Sunday, February 24, 2013

A father's words on his 17 year old daughter's 9th yahrzeit

This was sent to me to post as a result of a question as to whether I had seen any discussion of parents' mourning their children in the Torah literature. It was sent as "a testament to how a bereaved parent grieves and heals 9years out."
Guest post by Baruch C. Cohen, Esq.

On the 2nd day of Rosh Chodesh Adar, Monday, February 11, 2013 we will commemorate the 9th Yahrtzeit of our daughter Hindy. ... 9 years .....

Every Motzoi Shabbos we welcome in the new week, with the words of Havdallah: “Hinei Kel Yeshuasee Eftach Velo Efchad Ki Azi Vezimros Kah” - Behold! Hashem is my salvation. I shall trust and not fear, for Hashem is my might and my praise/song.  Ki Azi “Vezimros” Kah (Yeshayah 12:2).

The Hebrew word “Zimrah” has various meanings. It can mean song, from the word “Zemer;” it can also mean the most praiseworthy, as in Yaakov Avinu’s instruction to his sons “Kechu Mizimras Haaretz” take from that which is most praiseworthy (Bereishis 43:11); and it can also mean to prune as the Gemorah in Shabbos (73b) says: “Zomer Chayav Mishum Note'a” (pruning is Chayav because of planting). When one has a tree with an inferior branch that is drawing nourishment from the mother tree, thereby taking away nutrition from the good branches, the bad branch is pruned, cut away, for the sake of the others.

Tonight on the eve of my daughter 9th Yahrtzeit, all aspects of the word Zimrah are applicable. “Kechu Mizimras Haaretz” take from the best; that would be my daughter Hindy. She really was a great kid. She was from the best. Perhaps she was ... ‘plucked’ from us at a young age or “pruned” from our tree, so that she would be an atonement for others, and that is perhaps why were are able to sing about her life 9 years later, because in the depth of our souls we understand that she may have saved us.


The most emotionally wrenching episode in Parshas Vayishlach is the death of Rachel Imeinu during the birth of Binyamin. Recall, that on the way to Eretz Yisroel, Rachel Imeinu went into childbirth, and the midwife indicated that it was a son. Rachel Imeinu's labor was extremely difficult, and ultimately proved fatal. The Pasuk (35:18) records that in her last dying breath, Rachel Imeinu named her son "Ben Oni," but that "his father" (i.e., Yaakov Avniu) called him "Binyamin."

As Rachel Imeinu breathed her last breath on this world, knowing fully well that she was about to die, she named her son “Ben Oni” meaning the son of my pain. Obviously she went through great pain in order to bring him into the world. Yet Yaakov Avinu ignored her dying wish and called him “Binyomin” instead - son of my strength.

Why would Rachel Imeinu give such a depressing name to her son “Ben Oni” and how could Yaakov Avinu change it?

I gave a lot of thought to this brief exchange between Binyomin’s parents over his name that is wedged into the Posuk of Rochel Imeinu’s death, I reflected heavily on what exactly was Rachel’s pain, what was her dying message to her son, and what was Yaakov’s response, and who was right? I have concluded that this enigmatic Posuk contains powerful insights into pain, powerful lessons on how to grieve properly, and finally inspiring lessons on how to go forward in life after a tragedy.

But first, let us try to imagine the scene leading to the birth of this child as it unfolded, and the conversation that I suspect might have transpired between Yaacov Avinu and Rachel Imeinu. After being childless for so many years, Rachel Imeinu is finally blessed with her second son. After yearning and praying for decades, her prayers are at last answered. She is lying in bed. She is dying--and she knows it! She is about to be separated forever from the only man she ever loved--and she knows it! She will never reside in Eretz Yisroel--and she knows it! She will never be able to raise this 2nd child of hers--and she knows it! And she is consumed by pain! She looks at her newborn son, and while searching for the appropriate name for him, she is so overcome with pain and grief, that she chooses a name that embodies her emotions: “Ben Oni” - the child of my suffering.

In my research into this Posuk, I discovered two incredible insights that shed light into the private world of turmoil that Rachel Imeinu carried within her:

First, the Chasam Sofer: The reason Rachel Imeinu died when they came into Eretz Yisroel is that Yaakov Avinu and all the Avos kept all the Mitzvos while in Eretz Yisroel. Since he couldn't be married to two sisters, Rachel Imeinu being the second sister he married was doomed to death upon their return from Chutz La'Aretz into Eretz Yisroel. This all happened to Rachel Imeinu because of the strength and courage that she showed in helping her sister Leah marry Yaakov on what was to be her wedding night. Rachel Imeinu’s death was yet another painful chapter and yet another tragic consequence of her heroic and selfless act.  And hence, her intense pain culminating at that moment.

