Shiva 10x: Vayechi 2015

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Leadoff Questions: Is there a true timetable for communal grief? To what extent does the Jewish process of personal mourning – including shiva, sh’loshim, reciting kaddish, among other practices – provide an adequate template to loss that is felt by the entire community?

In the Torah, we discover that other ancient Near Eastern cultures – including that of ancient Israel – reserved a specific time for the public to bewail a loss. It’s intriguing to ponder how these practices have evolved.

Text: “Then Joseph ordered the physicians in his service to embalm his father, and the physicians embalmed Israel. It required forty days, for such is the full period of embalming. The Egyptians bewailed him seventy days.” (Genesis 50:2-3)

Commentary #1: “The death of any member of a given community generally causes tensions, pain, and loss. The societal equilibrium is out of balance. Communal mourning rites seek to bring this imbalance back into some sort of equilibrium. Genesis 50:3 contains an echo of this connection with the 70 days of mourning by the Egyptians after the death of Joseph’s father, Jacob. Only after this period is completed does Joseph reintegrate himself in Egyptian society and appear in Pharaoh’s household. It seems that the collective weeping period is not only a sign of appreciation of the deceased but also a constructive element, creating, renewing, and strengthening societal ties.” – Gerald A. Klingbeil, Bridging the Gap: Ritual and Ritual Texts in the Bible

Commentary #2: “Forty for embalming and thirty for mourning. Almost as many as the 72 days of mourning customarily set aside for the Pharaoh. Jacob receives a quasi-royal treatment. The mourning period was characterized by official public observances.” – Gunther Plaut, Torah: A Modern Commentary

Commentary #3: “‘The Egyptians bewailed him,’ not only out of respect for Joseph and because of his decree of public mourning, but also because he was revered for his name Yisrael and what this name stood for. He deserved the same respect as royalty.” – Sforno

Follow-Up Questions: Klingbeil notes the social value of communal mourning according to ancient Egyptian custom. Plaut differentiates two different stages of public mourning, noting that both are essential. Sforno points out that the amount of time the Egyptians mourn for Jacob is directly related to the way they value him.

When we experience communal tragedy – such as the Mother Emanuel incident or other mass shootings, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters – does a 70-day mourning period of sorts make sense? Should it depend on “how tragic” the loss is to the community? How would we determine that? As we look back on 2015, which was filled with tragedies, what work do we need to do as a community to work through our emotions and build better societies?

Emanu-El Happenings: I wish to congratulate everyone who participated in our Night of Giving at Publix, which took place on the last night of Hanukkah. A total of 1,572 pounds of food were donated to Charleston’s Kosher Food Pantry, which will provide bags of food for 105 families in need. Yasher Koach!

The Big Inning at the End: All I can say is that the weather in much of the United States right now is ideal for baseball. If only …

Shabbat Shalom!