When Jacob was taken to be buried in Israel, his body was accompanied by a very large retinue of both his family and pretty much every Egyptian dignitary. Large funerals are an interesting concept. But why? The person is gone. Surely, it makes no difference to them what type of send-off they get?
Judaism believes that it does.
The rabbis tell us that eulogies must be said at a funeral. And the purpose of those eulogies is to make people cry.
Now that’s an interesting concept, particularly in this country. The aim at most funerals that I seem to go to is for everyone, including the mourners, to ‘be strong’ and NOT cry. The Jewish concept, however, is very much to cry. And the goal of a eulogy is to help with that. Because crying honours the person who has gone. When people cry, it means they cared about the person; it matters to them that the person is no longer here; they feel a hole in their lives that this person once filled. That honours the person – they made a difference in the world. More meaningfully than even the most eloquent words could express, crying demonstrates clearly that the person made their mark in the world. And public crying is the most powerful demonstration of that – because it says that I have been so touched by this person, they mattered so much to me, their loss is so keenly felt – that my inhibitions break down and I express my vulnerability for all to see.
That’s crying and it’s a beautiful thing at a funeral and a shiva (Jewish house of mourning). It’s natural, normal and deeply respectful to cry for someone we love. It always amazes me that people would want to repress something so touching and so beautiful. Personally, I loved crying for my parents and my wife when they passed – and still do.
But still, why show respect for someone who has gone? It makes no difference to them.
I have two thoughts on this. One works even for an atheist, the other is for someone who believes in God.
Firstly, we cry in respect for the feeling of love that we had for the person. It is not for the person; it is for us. We honour the beautiful and meaningful relationship that we had with this person. We are grateful to life for sharing this special human being with us and we express that feeling of gratitude best through tears. There is an underlying joy in such mourning, but it remains mourning.
But the second point is my main one. It is my firm belief that a soul, whilst departing this realm of existence, does not die. It is still alive in a purely spiritual realm (and you can try to conceive of how that might work as much as you like but you still won’t have any more understanding than I have, i.e. none of the details). As such, I believe that a soul is somehow still aware of us, even if we are not aware of it. I don’t mean that it looks down on us from on high, or in heaven. I think that is all metaphorical. I think that it retains some sort of spiritual connection with our own spiritual experience. It is something (I don’t want to use a particular verb, such as comforting, pleasurable, beneficial….. because that would be presumptuous of me, but fill in your own blank if you like) for that soul to know that we care, that it is beloved and missed. And hence, I believe that crying, or rather the deep and passionate feeling that accompanies it, honours the soul of the person that we have loved in this world and will love, more fully than ever before, once reunited after we have also left this world.
Parsha in a Nutshell
This portion tells the story of Jacob’s final blessing to his children, his demise and his burial. In his final moments of prophetic vision, Jacob is able to discern the time of the Messianic Era. He wishes to reveal the details to his children, but is prevented from doing so by God.
Jacob dies and is mummified for the journey to Israel. He is taken to Hebron and buried with full Egyptian honours.