If you have ever come away from a funeral service and thought to yourself, “Who was the rabbi talking about?” you might have some appreciation of the challenge facing a rabbi when he is called upon to deliver a eulogy. How is one to recall the departed to his or her family, friends, and congregation in a way that is sensitive, comforting, compassionate, and yet honest? In other words, how does one capture the full humanity of the departed? And should he?
Certainly, when the departed lived a life of accomplishment and generosity, the task is easier. But not everyone’s life is a long list of accolades. What of the person whose life was a bit… more varied? How does a rabbi meet the needs and expectations of the family and community while still being true to the essence of the deceased?
It’s no wonder rabbis are often anxious standing before a funeral chapel filled with people each wondering how the rabbi will “handle this one.”
I recently queried my colleagues on our Google rabbinic discussion group about their honest reflections on delivering hespedim (eulogies), asking how they balance what family and community expect and the “truth” of the deceased life.
“A most uncomfortable tight spot to be in.”
“Almost everyone has something good to speak about.”
“I always find something to praise,” one colleague wrote, adding that he would also note that the individual “wasn’t perfect.”
Wasn’t perfect. Complicated. Strong personality. These euphemisms wink and nod to a more challenging person, and more difficult eulogy. One rabbi on the group noted how grateful he was not to have been called upon to speak at the funeral of a man who’d stabbed his wife after having been married to her for fifty years.
What congregational rabbi doesn’t have a hesped story? One colleague related how, early in his rabbinic career, he had spoken of how lovingly the husband had looked after his dying wife, producing unexpected snickers in the audience. Following the service, the rabbi was confronted by one of the shul “machers” who expressed astonishment that the rabbi was not aware that the husband had been having an affair at that same time.
One thoughtful colleague suggested that if the rabbi was unable to say anything positive, he should, “respectfully urge the family to find another to speak in his stead.” Which is definitely fair advice. It’s just not always an option given the practical and communal pressures weighing on a congregational rabbi.
It is a problem, but certainly not a new one.
More than 100 years ago, R’ Chaim Zvi Margolies from New York sent a letter to my grandfather, HaGaon Rav Bezalel Zev Shafran, zt”l (recorded in Responsa 135 of section Yoreh Deah of the She’elot U’teshuvot R’baz), urging him to publicly protest against maspidim (eulogizers) who are marbim l’saper b’shvachav shel ha’niftar – those who exaggerate the positive qualities of the deceased and inevitably allow lies to emerge from their mouths, saying things that are simply not true. R’ Margolies fortified his argument by pointing out that Torah warns against any sort of lying, teaching midvar sheker tirchak – distance yourself from falsehood” (Shemot 23:7).
My grandfather’s response speaks directly to my query to my colleagues. The Talmud says, “Just as punishment is exacted from the deceased, so is punishment exacted from the maspidim” (Berakhot 62a). In quoting this passage, he references the Maharsha’s explanation that just as the deceased is punished for the mitzvot that he or she failed to perform, so too are the eulogizers punished for uttering untrue words of praise about the deceased.
In furthering the point, my grandfather turns to our father Yaakov, paradigm of truth, who realized that when he passed on his sons would certainly eulogize him and “praise, exalt, and acclaim his deeds.” While this would be well-deserved, Yaakov was fearful lest they say of him good things that were not true. Yaakov –a tzaddik tamim (wholesome righteous man) – was afraid that he could well have been sullied by sin during the years of his tumultuous life. He thus feared that his children would say undeserved good things at his bier and, as a result, he would be punished on high, for “just as the deceased are punished, so are the eulogizers.”
Therefore, on his deathbed, he was very clear to Yosef: “V’asisa imadi chesed v’emes” – deal with me kindly and truthfully. Knowing that his sons would raise their voices with cries and lamentations over his passing, Yaakov asked, “Please let no false praises be heard from your mouth. Speak only truth.”
Truth, Yaakov instructs Yosef, is the guiding principle.
Chesed v’emes, kindness and truth. In these two words, my grandfather discerns the directive to rabbis preparing a eulogy. Chesed encompasses all aspects of dealing with the deceased, from the moment of death until internment. But chesed is but one criterion. When it comes to the hesped, it is not just kindness that must apply but emes, truth, as well.
False words and praises are a disservice to the dead and the living.
R’ Margolies’s original letter to my grandfather is not recorded. Rather, it exists only in my grandfather’s acknowledgement of having received the request. In his response, my grandfather’s judgment was to the point: eulogizing untruthfully should not be done. What is not clear is whether or not he made a public statement (beyond this short teshuva) as the original letter requested.
If he chose not to speak out beyond his written answer, it was most likely in deference to the moral and ethical dilemmas rabbis often face in preparing eulogies. The balance between being truthful and honoring a life without defamation or embarrassment is sometimes a challenging one to strike. It was then. It is now.
Funerals are powder kegs of raw and fraught emotions. They are like dry tinder. A rabbi’s misspoken word can bring about a conflagration.
Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 344:1) notes that when the eulogizer mentions the good attributes of the deceased, he is allowed to add “ketzas” (a little bit). It is, however, asur to speak of unpossessed attributes or to exaggerate his praises because whoever adds “is causing evil to himself and to the deceased.” The ketzas is permitted, the Bach explains, so that we do not unintentionally detract from the praise due him. Moreover, since it is impossible to know another person fully, it is fair to give a bit of extra praise as this likely represents the truth. Even more, the Taz explains, the extra little bit is plausible in that, given the chance, the departed might very well have acted in accordance with the exaggerated praise. This is particularly true for the righteous, who in their humility hide their true essence, adds the Birkei Yosef.
What are those of us who are tasked with this difficult assigment to derive from all this? First, that one is granted some leeway to add to the praises of the deceased – but only a little. This Shulchan Aruch passage and the amplifications of the Bach and Taz are most likely the basis on which rabbis are permitted to go “just a bit” beyond in praising the deceased, and the justification that allows each rabbi to determine what ketzas is for each deceased individual.
No teaching, no sermon is as fraught as a eulogy. Not only must the words spoken accomplish so much – from comforting mourners to conveying the worthiness of the deceased to telling the truth – but they are words that, if gotten wrong, cannot be taken back. It is possible to grow and change in one’s teaching. A sermon topic can be revisited. A eulogy, once given, remain as the final statement of the deceased for good and for bad.
Is it any wonder, then, that those who request that no eulogies be delivered after their passing are looked upon kindly? By making that choice, they may very well be doing their rabbi and themselves a great favor.