Stories of Child Loss in Jewish Writing

Parents Mourning Children in Torah and Tanach

When my adult child died suddenly, everything seemed upside down. I was confused, agitated, unable to focus on anything for more than five minutes. Time seemed as if it was running backwards. Children are supposed to bury their parents, not the other way around. Intellectually, I knew that I wasn’t the first person to experience child loss, but emotionally it felt that way. 

Sometime later, I began to think about great people in Jewish history who suffered from losing a child. Many narratives in the the Torah and Tanach discuss parents struggling with the sudden death of a child. How did they react to their loss? What can we learn from them to help us cope with our own grief?

The people in these stories were living examples of how to intellectually cope with losing a child while at the same time acknowledging that as humans, we still need to cry. They understood that G-d has a plan. Everything He does is for the good even if it doesn’t seem that way. However, they were still human and struggled with grief. 

Sudden Death of Children in the Torah

Stories of child loss are many in Jewish history

The Patriarch Jacob Lost his Son for Twenty-Two Years

Of the twelve sons of our forefather Jacob, Joseph was his favorite. Jacob shared Torah insights with Joseph and learned with him constantly. Joseph was smart, handsome, and honored his father greatly. When Jacob’s other sons told him Joseph had been killed by a wild animal, the Torah states

“All his sons and daughters tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted.” Jacob said “I will go to the grave mourning for my son”. (Vayeishev, 37:35) 

The commentators on this passage say that somehow, Jacob had a feeling Joseph was still alive and that’s why he could not put Joseph out of his mind and continued to mourn for him. When Jacob was told he had to send Joseph’s only brother, Benjamin, to Egypt to get food because of the famine, he was terrified that something would happen to him as well. Jacob already lost Joseph. He did not want to lose his youngest son, Benjamin. When Jacob realized he had no choice but to send Benjamin, he declared

“…as for me, I have been bereaved, so I am bereaved.”  (Mikeitz, 43:14)

Jacob is saying everything is in G-d’s hands. Whatever may happen, G-d is in charge. It was twenty two years before Jacob would see his dear son Joseph again.

The Death of Aaron’s Two Sons, Nadav and Avihu

Nadav and Avihu were the elder sons of Aaron the high priest. They were learned in Torah, handsome, eligible bachelors. One of them would have eventually succeeded Aaron as high priest. When the Jewish people traveled in the desert, the people built the Mishkan, a sanctuary which served as the focal point of prayer. On the joyous day of the Mishkan’s dedication, Nadav and Avihu died suddenly and simultaneously because they 

“…brought before G-d an alien fire that He had not commanded. A fire came forth from G-d consuming them, and they died before G-d.” (Vayikra 10:1-2) 

Nadav and Avihu loved spirituality and connection with G-d so much that this connection took their lives. Moses said to Aaron:

“…I will be sanctified through those who are close to me…And Aaron was silent” (Vayikra 10:3) 

Torah commentators Ramban (1194-1270) and Sforno (1470-1550) learn from this passage that Aaron had been crying profusely but was comforted when Moses told him that they were beloved by G-d.

Sudden Death of Children in Tanach

paper dolls, missing child

Whether losing a child as an infant or adult, we will always feel that empty space in our lives.

A Unique Insight on Infant and Adult Child Loss from King David

Jewish writing talks extensively about King David. King David (907-837 BCE) reigned for forty years and was the greatest king of Israel. He unified the country, acquired the materials and plans with which to build the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and compiled the book of Psalms. David’s relationship with Batsheva initially produced an infant son who the prophet Nathan said would surely die. As the child lay ill, David prayed, cried, fasted, and slept on the ground hoping that G-d would relent and let the child live. It was not to be. Seven days from birth, the child passed away. David then arose from the ground, washed himself, and ate food. His servants were confused. They said to King David, when the child was still alive you wept and fasted. Now the child is dead you wash and eat? David responded:

“…When the child was alive I fasted and wept…maybe G-d will be kind to me and he will live. Now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back? I shall go to him but he will not come to me.”  (Samuel II, 12:22-23)

King David’s behavior over the death of his infant son is in stark contrast to his reaction to the death of his adult son Avshalom. Avshalom was handsome, charismatic, and beloved by his father David. However, Avshalom chose to rebel against his father and proclaim himself king, seeking David’s life in the process. Upon hearing the news that Avshalom was killed by David’s soldiers, the narrative says

“…the king trembled…and wept…and he said ‘my son Avshalom, my son, my son Avshalom, I would have died instead of you!’…Behold, the king is crying and grieving over Avshalom…” (Samuel II, 19:1-2)

King David’s grief over the death of his adult son was clearly greater than over the death of his infant child. As I stated in my post How I’m Coping with the Loss of My Adult Child, losing an adult child is a unique kind of loss, one that King David keenly felt.

