GOOD MORNING! One of the more important responsibilities of a pulpit rabbi is officiating at life cycle events: circumcisions, bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, and funerals. Inevitably, over the course of one’s rabbinic career a rabbi attends many funerals.

Among the rabbinic responsibilities of officiating at a funeral is delivering an appropriate eulogy. Generally, the rabbi isn’t the only one who delivers a speech as a family member or close friend of the deceased usually prepares some remarks as well.

There is a well-known study that was done in 1973 in which 2,543 Americans were asked, “What do you fear most?” Of the many different answers that were given, public speaking ranked #1 with 41%. Oddly enough, death was only cited by 18% of the respondents as their primary fear.

This, of course, led to the erroneous conclusion that people feared speaking in public more than dying. Based on this, Jerry Seinfeld quipped, “This means that if you are at a funeral you would rather be in the coffin than delivering the eulogy.”

A cursory glance at the survey reveals why this conclusion is simply a poor analysis of the data. Many of the other fears mentioned (fear of heights 32%, deep waters 21%, flying 16%, riding in a car 8%, etc.) are actually rooted in one’s fear of dying. The “fatal” flaw of the survey is that it was poorly worded, not to mention that there is no data regarding which segments of the population were surveyed.

This is why a eulogy – which combines both terrifying elements of public speaking and death – can be quite a challenge. Some do admirably well – others not so much. There are those who spend much of the time talking about themselves and pay tribute to the decedent by remarking on how important they were to the person who passed.

Then there are those who believe in the credo “you can’t spell funeral without ‘fun’” – and proceed to launch into a poorly thought out comedic routine. I once heard at a funeral: “Bernice was the most competitive person I've ever met. From cooking battles, to our weekly tennis game, she loved to win. She was so competitive that she even triumphed over me when it came to death.” Sigh.

(One random thought: Each person has two important dates – the day they are born and the day they will die. Every year you commemorate the day you were born – your “birthday” – yet your “death-day” blithely passes with you completely unaware of its eventual significance. Perhaps this is one of the reasons the Talmud says, “Repent every day for you never what day is your last.”)

In this week’s Torah portion we find a remarkable lesson about the obligations of giving a proper eulogy:

Sarah died in Kiryat Arbah, which is in Chevron in the land of Canaan. Abraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her (23:2).

This week’s Torah reading opens with the death of our matriarch Sarah and the details surrounding her burial. The Torah recounts that Abraham came to eulogize and weep for her.

However, the word “weep” is written in the Torah scroll with a smaller than usual Hebrew letter “כ – kaf.” This is very significant.

There are 304,805 letters in the Torah and every single one of them is precious. If a letter is missing or if one letter is touching another letter the entire scroll is invalid. Every letter is meticulously written by a highly trained scribe and when the tradition calls for a change to the style or format of any of the letters this variation is pregnant with meaning.

Regarding the diminution of the letter “כ”, our sages tell us that this hints to the fact that Abraham curtailed his crying (see Bal Haturim). It’s not unusual for a man to weep at his wife’s funeral, so why did Abraham make a particular effort to lessen his crying?

In addition, some of the commentators (see Riva, Ohr Hachaim, Klei Yakar) are troubled by two other parts of the verse:

  1. The beginning of the verse informs us that Sarah died and yet the Torah, which budgets its words and letters so carefully, repeats her name again at the end of the verse. Why?
  2. Typically, the crying comes before the eulogizing: Why didn’t the Torah simply write, “Abraham came to weep and eulogize her”?

There is an important lesson here regarding what a funeral and eulogy are meant to be. When someone suffers the devastating loss of a family member there is a natural tendency to focus on one’s personal sorrow. Of course, grieving is a critical element in the ongoing process of healing and recovering from a devastating loss.

However, a funeral is also a time to honor the life of the deceased – it’s not merely a time to express one’s personal loss. As we discussed last week, one of the main merits that we can bestow on the soul of the deceased is by learning from and emulating their exemplary behavior.

When Abraham eulogized Sarah he did not focus on his loss as a husband, but rather on her accomplishments, the loss to the community, and the vacuum created by her passing.

Sarah’s name has its root in the Hebrew word “sar,” meaning “prince.” Initially, her name was Sarai, but God changed her name to Sarah when she was ninety. The Talmud (Brachos 13a) explains why the Almighty changed her name from Sarai to Sarah: “Originally, she was a princess only to her own nation (i.e. Aram), and in the end she became a princess for the entire world.” Clearly, Sarah had gone from being a locally respected personality to one whose impact was felt the world over.

My father likes to cite the 20th century example of Jackie Kennedy (Onassis). Here was a young widow with small children who had suddenly suffered a life shattering loss. But she recognized that while she lost her husband and the father of her children, the nation had also lost a beloved president and a world leader. The loss was not hers alone.

Here is how Life magazine described her demeanor. “Through all this mournful splendor Jacqueline Kennedy marched enfolded in courage and a regal dignity. Then at midnight she came back again, in loneliness, to lay some flowers on her husband’s grave.” In other words, she first mourned along with the rest of the nation for the very sudden and tragic loss of a world leader and only after, on her own, did she express her personal grieving for her husband.

This public persona was what Abraham was eulogizing. Sarah wasn’t merely his wife; she was an important person in her own right. Sarah’s death left a void in the world. This is why the Torah repeats her name, because Abraham wasn’t there to eulogize his wife but rather articulating a communal loss. He was explaining who “Sarah” was and what she meant to the world. He wanted people to understand what they had lost.

There is an important lesson in this story. Funerals are a meaningful time to reflect on the value of the deceased’s life accomplishments. Yet often eulogies mostly reflect personal memories of the deceased (e.g. Bubby’s “amazing” cookie recipe). This causes those in attendance to be saddened not by the loss of the person, but rather by the grief and loss of the bereaved. Ideally, eulogies should extoll the virtues of the deceased, thereby making the loss relevant to all.

This is the lesson that the Torah is conveying to us about what Abraham was trying to achieve. He lessened his own weeping because his personal loss wasn’t the focus. His goal was to highlight Sarah’s achievements and explain the community impact of the death of a princess of the world.

Torah Portion of the Week

Chayei Sarah, Genesis 23:1 - 25:18

Sarah dies at the age of 127. Abraham purchases a burial place for her in Hebron in the cave of Ma'arat HaMachpela. Abraham sends his servant, Eliezer, back to the “old country,” his birthplace Charan, to find a wife for Isaac (Yitzchak). Eliezer makes what appear to be very strange conditions for the matrimonial candidate to fulfill in order to qualify for Isaac. Rebecca (Rivka) unknowingly meets the conditions. Eliezer succeeds in getting familial approval, though they were not too keen about Rebecca leaving her native land.

Abraham marries Keturah and fathers six more sons. He sends them east (with the secrets of mysticism) before he dies at 175. Isaac and Ishmael bury Abraham near Sarah in Ma'arat HaMachpela, the cave Abraham purchased to bury Sarah. The portion ends with the listing of Ishmael's 12 sons and Ishmael dying at age 137.

Candle Lighting Times

“Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
— Dr. Seuss

לעילוי נשמת
קלמן משה בן ראובן אביגדור

From the Entire Packouz Family


In loving memory of
Rabbi Kalman Packouz
Kalman Moshe ben Reuven Avigdor

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

Copyright © 2022 Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig