Responding to Tragedy

When, God forbid, a person hears of the death of a close relative or of anyone whose death causes him anguish he should say “Blessed are You God, Our God, King of the Universe, the True Judge.”[1]  In accordance with our belief that God is just and righteous, we accept upon ourselves His judgment; and even though the death causes us grief, we affirm our belief in God as the True Judge. The Talmud[2] points out that this affirmation of God in times of sorrow is alluded to in verses in the Bible:

The pains of death encircled me; the confines of the grave have found me; distress and grief I would find. Then I would invoke the name of God…[3]

God has given, and God has taken away, blessed be the name of God…[4]

It is not easy to say a blessing to God at a time of such sorrow and shock; however belief and trust in God are two of the most important factors in dealing with tragedy.  One who looks at events as happening at random, who does not believe in a Divine plan or in Divine providence, feels completely abandoned and vulnerable and will find it hard to cope with the loss. One who believes that the soul is now reunited with its Creator, who believes that death is not a random event, but part of a judgment and a plan, can take comfort in that knowledge.  A great scholar of last century explained that trust in God does not always mean that something good (by our definition) will happen, it means knowing that God is in control.

 Trust is the practical side of belief in God. It does not mean that a person should believe that everything will “turn out for the better” from his or her own limited perspective. Rather, the meaning of trust in God is that one should believe that no matter what happens it is ultimately in the hands of God.[5]

Judaism recognizes that the mourner needs to express his or her pain, grief and even anger.  So, in addition to the blessing affirming that God is the true Judge, when a close relative dies the mourner must also tear his garments; kriah in Hebrew. This very dramatic and symbolic act is performed only for the following immediate relatives: father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister and spouse.[6]   This practiced is mentioned in the Bible in many places[7] and the Talmud[8] cites Job as an example of one who tore his clothing upon hearing of tragic news.

It happened one day, when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the home of their eldest brother, that a messenger came to Job and said…. “…behold a great wind came from across the desert. It struck the four corners of the house, it collapsed upon the young people and killed them. Only I, by myself, escaped to tell you!”  Job stood up and ripped his shirt…[9]

Tearing one’s clothing symbolizes the annulment of one’s own dignity, the rejection of adornment and pleasure and negation of this worldly existence.  It is a recognition that the body, which is the clothing of the soul of the deceased, has been ripped from him, and that the deceased has been ripped from our midst.  It is an expression of grief and pain that should not be held within and must be expressed.


[1] Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 222:2; Mishnah Berurah ad loc. 3; Ibid., 223:2, Mishnah Berurah 8; The Complete Artscroll Siddur (Ashkenaz), pp. 230 – 231

[2] Talmud, Berachot 60b

[3] Psalms 116:3-4

[4] Job 1:21

[5] Rabbi Isaiah Karelitz, Chazon Ish, Belief and Trust, Chapter 1,

[6] Code of Jewish Law, Yoreh Deah 340:1

[7] For example – Genesis 36:29, 37:34; Samuel II, 13:31; Kings II, 6:30

[8] Talmud, Moed Katan 20b

[9] Job 1:13, 18, 19, 20

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