Speaking Bad

Our religious laws instruct us not to speak bad things about the dead at a funeral. Rabbis, in the eulogies which they offer in memory of the recently deceased as the body is lowered into the grave at the cemetery, must find whatever kind words are possible to describe the life of the deceased.

“He never beat his mother. He never stole from his father. He never cheated his customers. He always fed crumbs to the pigeons in the park”. Only words praising the deceased person are permitted.

I bear that religious advice in mind.. And therefore, I will speak bad only while the person is alive. Upon the death I will remain somewhat silent, keeping the bad thoughts glued tightly under my tongue.

This religious law amazes me. Some years ago I was at the funeral of a man who had been known as a wife-beater, a liar, a fraud, a man who cheated on his wife, beat his children, deserted his family for five years and then returned and harmed them again. He was a man well-known to the police.

Why did I go to his funeral? Only because the rabbi who was officiating at the burial was uncertain if there would be a minyan or if anyone would recite the burial kaddish. He asked me to go with him in the name of a mitzvah.

At the cemetery there were twelve people… with me, ten men and two women. When the body was lowered into the grave the rabbi made a few brief remarks in describing the deceased.

“He was an obedient child and he respected his father and mother. He often took care of a younger sick brother who died when he was only fourteen years old. During the week of shiva, he went to the synagogue to recite prayers in his brother’s memory. Years later after his father died he provided for the care of his elderly mother. We don’t know what happened in his adult life. Perhaps he was influenced by bad friends . Perhaps he saw things he wanted but couldn’t buy and so he weakened to temptations. Perhaps he was unhappy in his marriage. But he was a Jew and while his father was alive he sat at the table with his family for the Pesach seder.”

It was not a brilliant eulogy, not outstanding oratory, but it was in accordance with our Jewish religious tradition to find kind words to recite at a funeral.

So what will the rabbi say when the prime-minister and son are carried to their final resting places? Will their good deeds in life outweigh the bad evil things they did and spoke?

One man betrayed his first two wives and divorced them. One man abandoned his first-born child. One man was over-powered by the “yetzer ha-ra”, the evil inclination that conquers the mind and soul.

But as the orthodox rabbis in his inner circle praise him in his life-time, so too will they praise him at his death.

Now there are many people, perhaps more than a million, who want to harm him. Not physically but emotionally and spiritually. Will they recall the good deeds he performed in the land of the living?

Will his enemies find a few good words in his praise? Will the peace that he has not lived to see be seen by other eyes, eyes in a body that can bend, that can reason, that can live with compromise?

Until our situation changes for the better, until the unemployed can find work, until the dreadful coronavirus diminishes and vanishes, until Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs look at one another, face to face, and each sees that the other also has two eyes, two ears, one nose and one mouth, two hands and two feet, and acknowledge that they are both the same, I am afraid that I will continue speaking not-so-nice words.

But on the other hand. I will show respect to the dead.

My Judaism teaches me that I do not always have to love my neighbor but I am obligated to always show humaneness and respect.

The sainted Chofetz Chayim taught his students: “If you have nothing good to say…. say nothing”.

That is the foundation stone of the Jewish Birthright.

About the Author
Esor Ben-Sorek is a retired professor of Hebrew, Biblical literature & history of Israel. Conversant in 8 languages: Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, German, Spanish, Polish & Dutch. Very proud of being an Israeli citizen. A follower of Trumpeldor & Jabotinsky & Begin.
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