Parshas Behaaloscha (5773)
Throughout our lives we will have many opportunities to do mitzvos (good deeds) and perform acts of kindness for others. We can visit the sick, comfort those who are mourning, make a bride and groom happy at their wedding, help an old lady across the street, and the list goes on and on.
But we can’t do all these mitzvos at the same time. What happens when we have two mitzvos in front of us and we need to choose one – which mitzvah takes precedence? Do we visit the sick or comfort the mourners? Do we go a house of mourning or do we attend a friend’s wedding? Or can we just do whichever mitzvah we like better?
As always, we can find some guidance to these dilemmas in the classical sources.
King Solomon, the wisest of all men, wrote the following in Koheles (otherwise known as Ecclesiastes) 7:2: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for that is the end of all man, and the living should take it to heart”
The Talmud in Kesubos 72a explains “the living should take it to heart” to mean that those who are still living should quicker go to a “house of mourning” (a “shivah” house) than a “house of feasting” (a Jewish wedding) because they will all inevitably die someday since “that is the end of all man”, and they should “take to heart” that if they mourn for others, then others will mourn for them as well. There is no guarantee, however, that they will get married, as they might die before that, or just never find the right person, thus leaving no possibility of their being “repaid” in this lifetime for the mitzvah of making others happy at their wedding.
Additionally, we can suggest that although making a newlywed couple happy at their wedding and comforting mourners at a shivah home are both great and important mitzvos, one often takes home with him more powerful life lessons upon leaving a shivah home than when leaving a wedding. At a shivah home, one can gain insight into the beauty – and fragility – of life, and can be inspired to lead a more meaningful and spiritual existence. Whereas at a wedding feast, the only thing most people gain is weight.
The Ramcha”l, in his classic work Path of the Just, adds that there is also a big “downside” to attending a wedding feast, in that it often leads people to crave material things and to be jealous of others – something which does not occur (hopefully) at a house of mourning.
Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Mourning 14:7), addresses one of the questions we posed above, when he writes the following: “It appears to me that comforting mourners takes precedence over visiting the sick. For comforting mourners is an expression of kindness to the living and the dead.”
[Rabbi Moshe Feinstien ZT”L, in Igros Moshe (Orach Chayim 4:40) qualifies this ruling of Maimonides. He explains that it only applies in cases where the life-threatening needs of the patient are being provided; in cases where the life of the patient is in jeopardy, then visiting him and caring for his needs certainly takes priority, for saving a life overrides all other mitzvos.]
The commentators explain that when visiting a shivah home, one is not just comforting and consoling the mourners who are still living. He is also performing an act of kindness to the deceased, whose soul grieves at the house of the mourner.
As we are taught in the Talmud in Shabbos 152b: “A certain man died in the neighborhood of Rabbi Yehudah. As there were no mourners to be comforted, Rabbi Yehudah assembled ten men every day and they sat in his place. After seven days, the deceased appeared to Rabbi Yehudah in a dream and said to him, ‘May your mind be at rest, for you have set my mind at rest’”.
It is for this reason that Maimonides writes that comforting the mourners takes precedence over visiting the sick. At a shivah home we are comforting both the living and the deceased, whereas visiting the sick is only a kindness to the living.
The Kabbalists teach that the soul of deceased is not only present at the shivah home – where it grieves for seven days together with the mourners over the loss of its body and all that it had in this world. It is also present and hears everything that is being said about it at the funeral where the eulogies are held. So we need to be very careful about what we say at a eulogy and at a shivah home, as the soul of the deceased is very much aware of all that is going on.
May we never know from sorrow and grief, and have only simchah and joy in our lives!