DO tears follow words?
Or do words follow tears?
Abraham ascends the mountain to kill his son Isaac. G-d stops Abraham at the last moment.
Hearing this, Sarah’s soul departs. It is too much. She can no longer live.
“Sarah dies in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, in the land of Canaan” (Gen. 23:1).
Abraham’s son survives, and so does Abraham. But Sarah does not.
“Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her” (23:2).
Netziv (1816-1892) asks: Is it not the other way around? First, private tears; then, public eulogy?
First, emotional breakdown. Only afterward, words.
After a death, is not the spontaneous reaction to cry? Only afterward comes the prepared reaction: words of eulogy. So says Isaiah 22:12: “And my L-rd declared that day for weeping and for eulogy.”
Netziv observes: Actually, tears do not always follow words. It depends who dies, and on the circumstances.
The deaths of some people overturn the lives of their survivors. After these losses, the immediate response is to weep.
But this is not what happened with Sarah, and often not what happens with others.
To bury Sarah, Abraham had to walk from Mount Moriah (later to become Jerusalem) to Hebron; that is, from where he was supposed to sacrifice Isaac to where Sarah died. Netziv observes: As Abraham walked this great distance, countless people joined him. He was the acknowledged “prince of G-d.” By the time he arrived in Hebron, a huge assemblage was waiting.
There was no opportunity for private weeping. Abraham had no choice but to “eulogize Sarah, and to weep for her.” First, public eulogy; only afterward, private tears.
Furthermore, not all deaths are equal. Not everyone’s passing overturns the lives of survivors. A parent dies young: yes, in that case, the lives of the surviving spouse and children are surely overturned.
Private grief is spontaneous. Eulogy must wait.
But what happens when a life has been fulfilled?
Netziv observes that Sarah had fulfilled her purpose after 100 long years of waiting by giving birth to Isaac. Her passing may have occasioned little weeping in Abraham, a point emphasized by the miniature way the word is spelled in the Torah, but there was immense eulogy, so much to say about Sarah’s character and deeds. In her case, the Torah mentions her eulogy first.
OR, what happens when a life has been derailed? This, too, may privilege eulogy over tears.
For example, what happens when a death follows years of Alzheimer’s, or when the deceased is 100 years old? Often, eulogy has formed in the minds of at least some of the survivors, and the weeping has gone on for a long time already. By the time of the actual passing, eulogy may loom far more important than private grief.
Ronald Reagan planned his funeral long before his death, which occurred after he had come down with Alzheimer’s. The country was treated to days of eulogies. They seemed more important than grief, even to his widow Nancy.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik died in 1993, but had been incapacitated and out of sight since 1986. One of his eulogizers observed to this effect:
“Our tears have long dried up. What can we say now by way of eulogy?”
On the other hand, John F. Kennedy’s assassination almost 50 years ago left not only his family but millions of Americans in tears. JFK was 47. His passing left not only his family but the entire country completely overturned. Eulogies couldn’t come close to capturing the grief of a nation.
The same for the Jewish community of Denver when Rabbi Samuel Adelman of BMH suddenly dropped dead 47 years ago this week at the age of 50.
However, not always will age, illness or time diminish tears.
When Rabbi Daniel Goldberger died at 83 after years of declining health, he left behind trails of tears, in and out of his family. As for my dad, Max Goldberg, who died 41 years ago this week, the tears still flow.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News