The loss of a loved one can never be grasped. What is the right way to handle grief over the death of a son, a death so sudden and shocking? The Avner Institute presents the Rebbe’s comforting words and the real meaning of the word teshuva, return, where the soul is reunited with its true Source above and forever bound with family below.
In this letter the Rebbe wisely shows sensitivity by offering condolences first, then explaining the nature of the soul after it has completed its mission on earth.
Dedicated in memory of loving memory of Hadassah Lebovic A”h
By the Grace of G-d
1st Day of Chanukah, 5730
I was saddened to hear of the passing of your mother, a”h.
I extend to you and to all the bereaved family my sincere sympathy and the traditional blessing of condolence –
Hamokom yenachem es’chem b’soch sh’ar aveilei Tzion v’Yrushalayim
[May G-d comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.]
May you not know of any sorrow in the future, but only goodness and benevolence be with you always.
P.S. On the basis of our personal acquaintance, and what I have heard about you from mutual friends, I take the liberty of suggesting to you that in addition to Kaddish at the daily prayers, followed by Kaddish d’Rabonon after Mishnayos, as is customary, you also include a practical halocha, such as from the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch [Abridged Code of Jewish Law]. This is of special importance in our day and age, and it has many worthwhile implications. Above all, it is a zechus horabim [manifold merit], coupled with a special zechus for the soul of the departed. Also, furthering adherence to the Will of G-d, especially by a person of influence, gives practical expression to yisgadal v’yiskadash shmei rabbo.
I also wish to make a further point – in light of Chassidus – which gives a new insight into the concept of teshuvah.
Teshuvah as interpreted in Chasidus does not mean “repentance” (which is only one aspect of it), but, as the word indicates, a return of the soul to its source and root. The “return” referred to here is not the return of the soul to its Maker at the end of the allotted years on earth, but its return to its true essence. As explained by the Alter Rebbe in his Tanya, ch. 31, this is achieved when the Jew is engaged in Torah and mitzvoth, especially when it is permeated with inner joy and inspiration. For at that time, too, the soul “departs from the body,” in the sense that it abandons the bodily needs, inclinations and lusts. Moreover, at such time the soul actually involves the body in the spiritual exercise, inducing it too, to obey the Will of G-d, the Source of the soul and of all existence, so that not only the soul returns to its source, but it also takes the physical body along with it.
The above provides an insight into what seems to be a somewhat incongruous observation by the Rambam, namely, that the period of mourning observed by a bereaved family has to do with teshuvah, as it is written, “But the living shall take it to heart.” One would expect that the first natural reaction of a person sustaining such a loss would be that of resentment and complaint. However, in light of what has been said above, it is understandable why, on deeper reflection, the shock of seeing a dear soul depart this life should induce teshuvah. For this is a fitting time to reflect upon the opportunities which have been given to the soul to “return” to its Source while it is here on earth, housed in its body, and in this experience of teshuvah to live a meaningful and happy life to a ripe old age.
I trust there is no need for further elaboration on the above to you.
A word of explanation. This entire piece has been written as a P.S. and on a separate sheet, not because it is of lesser importance than the letter preceding it. On the contrary. However, our Sages wisely reminded us that allowances should be made for a person in distress. The thought might just occur that – here comes a man, who is not a relative, and wishes to take advantage of a profound and unhappy experience in order to advance his ideals. For this reason this part of the letter has been separated from the first.
But in truth the two parts are not really separate but intimately connected. Besides, and this is the main point, these ideals are not only mine, but also yours. To quote the Alter Rebbe again, “A Jew neither desires nor is capable of being separated from G-dliness.” Only circumstances sometimes obscure the truth. I believe with complete faith that this is the way to gratify the soul which is in the World of Truth, and I venture to say that you also share this belief.
May G-d grant that henceforth you will actualize the above by the stimulus of happy occasions, in accordance with the contents of the said chapter in Tanya, through the study of the Torah, Toras Emes, the kind of study that leads to action, the fulfillment of the mitzvoth in the daily life. And may you together with your wife bring up your children in this spirit. I refer not only to your natural children but also to your “children” figuratively speaking, namely, these who look up to you as teacher and mentor, as our Sages interpret the words, “And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children” – “thy students.”
Here, in a sudden loss, the Rebbe again takes special pains to comfort the bereaved – by assuring them of the soul’s permanence and instructing them on the way to elevate the soul – by turning a tragedy into a mitzvah.
By the Grace of G-d
12 Elul, 5730
Mr. and Mrs. —–
I have just received the shocking news of the passing of your son, m.h.s.r.i.p. I extend to you and to all the bereaved family the traditional and meaningful expression of condolence –
Hamakom yenachem es’chem b’soch sh’ar aveilei Tzion vi’Yerushalayim.
Our Sages of blessed memory have already remarked about the difficulty of comforting a person in the hour of his sorrow. Nevertheless a few words are called for.
No human being can, of course, understand the ways of G-d, since it is beyond the capacity of a created being to understand the Creator. Knowing your family and background, it is surely unnecessary to dwell on this at length.
On the other hand, G-d has revealed certain insights into His Providence. On the basis of what is explained in our Torah, called Toras Emet and at the same time Toras Chayim, because it is our guide in life on this earth, the following points should be borne in mind:
A fatal accident and the like can only affect the union of the soul with the body, and the body, but not the soul, which is eternal.
The attachment, affection and closeness which one person feels towards another are not created by, nor directed to, the physical aspects of the body or the body itself, for these are only the tangible media through which one soul can come into contact with another in this terrestrial life. The essential thing of a person is his soul and spiritual attributes, which, as above, is eternal.
From this it follows immediately that the change brought about by death is only in regard to the ways and means of maintaining the attachment with the dear soul but in no way affects the relationship, except that the dear departed is now in the World of Truth, in a spiritual state, free from the physical and material limitations and handicaps. In other words, while previously, in this world, perception was by means of the physical senses of sight, hearing, etc. it is now aware of those left behind in this world in a more direct way, without the physical aids.
Consequently, every good deed which is done for the zechus of the departed is a source of both gratification and elevation to the dear soul.
In this connection, and since your son’s intention was to learn in a yeshivah, I would particularly suggest that you take upon yourselves the upkeep of a yeshivah bachur, so that he can learn G-d’s Torah without distraction.
May G-d, the Comforter of Zion, and Builder of Jerusalem, truly comfort you as He will truly comfort the Mourners for Zion and Jerusalem, and make up to you with an extra measure of true Yiddish nachas [joy] from your children and grandchildren. On your part, you will surely strengthen your bitachon [trust] in G-d and adherence to His Will in the daily life.
Especially as we are now in the month of Mercy, the significance of which has been emphasized by the Alter Rebbe, author of the Tanya and Shulchan Aruch, by means of an illustration: When a king is on his way to his capital and palace, the people come out to greet him outside the city. There, in the field, everyone has an opportunity to greet the king personally and present a petition to him, and the king is gracious and fulfills everyone’s request. Such is the month of Elul when G-d, the King of Kings, is, as it were, in the field, very accessible and very gracious.
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