The Sages of the Talmud Struggled with the Sudden Loss of a Child 

Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai Grieving over His Son

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai lived during the first century CE. He was a leader of the Jewish community and was successful in establishing a Torah academy in Yavneh after the destruction of the second Temple. When his son died, his students came to console him. 

Rabbi Eliezer said to him: Adam, the first man, had a son who died and he accepted comfort. How do we know he was comforted? For it says in Bereishis 4:25, …and Adam knew his wife again. So you too, should accept comfort. Rabbi Yochanan replied: Is it not enough that I have my own pain but that you need to remind me of Adam’s pain as well?

Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Iyov had sons and daughters, and they all died on the same day, and he accepted comfort. You should accept comfort as well. And how do we know that Iyov accepted comfort? For it says Iyov 1:21 G-d has given, and G-d has taken away. Blessed is the name of G-d. Rabbi Yochanan replied: Is it not enough that I have my own pain but that you have to remind me of Iyov’s pain as well?

Rabbi Yosei came in said to him: Aaron had two older sons and they both died on the same day, and he accepted comfort, as it says Vayikra 10:3 And Aaron was silent, and silence always indicates comfort. Rabbi Yochanan said: Is it not enough that I have my own pain but that you have to remind me of Aaron’s pain as well?

Rabbi Shimon arrived and said: King David had a son who died, and he accepted comfort. So you, too, should accept comfort. How do we know that David accepted comfort? It says Samuel II, 12:24), David comforted his wife Bath Sheba, and he came to her and lay with her, and she gave birth to another son, and called him Solomon. So you, too, should accept comfort. Rabbi Yochanan then replied: Is it not enough that I have my own pain but that you have to remind me of King David’s pain as well?

Then Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah came in and said: Let me give you a parable. To what can this be compared? To a person to whom the king gave a deposit to hold. So it is with you. You had a son who read from the Torah, studied the Prophets, Writings, Mishnah, Halachah, and Aggadah, and then was taken from the world free of sin. You should accept consolation when you have returned a deposit whole. Rabbi Yochanan said to Rabbi Elazar: You have comforted me as people are supposed to.

The Death of the Sons of Rabbi Meir

Rabbi Meir was a brilliant Torah sage who lived during the second century CE. He had an acute intellect, so much so, that the Talmud says that his learned colleagues were unable to understand the depth of his insights.

Midrash Mishlei chapter 31 relates that while in the study hall on a Shabbat afternoon, his two young children passed away. His wife, Bruriah, known for her wisdom and learning, preferred to wait until the Shabbat ended and her husband had eaten something before telling him the tragic news. She placed both boys on a bed and covered them with a sheet. When Rabbi Meir returned home he asked where his sons were. She replied they went to the study hall. He replied he did not see them there. She remained silent. Rabbi Meir proceeded to make Havdalah marking the end of the Shabbat. He again inquired after his sons. She replied they went somewhere. She gave him food and he ate. She then asked her husband a question:

“…A man came and deposited something with me. He is now coming to take it back. Should we return it to him or not? He (her husband) said one who has a deposit with him must return it to its owner.” 

Bruriah took her husband’s hand, led him to the room where the boys lay dead and removed the sheet. When he saw them lifeless on the bed, he began to cry:

“My sons, my sons, my teachers, my teachers. My sons in the way of the world, my teachers in that they would enlighten my eyes with their Torah…..She said to Rabbi Meir, Rabbi, is this not what I told you, do I not need to return the deposit to its owner? He said, The Lord has given and the Lord has taken; may the name of the Lord be blessed. (Iyov 1:21).”

Rebbe Yochanan Grieved for Ten Sons

Rebbe Yohanan (not to be confused with Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai) was a student of the famous Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi in the second century. He was Rosh Yeshiva in the Torah academy at Teveriah for eighty years and taught hundreds of students. Rebbi Yohanan had ten sons all of whom passed away in his lifetime. As a remembrance, he would carry around the tooth of his tenth son. While traveling around Israel, he would comfort those mourning a child by showing them this tooth. (Berachot 5b)

What Do We Learn From the Child Loss of Other People?

When we learn about others who have suffered greater than we have, we become less self focused and more “other” focused. Hopefully this will lead us to caring about and performing acts of kindness for other people who have lost loved ones. I’m not the first person who has lost a child. Unfortunately, I won’t be the last. We pray for Mashiach to come, when G-d will “wipe the tears from every face” and parents will no longer bury their children.

Sometimes I think each tear shed over the loss of a child returns as a raindrop, a blessing that makes plants and crops grow. G-d is letting us know He hasn’t forgotten our pain and grief.

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