A Funeral that Teaches the Art of Living


From the story of a life on its last journey, from words of family members gathered around the grave, rises terrible pain but also a great light. Notes from Mt. Herzl

It has been a week of funerals.

The heart breaks and widens.

Tears flow, here from pain, there from emotion.

Jewish funerals, and especially those of IDF soldiers, whoever they may be, offer a lesson in how to live. As the people in attendance listen to the eulogies, they learn more and more what life was for the deceased and his family. They discover how the soul of the one who fell is reflected in the souls of each one near and dear to him. The mirrors of the soul tell us a story of interwoven lives and relationships.

A huge crowd gathers at the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl. The hot sun of Tammuz beats down upon our heads. Mt. Herzl is a city of eternal youth – of youths who sacrificed their lives so that we may exist in our Land. We stand close together: young and old, soldier and civilian, Jews from all sectors – secular and haredim, traditional and national religious, conservative and reform. In my heart I wonder why we define ourselves in terms of sectors, and I decide that I prefer the tribal definition of yore.

Between the carefully-tended graves – for each is a garden unto itself –words of prayer cut through the choked sobs that are heard in turn from different spots within the crowd. Each word finds its way from one heart into all our hearts.

A person’s last teaching, his legacy, is delivered in condensed form by his dear ones as they part from him. In Israel, it is the words of people, more than the rites, that bring his life to the fore, and perhaps this is truer of words spoken at a funeral than those spoken at a happy occasion. Thus it is written in Ecclesiastes, “It is better to visit a house of mourning than a house of celebration.”

At this funeral I witnessed the reflection of values held by grandparents in the lives of their children and their children’s children. I was amazed at how today’s parents in Israel teach their children that modesty and putting oneself last are necessary for the social good; that what counts is the person, not titles, degrees, wealth, family connections or military rank, which without deep human essence is meaningless.

Around the grave stood four generations of one rooted family, in which the ingathering of exiles and a mixing of cultures have led not to assimilation but to mutual enrichment; A family that through quiet perseverance throughout the generations, in joy and at times in sorrow, has preserved its stake in the Land. I beheld a mother’s valor in her words, “would that I had died instead,” even as she asks God to give strength to be joyful in what there is and not weep over what might have been. I heard her clear call to those assembled to continue, throughout the years and not only in the time of mourning, to visit her home, the home of a family whose precious son was snatched from them in the flower of his youth.

Our Sages taught us not to offer comfort to people while their dead lay before them. But the presence of the community in the home does offer a bit of consolation. In recalling those lone soldiers who came from the Diaspora and volunteered to serve, we should remember that the mitzvah of comforting mourners continues after the funeral and the shiva, throughout life, and so we should maintain contact with their families. It is the least we can do for those who gave the greatest sacrifice of all for the sake of our security.

At this funeral I learned of the great power of love held in the heart of a young man for his parents and grandparents, his friends, siblings, and beloved, who would have become his bride. They were a young couple who chose to spend free moments learning Torah for its own sake. I heard that the young man’s favorite teaching of Rabban Gamliel, one of the ten Mishnaic sages who were killed in the Land by the Romans, was from Ethics of the Fathers (3:12): “…receive every man with a joyful countenance.”

As I left the cemetery, my prayer was that we shall all learn to receive each person in joy, not only now in a time of war but also when quiet is restored; that we visit families not only in times of mourning but also in times of happiness.

The funeral was of Second Lieutenant Yuval Haiman z”l from Efrat who was killed thwarting a murderous attack emerging from one of the Hamas tunnels near Kibbutz Nir Am. I work with Yuval’s mother, Zohara, but was not privileged to know Yuval until his funeral. May his memory be for a blessing, may the memory of all the fallen soldiers be for a blessing, and may their souls be bound in the bond of life.


(English translation by Penina Goldschmidt)

צילום: אבי הירשפילד, ארכיון הצילומים של קק”ל

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