Friday, September 4, 1998 | return to: national


Commentary: Funerals require we find honor, dignity in everyone

by RABBI CHAIM STEINMETZ, Bulletin Correspondent

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The graveside service was attended by five people: two cousins of the deceased (let us call her "Leah"), along with myself, our synagogue's chazzan and the funeral director.

Leah's story was not too unusual. She had grown up in Eastern Europe before World War II and had survived the Holocaust. Most of Leah's extended family were murdered during the war. Leah and her cousin were the only family members to survive.

Unfortunately, her experiences in a concentration camp left deep emotional scars. After the war, she did not marry or hold a job, and was dependent on her cousin to take care of her. Leah had lived the last 50 years of her life as a broken person, unable to fulfill the potential of her youth. Leah's cousin had died before her, and it was her cousin's two children who attended the funeral.

A rabbi's job at a funeral like this is a bit complicated. Jewish law requires that a eulogy praise the deceased. That's the easy part. Jewish law also requires that the eulogy tell the truth about the deceased. In some cases, it is difficult to find anything that is both honest and laudatory. The problem I faced at Leah's funeral was: What sort of honest praise could I say about her? What can be said about someone who lived most of her adult life as a broken person?

It occurred to me that there is a talmudic statement that was appropriate for this situation. The Talmud writes (Berachot 8b) that one must honor a Torah scholar who has forgotten his learning. The reason given is this: The first set of tablets on which the Ten Commandments were written were broken by Moses because of the sin of the golden calf. Yet these broken tablets received the same honor as the second (and unbroken) set, and both were placed in the Ark of the Covenant. The Talmud explains that a Torah scholar, even if he has forgotten his knowledge, still deserves honor, just like the broken tablets.

In many ways, Leah's life was a story of broken tablets. Her life had potential and purpose, until it was destroyed during the Holocaust. Her tablets may have been shattered by the Nazis, but she was no less deserving of our honor. She had a tselem Elokim, God's divine image, and inside her was a spark of holiness. This is what I said about Leah's life, in front of God, Leah and four other people.

At Leah's graveside I got to see what the essence of a funeral is. A great deal of pain and grieving take place, as it is difficult for us to part with people we love dearly. But there is something deeply spiritual at a funeral as well.

By showing honor and dignity to each and every person, even if their lives were only broken tablets, we declare our belief in the innate dignity of man. We assert that every person is important, every person is holy and that every person has a tselem Elokim. As much as I hate funerals, I find this feeling to be uplifting.

The writer is spiritual leader at Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Quebec.


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