By Israel Drazin
To Mourn a Child
Jewish Responses to Neonatal and Childhood Death
Edited by Jeffrey Saks and Joel B. Wolowelsky
Ktav Publishers and OU Press, 2013, 167 pages
Many fathers and mothers are willing to surrender their lives to save their child, and feel a sense of eternal life in the continued lives of their children. They are emotionally wrecked and forever broken when their child dies. I know of women whose pain was so severe that they could never visit the grave of their child.
Rabbi Jeffrey Saks and Dr. Joel B. Wolowelsky collected and present twenty-four frequently emotional, sometimes hard to read poignant and moving essays by psychologists, teachers, scholars, rabbis, and parents that focus on this problem.
One grieving parent, for example, described her feeling of alienation, how she looked out of a window while driving in her car and “had a strong physical sensation of being in an aquarium: I could see out, the people could see me (if they chose to pay attention), but we were living and breathing in entirely different environments” [italics in the original].
Joel B. Wolowelsky retells tales of great Talmudic rabbis who were overcome by the death of children, friends, and relatives and how colleagues attempted to console them and failed, how even one of the greatest rabbis died because of grief. Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein reveals that his teacher Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner was inconsolable when his wife died. Rabbis came and offered “wise” teachings of consolation. The told him that his wife’s passing was positive. Rabbi Hutner quoted Midrash Leviticus Rabbah to his student, “Any talmid hakham [Torah scholar] who lacks da’at [common sense] is worse than a putrid animal carcass.”
The book includes brief discussions on the laws of mourning and their benefits. It includes the biblical story of King David mourning for the death of his and Bat Sheba’s son and the midrashic tale of Rabbi Meir’s lament when he found his two sons dead, and what his wife said to him.
Rabbi Seth Farber, one of the contributors, offers some suggestions to rabbis in dealing with infant death, ideas that can be used by non-rabbis. The rabbi can provide essential practical information, but should not be afraid to say, “I don’t know” or overstep boundaries; rabbis are not medical professionals or psychologists. The rabbi can also initiate some acts for the mourners and be a coordinator, for mourners have no experience with details surrounding death and burial. The rabbi should not be afraid to cry, but be like God: “Just as God is compassionate, so to should you be compassionate.”
Readers may not agree with all of the two dozen essays which contain many dozens of ideas, but even in disagreement, the ideas presented provoke thought. They may or may not like what Rabbi Meir’s wife told him when he found his two sons dead, that he was returning to God what belongs to Him. They may like or dislike the view of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik who understood God saying to the biblical Job, “These afflictions were intended as a means for mending both your soul and your spirit, Job! when My loving-kindness overflowed toward you.” God, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, was criticizing Job for his past behavior. “Perhaps now you will be able to mend, in pain and grief, the sinful behavior you indulged in while in your previous state of self satisfaction and pseudo-happiness.”