Friday, August 24, 2007

Mourning and Society

On August 7, the 20th day of Av, I delivered a lecture in memory of my sister Malki, on the sixth anniversary of her murder. Please read about her life and death, and my parents' efforts to keep her memory alive, here. The topic I spoke about was the tension I see as existing between bereaved parents and their ongoing need to mourn, and society's expectation that they move on.

The first source I discussed is from the Babylonian Talmud, and it is the locus classicus for the statement, quoted in many halakhic codes, that excessive grief is frowned upon.

תלמוד בבלי מועד קטן דף כז ע"ב
ואמר רב יהודה אמר רב: כל המתקשה על מתו יותר מדאי - על מת אחר הוא בוכה. ההיא איתתא דהות בשיבבותיה דרב הונא, הוו לה שבעה בני. מת חד מינייהו, הוות קא בכיא ביתירתא עליה. שלח לה רב הונא: לא תעבדי הכי! לא אשגחה ביה. שלח לה: אי צייתת - מוטב, ואי לא - צבית זוודתא לאידך מית. ומיתו כולהו. לסוף אמר לה: תימוש זוודתא לנפשיך, ומיתא. 'אל תבכו למת ואל תנדו לו', אל תבכו למת - יותר מדאי ואל תנדו לו - יותר מכשיעור. הא כיצד? שלשה ימים - לבכי, ושבעה - להספד, ושלשים - לגיהוץ ולתספורת. מכאן ואילך - אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: אי אתם רחמנים בו יותר ממני.
R. Yehudah said, citing Rav: Whoever indulges in grief to excess over his dead
will weep for another. There was a certain woman that lived in the neighbourhood
of R. Huna; she had seven sons one of whom died [and] she wept for him rather
excessively. R. Huna sent [word] to her: ‘Act not thus’. She heeded him not
[and] he sent to her: ‘Act not thus’. She heeded him not [and] he sent to her:
‘If you heed my words it is well; but if not, are you anxious to make provision
for yet another?’ He [the next son] died and they all died. In the end he said
to her, ‘Are you fumbling with provision for yourself?’ And she died.[Our Rabbis
taught]: ‘Weep ye not for the dead, neither bemoan him’ (Jer. 22:10). ‘Weep not
for the dead’ – [that is] in excess, ‘neither bemoan him’ – beyond measure. How
is that [applied]? Three days for weeping and seven for lamenting and thirty [to
refrain] from cutting the hair and [donning] fresh clothes; hereafter, the Holy
One, blessed be He, says ‘Ye are not more compassionate towards him than I’.

This is an extremely harsh sugya. It seems to say that a parent who grieves more than thirty days will be punished with the death of another child. One reason for this harshness, I think, is that contemplating something so horrific and senseless as the death of a child will lead one to question God's ways, and those are questions that have no good answers.

Two people who heard my speech suggested alternative readings, which I thought had great merit. The first was that a parent who cries so much over a dead child as to ignore the living siblings needs to be shaken out of it. And the second, which requires detaching the first sentence from the rest of the paragraph, was that someone who remains stiff and unemotional at such a loss is destined to suffer a loss that will make them cry.

In any case, the story within this sugya tells of a woman who cried for her dead child, and Rav Huna her neighbour berated her very harshly. She did not follow his advice, though, and died of sorrow after burying all of her seven children (a classical motif). A striking parallel story is found in BT Sanhedrin, playing off a verse in Lamentations:

תלמוד בבלי סנהדרין דף קד ע"ב
'בכה תבכה בלילה', שתי בכיות הללו למה?... דבר אחר: בלילה - שכל הבוכה בלילה קולו נשמע. דבר אחר: בלילה שכל הבוכה בלילה כוכבים ומזלות בוכין עמו. דבר אחר: בלילה - שכל הבוכה בלילה השומע קולו בוכה כנגדו. מעשה באשה אחת שכנתו של רבן גמליאל שמת בנה, והיתה בוכה עליו בלילה, שמע רבן גמליאל קולה ובכה כנגדה, עד שנשרו ריסי עיניו. למחר הכירו בו תלמידיו והוציאוה משכונתו.
‘She weepeth, yea, She weepeth in the night’. Why this double weeping? … Another
interpretation of ‘in the night’: whoever weeps at night, his voice is heard.
Another meaning: whoever weeps at night, the stars and constellations weep with
him. Another meaning: whoever weeps at night, he who hears him weeps. It
happened to a woman, a neighbour of Rabban Gamliel, that her son died, and she
was weeping for him at night. R. Gamliel heard her voice and cried with her
until his eyelashes fell out. The next day, his disciples saw this and removed
her from his neighbourhood.
Here again we find a bereaved mother in the neighbourhood of a great rabbi - Rabban Gamliel. She too cries, and the rabbi hears her grief. This time, however, the rabbi responds in a completely different way - he cries with her, sharing her grief. Interestingly, there are two versions regarding this sharing. One is that he actually identified with her pain. The other, found in Eicha Rabba (the printed edition) is that her crying reminded Rabban Gamliel of the destruction of the Temple. While creating some distance between the rabbi and the mother, this version still preserves his sensitivity, which moved him to remember a pain that he felt himself. However, this neighbourly support was not allowed to persist, and Rabban Gamliel's disciples evicted the mother from the area.
I think that the disciples here represent society, which Hazal recognize as playing a necessary but deeply problematic role. Perhaps society really doesn't have the room for people to express their feelings openly. But it should.
The second half of the shiur focused on two medieval Ashkenazic sources, which also brought out the problematic relationship between the grieving parent and society. However, I think that - for various reasons - Ashkenazic society was more open to accomodating and even participating with grieving parents.


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