Second, from Rav Yaakov Meidan, the Rosh Yeshiva Har Etzion: In Parshas Vayeitze, Rachel Imeinu steals her father's Terafim (idols) (Bereishis 31:19) and she now believes that her death is a consequence of her sin. Hence, she names her son “Ben Oni” (literally, "the son of my sin"). In contrast, Yaakov Avinu understands his wife's death to be a result of his vow to Lavan that the one who took the Terafim will surely die. Therefore, he calls his son Binyamin (literally, "the son of the right [hand]" in the Torah, oaths are frequently represented by the right hand). In other words, instead of accusing each other and blaming each other, both Yaakov Avinu and Rachel Imeinu assumed responsibility and shouldered the blame for Rachel Imeinu’s death. Again, this was her internal pain.

But that addresses the agonizing pain as to why Rachel Imeinu named her son Ben Oni. This still begs the question even more! How could Yaakov Avinu deny his dying wife’s wish? This seems rather strange. What's wrong with the name “Ben Oni?” If this was Rachel’s last wish, shouldn't he have kept the name she so greatly desired? Why change it?

The Ramban points out that the word "Oni" really has two meanings.  It can indeed mean strength as in "Raiyshis Oni," or it can mean very deep sorrow and pain. On the day of someone's death, a close relative who must mourn for him is Halachically called an "Onein." The day of death is the most painful day in a person's life. Perhaps Rachel Imeinu called her son “Ben Oni” so that he would always remember the great pain she was willing to suffer in order to bring a son into this world. In fact, on the very day of his birth Binyomin was actually considered an Onein. By naming him “Ben Oni” he would always remember how much he meant to her. That she was willing to sacrifice her own life for him. He was to remember this lesson every day of his life. In fact he would be celebrating his birthday on the very day of her Yahrtzeit, on the day he had once been an Onein. Her subtle message to him may have been that he should always prove himself worthy so that she wouldn't have suffered in vain. Every day of his life he'd be reminded that his mother had given up her own life so that he could come into this world and would try to live up to her great expectations. Hence the name “Ben Oni.”

According to the Ramban, Yaakov Avinu may well have been worried that Binyomin may subconsciously blame himself, for his mother's death. After all, if not for him, she would still have lived. While it certainly wasn't his fault; it was his birth that was responsible for his mother's death. This very thought could haunt a very sensitive person for the rest of his life. To be reminded of this fact on a daily basis may be too much for him to bear. Every time someone would call him by his name “Ben Oni” it would somehow remind him of that tragedy that occurred on the day of his birth, and that his mother suffered and had died on his account. Yaakov Avinu probably felt that this was far too much for a person to bear, and so he decided to change his son’s name. Yet he didn't change it completely. He kept the first part of the name "Ben" and only changed the second part.

The Ramban suggests that Yaakov Avinu both wanted to honor Rachel Imeinu and sweeten her bitter words at the same time. The Ramban says that he changed the word “Oni” which can also mean strength to the word “Yemin” which also connotes strength or power, since it is the right hand which is the strong and powerful one.  In other words, Yaakov Avinu respected and honored Rachel Imeinu's choice of names, but disagreed with her about its meaning.

I understand this amazing Ramban as follows: At that agonizing moment, Rachel saw pessimism and finality, that her family would celebrate Binyamin's birth while they were sitting Shiva for her, that she would never know him, and he would never know her, making little orphan Binyamin into a tragic case. Nor was she wrong!

But at that same gut-wrenching moment, Yaakov Avinu instead saw optimism and possibility, strength and hope, in Binyamin. He refused to dwell on the past and only looked to Binyamin's future.

Binyomin’s birth was rooted in the tragedy of his mother's death, but also symbolizes a triumph of completion. The Shiftei-Kah - the twelve tribes became complete when Binyamin was born, the journey of Yaakov was completed. In the end, even the Bais Hamikdosh was to be built in the territory of Binyamin partly because of what Binyamin's birth represented.

Yaakov lived perhaps the hardest and most punishing life of all the Avos. Yet, when he looked down at his new baby boy - Binyamin - rather than succumbing to the tragedy and the realization of what he had lost, he instead focused on that which he had gained, a special son, a Ben Zekunim, a child of his old age, a memorial to Rachel Imeinu.

Yaakov Avinu was a relentless optimist. In each challenge that came his way, he found reason for hope and inspiration. When the rock covered the well, he did not dwell on how impossible it would be to move it, he just did what he had to do. When he was fooled into marrying Leah, he did not write sad poetry about it; he went back to work for Rachel Imeinu. When Lavan tried to cheat him, he did not play the victim, he just figured out a way to turn the tables. And when Rachel Imeinu died - tragically and suddenly - he found joy in his son and kept moving forward.

May we be like Yaakov Avinu, recognizing the good that we have and being irrepressibly optimistic about the future.

Bilah HaMoves Lanetzach, Umacha Hashem Elokim Dimah Meyal Kol Ponim - May He swallow up death forever; may Hashem wipe away tears from every face (Isaiah 25:8) T'hei Nishmasa Tzrurah B'tzror Ha'chaim.

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