Beginning at the bottom of Kesubos 71b, the Gemara states:
IF A MAN FORBADE HIS WIFE BY VOW etc. One can well understand that in respect [of her prohibition to enter] A HOUSE OF FEASTING the reason, HE HAS CLOSED [PEOPLE’S DOORS] AGAINST HER, is applicable; what [point, however,] is there [in the reason,] HE HAS CLOSED [PEOPLE’S DOORS] AGAINST HER, in the case of A HOUSE OF MOURNING? — A Tanna taught: To-morrow she might die and no creature would mourn for her. Others read: And no creature would bury her.
Summary: The Mishnah says that if a husband makes a vow prohibiting his wife from either attending parties or houses of mourning, this would be grounds to compel him to grant her a divorce due to the detriment that this causes her.
The Gemara asks: while we can readily understand how prohibiting her from parties (e.g. family celebrations, etc.) would pose an unbearable hardship on her, why is prohibiting her from houses of mourning such a big deal?
The Gemara answers: by not visiting other people who are mourning, people wouldn’t feel so obliged to mourn for her at her passing.
The Gemara seems difficult to understand, for, presumably, the hardship in being unable to attend celebrations is not about missing a good meal, rather, it is the fact of being left out when friends and family are celebrating a momentous occasion. This, then, should be equally true of the inability to console family or friends who are mourning.
This is a crucial period when she has an important role as a relative or friend to console this bereaved person. And she was held back from fulfilling this role by her husband. Hasn’t he caused an equally difficult situation for her by pronouncing this neder? Why then does the Gemara need to find a new reason to explain why the husband’s action here is completely reprehensible?
Before we try to answer this question, let’s ask another on the following passage in the Gemara there:
It was taught: R. Meir used to say: What is meant by the Scriptural text, it is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting. for that is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to his heart, what, [I say, is meant by] And the living will lay it to his heart? The matters relating to death. [Let him realize] that if a man mourns for other people others will also mourn for him; if he buries other people others will also bury him; if he lifts up [his voice to lament] for others, others will [lift up their voices to lament] for him; if he escorts others [to the grave] others will also escort him; if he carries others [to their last resting place] others will also carry him.
Summary: The passuk in Mishlei, according to R’ Meir’s interpretation, exhorts us to properly pay respects at houses of mourning, for in return, people will pay proper respects to him upon his own death.
According to this Gemara, the kindness of paying proper respects to the dead is part of a process that is reciprocal in a very real way. If you give honor to the dead, than you will be honored when it is your time. Plain and simple.
But where else does the Torah discuss caring for the dead? This mitzvah is also discussed in the context of a concept called Chessed Shel Emmes, or a True Act of Kindness, which is defined as an act of kindness for which the doer can expect nothing (in this world anyway) in return. The altruism of the act elevates it to a whole different level of chessed. What is the quintessential case that is brought? Caring for the dead (who aren’t alive, of course, to return the favor)! How could honoring the dead be considered a Chessed Shel Emmes, though, if our Gemara taught us that one who does this mitzvah will receive the same honor in return?
I believe the answer to both questions lies in one fundamental truth, and that is: the reality of our own eventual but inevitable death is something that we do not believe. We might pay intellectual lip service to the fact of our mortality. But believing on the emotional level that one day we will really pass from this earth is something we are barely capable of.
To explain how our emotions deal with our observing that indeed people seem to die at some point, the Chofetz Chaim quipped, that we say to ourselves: “Oh them? They are from that other society of people who die!”
It is thus clear why the Gemara doesn’t consider a person’s inability to attend to mourners–even for loved ones–such a hardship. For being with mourners reminds a person of his own mortality, and therefore the natural instinct is to avoid anything of this nature. So in a sense the husband’s neder didn’t bring her hardship; it brought her relief from having to face her mortality.
And in light of this, there is no more need to question this mitzvah’s distinction as the quintessential Chessed Shel Emmes. For even if we posses the intellectual knowledge that by caring for the dead we will be taken care of when it is our time, this means nothing to us on the emotional level; we don’t really believe that there will come a day when we will be in need of mourners or pallbearers. That’s why doing this mitzvah is defined as being utterly selfless.
With all this talk about death and mortality, I’m not trying to make you feel depressed. Rather I think we should walk away with at least these two practical lessons from what the Gemara has taught us:
- We have a natural tendency to avoid situations that remind us of our mortality. Don’t let this get in the way of performing extremely important acts of kindnesses like visiting the terminally ill, or attending a funeral.
- On the rare occasion that we experience something that reminds us that mortal life doesn’t go on forever, use this as a tool to appreciate the preciousness of life. And if we take that moment and do something worthy with it, we have just added a new level of bliss to a life in the World to Come, which is a life that will last forever.