Rosh Chodesh Av: A Funeral with no Mourners?

One of the hardest parts of my job as Rabbi of BSBI is comforting mourners. It is a daunting task that no amount of study or training can really prepare one for. When sitting with a family who has just lost a loved one, what can one possibly say to make them feel better? When looking into the eyes of a grief stricken mother or a sobbing child, what are the right words? “I am sorry for your loss.” People say these six words like they are a magic formula, but in so doing reduce an entire person into two bland words: Your loss. This seems unfair, maybe even thoughtless. How can I possibly understand the depth of your loss? (Though we all say it with good intentions, myself included.)

Many years ago I tried to avoid houses of mourning because I didn’t know what to say. I was afraid I would say the wrong thing, act the wrong way, or intrude on the privacy of a grieving family. But now I make it my business to go to houses of mourning even though I still don’t know the right words to say. And that is because I have come to the realization that there are no right words. There are of course some wrong words that can express callousness and insensitivity, but ultimately it is not what you say that matters the most, it is just being there that makes the difference.

According to the ancient practice of nichum aveilim, comforting mourners, visitors to a house of mourning are not to speak until first spoken to by the mourner. In fact, if the mourner does not engage the visitors in conversation, the visitors would be bound to remain silent for their entire visit. Our sages knew that just being present provides solace and comfort, and words spoken are secondary.

I have unfortunately officiated at a significant number of funerals in my career thus far. I believe that the saddest ones are when there are no menachamim, no comforters, and sadder yet, when there are no mourners. Can you imagine the site of a person being buried and no one is even there except for a rabbi and a few cemetery employees? It happens, and it is painful.

Today is Rosh Chodesh Av which means that Tisha B’av is almost here. Most people do not look forward to Tisha B’av. Many would rather skip it. Tisha B’av is the day we commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and countless Jewish suffering over the millennia. Whereas we get excited for Purim and Chanukah, and some of us even like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, very few await Tisha B’av.

Skipping Tisha B’av is like going to family weddings and celebrations, but not going to the funerals. Judaism infuses joy and happiness into life, or at least it should when practiced properly. But every now and then, we need a good dose of sorrow. Every family has its good times and its difficult times, and we don’t have the luxury of jumping ship when things get tough. So too with Tisha B’av.

On Tisha B’av we read from the scroll of Lamentations that, “The City of Jerusalem has no comforters.” In these lines the prophet Jeremiah is bemoaning the fact that no one even cares that Jerusalem has been destroyed. Jerusalem is dead and not only does no one go to the funeral, but no one even shows up for the entire shiva!

Why don’t people properly mourn Jerusalem? Maybe it is because they don’t know the right words to say. Maybe it is because they don’t really appreciate the depth of what has been lost. Or maybe it is because they don’t realize the unique power of mourning for Jerusalem. When a loved one dies, no amount of crying can bring that person back to life. However the Talmud states, “Anyone who mourns Jerusalem will merit to see its joy.”

Let us all join in solace together at the funeral – let not Jerusalem fall alone – so that one day we can all dance together at the wedding, at the final reunification of our people, our land, our Temple and our God.