A young girl clutches a friend during candlelight vigil for victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Feb. 15, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Mark Wilson-Getty Images)
A young girl clutches a friend during candlelight vigil for victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Feb. 15, 2018. (Photo/JTA-Mark Wilson-Getty Images)

Are there wrong ways to comfort a mourner? Yes

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11

Camp Chelm summer was in full swing. Chelmite teens were swimming, hiking, singing and dancing.

There were a number of Chelmite discussion groups such as one asking, “Which is greater, the sun or the moon?” (The moon, of course, as it provides moonlight, whereas the sun comes out in the day when it is already light.) Another debated where to look for a lost object: in the messy cabin where it was left or the clean plaza? (Certainly the plaza is where you’d rather look.)

One particular camper had arrived after opening day and the Rabbi of Chelm saw her sitting alone on a bench beneath an oak tree. Eager to get out of the sun, last summer’s sunburn still a fresh memory, the rabbi also sat on the bench.

“Hello there,” said the Rabbi of Chelm, “I’m the Rabbi of…”

“Chelm. It’s on your name tag next to your pronouns.”

“Of course. What is your name and why are you here all by yourself?”

“I was by myself. Now you’re here. And my name is Robbie.”

The rabbi decided to let the silence sit with them for a while, then asked, “What’s bothering you?”

“I arrived at camp after a funeral back home and then the camp announced a fast.”

“I see. You came last Wednesday and then Thursday was Tisha B’Av… wait, what funeral?”

“My friend’s grandfather, and he wasn’t that old. I wanted to stay longer with my friend but my family insisted that I would feel better at camp. I don’t. They said, ‘At least he is out of his misery. Go to camp. Keep busy and you’ll feel better. Tell your friend that she’ll feel better soon.’ She isn’t feeling better.”

“That’s terrible.”

“And the people around my friend were really weird and said weird things like, ‘At least he’s not suffering. He went fast. You’ll get over it. Get on with your life. There’s a reason for everything. He’s in a better place.’ Not helpful. But I didn’t know what to do. I can’t wait to go back and be a friend, but I don’t know what to do. And why did we skip meals on Thursday?”

The Rabbi of Chelm took a moment to take in a teen dump of feelings and questions. “In the Jewish spiritual calendar, Tisha B’Av, the ninth of this Hebrew month, fell just yesterday. It is a meditation on the destruction of both the First Temple and Second Temples.”

“I really can’t deal with more mourning.”

“Neither can we as a people. This Shabbat is Nachamu, the ‘Sabbath of Comforting.’ It takes its name from the haftarah from Isaiah 40:1-26 that speaks of ‘comforting’ the Jewish people for their suffering. It the first of seven haftarot of consolation after Tisha B’Av, leading up to Rosh Hashanah. It begins with the verse: ‘Nachamu, nachmu ami, Comfort, oh comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.’ You asked what you can do to be of comfort to your friend. You know what not to say. Here’s what I learned from Ron Wolfson’s ‘A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort’:

“‘You can offer your own Nachamu, nachmu, comfort and comfort by offering a comforting hand or gentle hug. If you are not certain what to say, simply be present and silent. Listen attentively to your friend, no matter what she is saying.’”

Robbie looked at the rabbi, “What should I say?”

“Speak tenderly: ‘I am so sorry for your loss. Tell me about your grandfather’ and ‘Know that I care’ and ‘I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.’”

“You know a lot about this. You learned this is in rabbi school?”

“I learned this, like you, from wise friends when I suffer losses.”

“Your grandparents?”

“Grandparents, parents, cousins and friends.”

“You’ve lost friends?”

“Yes, I even lost a friend this year.”

“Do the words you know comfort you?”

The Rabbi of Chelm paused. “No.”

“Why can’t you make yourself feel better?”

“There is a favorite teaching from the Talmud, loved by my teacher Rabbi Eugene Mihaly, not from Chelm, but a similar place. It’s from Talmud Bavli Berakhot 5b:

Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba had fallen ill. His teacher Rabbi Yochanan visited him, and said to him… ‘Give me your hand.’ Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yochanan stood him up and restored him to health.

Later, Rabbi Yochanan fell ill. Rabbi Chanina entered to visit him, and said to him… ‘Give me your hand.’ He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Chanina stood him up and restored Rabbi Yochanan to health.”

“Why didn’t Rabbi Yochanan heal himself?”

“Aha, the Gemara asks the same question! ‘Why did Rabbi Yochanan wait for Rabbi Chanina to restore him to health? If he was able to heal his student, let Rabbi Yochanan stand himself up.’ The Gemara answers with a folk saying. They say: A prisoner cannot free himself.”

Robbie let the silence fall. She looked at the Rabbi of Chelm and said, “I am so sorry for your loss. Tell me about your friend.”

And the rabbi did.

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan
Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan

Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan lives and works in Berkeley, California. He can be reached at [email protected].