Rav Shteinman’s No Eulogy Request
Why I think it’s a good practice to emulate.
I’ve been to many (too many) funerals and shivas recently. I’ve also been reading about the last requests of the leader of our generation, Rabbi Shteinman. After listening to many eulogies I have my own imperfect understanding of why the great rabbi may have requested that none be said for him. And why, perhaps, it’s a good practice to emulate.
We begin with humility. A person who knows that all his good is a gift from the Almighty doesn’t want lavish praises sung for him upon his death. He doesn’t want to be held up as someone he wasn’t. He doesn’t want to confuse or delude others about his accomplishments, real or illusory. He doesn’t want anyone to get the mistaken impression that it was up to him and not the Creator, that it was his actions and not the Almighty’s kindness that made him who he was. That is a very lofty and pure motivation. We can only aspire…
But it seems to me there are other reasons as well. In the laws prohibiting gossip, there is something called “avak lashon hara”, the dust of derogatory speech. This refers to comments that, while not negative in and of themselves, may lead to a negative conversation. These comments may in fact be very positive, too positive. My husband was once at a funeral where a man was exalted by the rabbi. His son later approached my husband to dispute the rabbi’s account and referred to his father in vulgar, derogatory terms. They clearly had a challenged relationship but I think his comments were spurred by the disconnect between the rabbi’s words and his reality.
We need to be very careful about what we say. Unfortunately that was not a one-time unique experience. We were together at a funeral for someone who died tragically young. The eulogies praised her in terms more suited to someone who has lived a long, full life and had the chance to face its challenges and grow into who she was. For someone who had unfortunately missed this opportunity, the words rang hollow. What a sad and unnecessary aftermath of a funeral if the attendees end up discussing their friend or loved one in less than flattering terms.
Since many of us don’t have a personal rabbi who knows us intimately, the words of the officiating rabbi can often ring hollow. They don’t give us an accurate depiction of who this person was. It’s not that they’re insincere (I’m not casting aspersions on his motivation), it’s just that, lacking real knowledge, they leave us with a false picture, either a Disneyfied picture of the most righteous person ever (she was just like Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah) or an inappropriate picture that reflects his or her challenges (he loved his scotch). I’ve heard both and I think that silence would have been preferred.
After Sarah dies, when Abraham goes to eulogize and bury her, there is a letter in the Hebrew word for weep that is reduced in size. The commentaries reflect that this teaches us that our grief is mostly a private activity. Mourning shouldn’t be a public spectacle.
Yes, we all gather to mourn together but we could stick to the Psalms and the words of the service and leave the commentary for the shiva where there is an opportunity to hear about the person who passed away, to hear true stories from those who loved them and shared their life. I frequently leave a funeral disheartened and a shiva uplifted. I almost always wish I had gotten to know the subject of our mourning better.
Large public funerals put the mourners on display, pressure them to say just the right thing, to demonstrate their grief in just the right socially acceptable way. But in their home, at the shiva, they are free to be themselves, to talk about their loved one, to laugh to cry, to share.
I can’t presume to know Rav Shteinman’s motivation for specifying no eulogies but, based on my personal experiences, it unsurprisingly showed yet another dimension to his great wisdom, and yet another area where we could all learn, grow and be elevated.