Grief diminishes us all

By Rabbi Jim Bennett

And Abraham came to mourn Sarah and to weep for her …” (Genesis 23:2).  

 This week’s Torah portion opens with this most poignant of images, one played out again and again in all of our lives, as a human being mourns the death of a beloved life partner. We feel Abraham’s loss and pain in the terse words of the Torah.  

Yet the tradition suggests otherwise. In the Hebrew script of the Torah in Parashat Chayei Sarah, there is an anomaly: The Hebrew letter “chaf” in the word “v’livkota” (and to weep for her) is written as a smaller letter than the others around it.  This small letter stands out and calls our attention to something unique and special about this moment of mourning and weeping. 

One commentator, the Baal HaTurim, suggests that the reason for this is that Sarah had lived to the ripe old age of 127 and, thus, the mourning for such a person was not that overwhelming. For the Baal HaTurim, the smaller-size letter in the word for crying symbolizes that the loss of someone of such an advanced age was somehow less tragic and painful.

Other commentaries suggest that the smaller letter teaches us that Abraham wept only a little because we know only how to mourn a little compared with how we should truly mourn.  Still others even suggest, offensively, that Abraham cried less because Sarah had declined physically and was no longer attractive to him! 

We all know better. True, when we are blessed to spend so many years with our dear ones, we are, perhaps, more prepared for their deaths, particularly when they have suffered long and possibly painful illnesses. Yes, we may even feel relief when they are freed from their suffering and ours. Yet the mourning and loss is no less; indeed, my experience suggests that those who mourn their lifelong partners, parents or children are even more profoundly affected by the loss because of the many years they were blessed to share. 

Perhaps there is another way to view this loss and this anomaly in the text. Mourning makes us feel less. When someone we love dies, no matter when and no matter at what age, something of us dies. We feel smaller, diminished and adrift. It is hard for others to understand this; in fact, at times the shame of grief and its pain can overwhelm us. 

Yet our Torah comes to remind us that these feelings are real.  Even Abraham was drowning in his tears. The letters of the Torah gently coax us to forgive ourselves for our sadness, our loss, our sorrow and our grief. Like Abraham, we can rise from the grief, in time, and move on in our lives, but never the same. 

May the memories of our righteous loved ones ever be a blessing.