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Saying Goodbye – The Challenge of an Honest Eulogy

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, congregation in a way that is sensitive, comforting, compassionate and yet truly 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 every man’s life is a long list of accolades. What of the man 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 that 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 when it came to delivering hespedim (eulogies), asking how they balanced what family and community expect and the ‘truth’ of the deceased life.

“Really tough.”

“A most uncomfortable tight spot to be in.”

One colleague offered, “…almost everyone has something good to speak about…” Another, “I always find something to praise,” adding that he also noted that, “he wasn’t perfect.”

Wasn’t perfect. Complicated. Strong personality. These euphemisms wink and nod to a more challenging person, and 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 spoke of how lovingly the husband 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 he was not aware that the husband was having an affair at the 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 Sh’elot U’tshuvot R’baz) urging him to publicly protest against maspidim (eulogizers) who marbim l’saper b’shvachav shel ha’niftar, who exaggerate the positive qualities of the deceased and inevitably allow lies to emerge from their mouth, saying things that are simply not true. R’ Margolies fortified his argument by pointing out that Torah warns against any sort of lying, saying midvar sheket tirchak – distance yourself from falsehood.” (Shemot 23:7)

My grandfather’s response speaks directly to my query to my colleagues. The Talmud says (Berakhot 62a), “Just as punishment is exacted from the deceased, so is punishment exacted from the maspidim.” In quoting this passage, he references the Maharsha’s explanation that just as the deceased is punished for mitzvahs, he/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 deserved, Yaakov was fearful lest they say of him good things that were not true. Yaakov, b’chir sh’beavot – the choicest among the Avot, a tzadik tamim (a wholesome righteous man) – was afraid that he could well have been sullied by sin during the years of his tumultuous life. Therefore, he feared his children would say undeserved good things at his bier and, as a result, he would be punished on high – “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. Yaakov is clear. Knowing that his sons would raise their voices with cries and lamentations over him, he asked, be’vakasha mimecha, 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 or praise are a disservice to the dead and the living.

R’ Margolies 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 judgement was to the point. It should not be done. What is not clear is whether or not he made a public statement (beyond his 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, forbidden, 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 extra praise for 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 task to derive from all this? First, that one is granted some leeway (ketzas) to add to the praises of the deceased but only a little. The Shulchan Aruch passage and the amplifications of the Bach and Taz are most likely the basis by 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.

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.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, lecturer and author. He has devoted many years in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and as vice president of marketing and communications at OU Kosher. He resides in New York, while enjoying his long stays in Jerusalem. His highly acclaimed "Something Old, Something New - Pearls from the Torah" has been published by KTAV, July 2018.
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