I remember well one of my last conversations with Rabbi Louis Jacobs, it was around this time of the year. I was the Rabbi at St Albans and providing some extra cover at New London when there was a bereavement. I was asked to help and headed off to meet the family. They told stories of the close relationship between the deceased and the Synagogue’s founding Rabbi. I called Louis in search of something I could share at the eulogy. I meant personal insight. Louis, of blessed memory, thought I was looking for a word of Torah. ‘Acharei Mot Kedoshim Emor,’ he told me - ‘After death speak of holiness.’ It’s a particularly Rabbinic kind of joke. Acharei Mot, Kedoshim and Emor are the names of the three Sidrot we read this week and next. But the idea is wonderful. After loss it’s good to speak of the holy things in life - relationships that transcend the transactional, acts of charity, kindness and bravery and commitment to a life of faith and engagement in religious observance.
It’s been advice I’ve endeavoured to follow since. And, indeed, at a eulogy I delivered after Louis’ death - less than two months later, I concluded with words from his own work on Jewish Law, Tree of Life.
The correct Jewish response to suffering seems to be expressed in the rule that when a mourner rends his garment in grief at the death of a near relative, he should do so while standing, not while sitting. As Dr Hertz puts it, ‘According to ancient Jewish custom, the ceremony of rending our garments when our nearest and dearest on earth is lying dead before us, is to be performed standing up. This teaches, meet all sorrow standing upright. The future may be dark veiled through the eyes of mortals … but hard as life’s terms may be life never dictates unrighteousness, unholiness, dishonour’ [end quote, and here he adds his own comment]. If this interpretation is considered too homeletical, the rule about standing upright might have been intended to denote a rising to the tragic occasion.
After death we should speak of holiness - standing up!
Let me also offer a warm encouragement for anyone who has not yet signed up to the Shabbat Dinner on 5th May to do so - you can do that here.
And also mark your diaries for Shavuot - starting with a glorious highlight of the shul year Tikkun Leyl on Saturday night 19th May, and continuing through Saturday and Sunday.