The Torah warns us against excessive mourning, expressing itself in a most unusual way: “You are the children of God your Lord. Do not mutilate yourselves and do not make a bald patch between your eyes [as a sign of mourning] for the dead.” (1) This prohibition teaches man the right approach to death.
The great Italian sage Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (1475-1550) explains this in his typically unique way: The reason why one is not allowed to mourn excessively is because a more noble relative, God, is still alive. And since one is a child of that relative, and He is the ultimate Father, one knows that the real parent did not and never will die. If he grieves excessively, it is as if he believes that even The Eternal parent is no longer alive. (2)
There is a great difference between adults and children in the grief they feel when losing their parents. In the case of the adult, the sense of loss is less selfish. Since most adults no longer depend on their parents, fulfilling the obligation of honoring them becomes qualitatively superior and more dignified, and is motivated by altruistic intentions. There is more space for genuine interest in the person as a unique human being, beyond just the role as a parent.
Once the life of a parent comes to an end, there is greater opportunity for contemplation on the meaning of life and the uniqueness of those who left us behind. This is the main reason for the period of shivah, the seven days of intensive mourning following burial, when one is not permitted to work and is required to sit on a low seat, close to the earth, serving as a reminder of all earthliness.
Death confronts us with a strange paradox. We realize that all of us have been dead longer than we have been alive. Before we were born, we were dead for millions of years. In a way, we are better acquainted with our prior existence than with our current life, after we’ve been quite suddenly thrust into this world.
Real life is a journey that starts long before we come into existence. It seems to come from afar and continues through experience, suffering, insight, growth and deed, and then returns to its home base. There is an eternal continuum that seems to precede the existence of the individual, and the journey of life continues after death.
While there is no proof of life after death, everything seems to allude to it. Our existence in this world resembles a station at which we arrive when we are born and from which we leave when we die, returning to ‘home base’. Otherwise, we must wonder why we can’t stay where we are, or why there is a need to enter this strange and highly problematic world of which fleeting time is the most significant, all-embracing and inescapable component.
If it were possible for us mortals to see this highway between heaven and earth, we would be surprised at the heavy daily traffic in both directions. There are those who embark on an outing, perhaps not knowing what awaits them, and those who come home, perhaps not realizing what they leave behind.
When confronted with death, our first reaction is consternation. We are stunned and broken. But slowly, our sense of shock gives way to a feeling of mystery. The mysterium magnum enters, and a new perspective makes itself known as a kind of revelation and elevation. Suddenly, our whole life, which we knew so well, gradually becomes concealed behind a great Secret. Our speech is silenced. Our understanding fails. There is only awe for the Other.
In the Torah, nobody dies; rather, one is ‘gathered to his ancestors’. No neshama becomes dust, and no spirit turns to ashes. It is neshamot that compose immortal and untouchable words, create infinite art and abstract thoughts. The neshama is therefore infinite. Friedrich Nietzsche said that the final reward of the dead is to die no more. Judaism would say: the final reward of the dead is to experience no absolute mortality.
The Halacha makes a distinction between mourning deceased parents and mourning other family members. One mourns a parent for a full year, while this is not the case with any other relative, not even one’s spouse.
There is something very distinctive about parents. No doubt it has to do with the fact that one can have more children, brothers or sisters, and even marry another spouse, but one can never have other parents. They are irreplaceable. On a deeper level, parents are the connecting link to earlier generations, to the past. They are our memory, and they give us the historical and emotional context of our lives. Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, z”l, once remarked that we have a full year of mourning for our parents because, unlike in the case of other family members, the loss of a parent removes us even more from the revelation of the Torah at Sinai. Only through a year of mourning, which consists of meditation and teshuva, are we able to recapture the message of Sinai.
(1) Devarim 14:1.
(2) Ibid. Sforno’s commentary. See also the Da’at Zekeinim mi-Ba’alei ha-Tosafot.