Parshas Acharei Mos
The Good That Men Do
The old Jewish bon mot is that acharei mot – after the death of a person -
then kedoshim – the person is suddenly remembered only as being noble and
holy. This attitude stems directly from the ancient Jewish tradition not to
speak ill of those that have passed on. Naturally we are all aware that not
everyone is deserving of the glowing eulogy bestowed upon the deceased but
nevertheless Jewish protocol holds sway in these matters.
The Shulchan Aruch explicitly allows “some exaggeration” in the funeral
orations over a deceased person. The measure of “some exaggeration” is
purposely left vague and undefined and the good judgment of the eulogizer
in the matter is encouraged. My father, of blessed memory, told me that
once when he was a rabbi in Chicago, a noted Jewish mobster died. The
family of the gangster was affiliated with the synagogue where my father
served as rabbi and they insisted that my father eulogize their mobster
relative at the funeral service.
In order to guarantee that there would be a respectable turnout of people
at the funeral chapel for the service, the family engaged the services of a
very famous cantor to sing the memorial prayers. They posted notices in the
neighborhood about this cantor’s funeral-concert and naturally a large
crowd turned out for the event. My poor father who was hard pressed to be
able to say anything positive about the deceased finally declared in his
necessarily brief eulogy: “The man must have done many good deeds and
favors privately that we are unaware of, for look at the large crowd that
has come here to the funeral chapel to pay him their last respects!”
The Torah itself confirms this attitude and behavior towards the dead. The
two sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, whose deaths are the subject of the
first verse of the parsha of this week, were described in the Torah as
causing their own deaths by “offering up a strange fire [of incense]” upon
God’s altar. The rabbis of the Talmud noted other failings in these two
sons of Aharon – they refused to marry, they were intoxicated when
entering the holy precincts of the Mishap, they had a rebellious attitude
towards their elders, Moshe and Aharon, among other failings.
Yet we find that in discussing the matter with his bereaved brother Aharon,
Moshe tells him that this is what God must have meant, so to speak, when He
told Moshe b’krovai akadesh – through the death of those who are nearest
and dearest to Heaven will God’s name be sanctified in the world. The Torah
after pointing out their sin of the “strange fire” nevertheless continues
to describe the deceased as krovai – My nearest and beloved ones.
From this it is apparent that we are not to dwell upon the faults and
shortcomings of others, certainly not after their deaths. Judgment is God’s
province and muckraking people after they are gone is not within Jewish
tradition. The prohibition of lashon hara – negative bad speech - applies
to speaking about the dead as well as the living.
Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein- Jewish historian, author and international lecturer offers a complete selection of CDs, audio tapes, video tapes, DVDs, and books on Jewish history at www.rabbiwein.com
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Berel Wein and Torah.org
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