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Posted on August 26, 2022 (5782) By Rabbi Yisroel Ciner | Series: | Level:

This week’s parsha, R’ay, gives us a very clear glimpse of the attitude the Torah enjoins us to have towards death. “Bunim a’tem laHashem Elokaichem, lo tisgo’d’du… l’mais {You are sons of Hashem your G-d, do not gouge yourselves over a death} [14:1].” The custom of the Gentiles was to scratch and cut themselves in order to show and vent their agony over the death of a dear one. We are prohibited from acting in such a fashion. Why? Because we are sons of Hashem.

What is the connection between our being the sons of Hashem and the prohibition of gouging ourselves over the death of someone we loved?

Of the different explanations of the many commentators, I find the Ohr HaChaim and the Chizkuni to be the most poignant.

The Ohr Hachaim explains that the Torah is teaching us that death is a loss to those that remain alive–not to the one that died. It can be compared to a person who sent his son to a faraway land in order to start a business there. The son settled in that place and over time became very close to many fine people there. After many years, the father summoned the son to return home and the son acceded to his wishes.

The son is not lost. Those who had grown to know and love him are no longer able to see him and to build the relationship further, but the son is not lost. On the contrary, the son is returning home to his father. The thought of those friends going ahead and gouging themselves over the agony of the son’s departure is preposterous. Sadness and a melancholy feeling of detachment are in order. Gouging is definitely out!

“Bunim a’tem laHashem Elokaichem, {You are sons of Hashem your G-d}.” At ‘death,’ the person is simply returning to the Father. The duration of that person’s visit to this transient world has come to a close. The time has come for the return trip–to return home. Therefore, “Lo tisgo’d’du… l’mais {do not gouge yourselves over a death}.” Reacting in such a way really contradicts our beliefs.

The Chizkuni explains that the basis for the command not to gouge ourselves is that we are the sons of Hashem–we are mere children. Do we have an understanding of why we live and why we die? Can we fathom the Divine decisions which determine these occurrences? A child does not comprehend the decisions that a mature father makes–we too are children. “Lo tisgo’d’du {do not gouge yourselves}.”

These concepts are illustrated by R’ Yom Tov Ehrlich’s powerful story, based on the writings of Rav Chaim Vital, the primary student of the great Kabbalist, the Ariza”l.

Yosef, who had recently married, walked back from shul {synagogue} with his youngest brother, Dovid, to wish their mother a good Shabbos. In the house all was ready for Shabbos–the table was set and the candles glowed brightly. However, the empty seat at the head of the table upset the tranquillity. Their father had died two years earlier and their mother had not found peace since then.

The smile she tried to force as she wished her sons a Good Shabbos couldn’t hide her tears. “Mommy, it’s Shabbos, we’re not supposed to be sad,” Yosef said gently.

“But it was exactly two years ago today that your father died, how can’t I cry?” she replied.

“That explains this Shabbos but not last week and two weeks ago. Father is now in Gan Eden {The Garden of Eden} and your tears must be upsetting him. They also show Hashem that you’re not willing to accept His judgment. Mommy, please forgive me for speaking this way,” Yosef apologized.

“You are right, I know that everyone wants me to be happy again–I will try my best,” she promised.

Yosef left to go to his house and Dovid made the Kiddush on the wine. A calm serenity seemed to envelope the seuda {festive meal} and the entire house. As she went to sleep, the mother felt an internal peacefulness that she hadn’t felt since her husband’s death. She began to think that she’s not alone. Others have gone through it and made it and so could she.

As she drifted off to sleep she dreamt that people were running and she began to run with them. They ran through a dark forest until, with a burst of light, the forest ended. The bright sun glimmered off a sparkling blue stream, running through a garden filled with beautiful flowers. Suddenly, a white-bearded Jew wearing a long white garment appeared and gently asked her if she’d like to see her husband. With her heart pounding she followed him to a tree full of beautiful ripe fruit, overlooking a spacious clearing surrounded by a golden fence. There were colorfully dressed Jews sitting in rows learning Torah from a young man.

The class finished and she saw the teacher approaching them. When she saw that it was her husband, she nearly fainted and leaned against the tree. When she regained her composure she cried out, “Why did you leave me at such a young age?”

“Please understand that the world in which you live is a world of exile,” he explained serenely. “People are sent there to complete specific tasks or to rectify earlier transgressions. This is the true world. Before you ever knew me I was a Torah scholar and perfectly righteous. My only fault was I was unwilling to marry and bring children to the world because it would have disturbed my studies.

“When I left the world I began to ascend to ever higher levels but at a certain point I couldn’t ascend any higher because I had never married and had never had children. I was sent back to the lower world to marry and have children. I married you and when our seventh child was born, I was called to return to Gan Eden. Great is your merit that I was your husband. When the right time will come, we will again live together in this world in delight.”

“Why doesn’t our Yosef prosper in his business affairs?” she continued to question.

“I’m sure you remember the litigation that Yosef had with another Jew,” her husband responded. “He was legally correct but was guilty of causing the other person great pain. He faced a harsh sentence but I prayed on his behalf that he be given only four hard years. In just one more year, that period will end and he will prosper.”

“And what about our Dovid? Not a single shidduch {prospective spouse} has been offered and I have no money to make a wedding.”

He smiled and explained: “Dovid’s wife was late in coming–she’s now only thirteen years old. In five years they will move to your city, she’ll get engaged to Dovid and they will finance the entire wedding.”

In a pained voice she asked, “And why was our three year old son killed by a drunk?”

“Follow me,” her husband answered with a smile. They began to walk to a light-filled garden. Brilliant beams of multi-colored light shone from above while beautiful songbirds flew from tree to tree singing the praises of Hashem. Suddenly she saw leaping circles of fire positioning themselves near her in column-like formation followed by small angels who also settled near her. She felt her soul slipping away and her husband quickly placed a flower near her nose to revive her. A canopy made of sparkling stones appeared before her and under the canopy stood a small angelic form that she recognized as her son.

“Why did you leave me when you were so young?” she asked.

“Everything is done according to Hashem’s plan,” he answered. “I had been in the world once before and during one of the wild attacks against my town, gentiles had murdered my entire family. I, at the age of six months was the only survivor. A kindly gentile woman took me into her home and raised me until I was redeemed by Jews. They taught me Torah until I became a great scholar. When I left that world I was received here with great joy. I reached a point where I couldn’t rise higher because I was nursed by a non-Jewish woman. It was decreed that I be born again to a Jewish mother and live those early years in purity. After three years there was no reason for me to remain in that lowly world so I was returned to here. You have a great merit that you helped me to reach this next level.” The child laughed softly and disappeared from view.

Her husband continued: “You now see that there is an answer to all of your questions. Hashem does no evil.” He escorted her back to the tree where he had met her. “It is very good here but I can’t bear to see your suffering. You will do me a great favor by living happily. A shidduch has been proposed for you. Please accept it.”

With that he vanished and the old man led her back through the forest.

She awoke a different person, soon remarried and lived a life of contentment.

“Bunim a’tem laHashem Elokaichem”–we are His children.

Good Shabbos,
Yisroel Ciner

Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi Yisroel Ciner and Project Genesis, Inc.

The author teaches at Neveh Tzion in Telzstone (near Yerushalayim).