Chayyei Sarah
A hesped at the appropriate time
by Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen

Avraham came to eulogise Sarah and weep for her (Genesis 23:2). Rabbinic law counsels us, however, not to offer comfort at a time 'when a person's dead lies before him,' when the raw emotions render the mourners incapable of benefiting from the proffered comfort. The fact that Abraham's dead remained 'before him' for a lengthy period is, indeed, specifically emphasised by the three-times repetition of the words me'al p'nei ('from before') or milfanai ('before me') (See vv.3, 4, 8) in relation to the dead.

But that rabbinic law begs the question of why we actually do deliver a hesped in the hall while the dead is still 'before us!' One answer is that the rabbinic advice was meant to be applied literally, to the moments immediately following the demise. Secondly, in the Talmudic discussion of whether the hesped is intended 'to honour the dead or the surviving family,' the prevailing view is that its purpose is the former. Thus it is not meant as expression of comfort, but exclusively as a tribute to the life of the departed. The comfort is reserved for when we return from the interment and recite Ha-makom yenacheim.

Avraham was, in any case, uniquely both the mourner and the self-comforter. He drew comfort from all that Sarah had achieved in life. He possessed the composure to give a hesped at that moment.

(Published (2007) in Newssheet of HGS Synagogue, London)