs.


I have been so moved and impressed by all those young women and men going into war in Gaza so brave and determined even as they know they may die as heroes. Is death something to be feared, embraced, or accepted? The Bible accepts that after the Garden of Eden, it is inevitable and something natural.  As Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2, (says:

“There is a time for everything, a time for every experience under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die.” And “Dust (the body) returns to the ground from where it came from, but the spirit returns to  God who gave it” (Ibid 12:7).


Kohelet goes on to stress what really matters by posing a question about death and what happens afterward:

“ For what happens to humans happens to animals,  they share the same fate, as one dies so dies the other, both have the same life breath and humans are not more than animals, everything is vanity. Everything goes to the same place; both come from dust, and both return to dust.  And who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if an animal’s soul goes down to the earth?” 


And then Kohelet asks what the purpose of life is:

“I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy his possessions now on earth since that is the way to live. For who can know what the future can bring? And it is better to be a live dog than a dead lion.” ( Ibid 3:19-22).


Yet death can also be a welcome relief from pain and torture. I was incredibly moved by the Israeli father whose daughter could not be found after the rampage and he said with tears running down his face “ I pray she has been killed rather than suffer the endless torture and pain she would have had to endure as a hostage.” Yet miraculously she was alive and did return. But I still do not know who I should cry more for, the living hostages or the dead.

Surely the sense of loss and pain are ours alone, still alive, to suffer in this physical world.


Those whose souls pass on will have escaped the travails of life.  The pain is ours, not theirs. And if one can find comfort in the thought of an afterlife, why not? Despite his doubts, Kohelet believed that the soul goes back directly to its Divine source.  But that did not stop him from wondering about the unknown. The ancient world also believed in transitions from one world to another. And that the soul might take time to reach its destination and need the ceremonials to help it on its way. And this is reflected in many of the customs we have today. 


In the night now I can’t sleep, and dark thoughts disturb my mind. Images of rape and torture by sub-humans are burning in my brain. My response is to repeat prayers and psalms (instead of counting sheep), to meditate and breathe rhythmically. To enumerate and think about all the wonderful people in my family wherever they are. And all the good human beings I have encountered in my life. Usually, it works, sometimes not. But in the end, one is alone with one’s grief as one is with one’s pain. But one must think positively and know that this too will pass.


12 January 2024


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Jeremy Rosen was born in Manchester, England, the eldest son of Rabbi Kopul Rosen and Bella Rosen. Rosen's thinking was strongly influenced by his father, who rejected fundamentalist and obscurantist approaches in favour of being open to the best the secular world has to offer while remaining committed to religious life. He was first educated at Carmel College, the school his father had founded based on this philosophical orientation. At his father's direction, Rosen also studied at Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva in Israel (1957–1958 and 1960). He then went on to Merkaz Harav Kook (1961), and Mir Yeshiva (1965–1968) in Jerusalem, where he received semicha from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz in addition to Rabbi Dovid Povarsky of Ponevezh and Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapiro of Yeshivat Be'er Ya'akov. In between Rosen attended Cambridge University (1962–1965), graduating with a degree in Moral Sciences.

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