In the non-Jewish world, when one hears of a death, the normal response is, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” We strive to convey sympathy and empathy to the bereaved. In Judaism, however, when we hear someone passed away, we immediately respond “Baruch dayan haemet,” Blessed is the True Judge (God).
No sympathy, no empathy. Just a quick, almost cold pronouncement, acknowledging the rightness of God’s judgments even while we may not understand them.
I will admit, I have a hard time saying the words. When my parents told me about the deaths of my grandparents, or when I read online about the tragic passing of two-year-old Ayelet Galena, who lost her fight with a rare bone marrow disorder, I didn’t feel, “Oh yes, God, so true and righteous and just.” I was sad, devastated, bereaved.
How can it be “just” that one of my grandfathers never even lived to see his grandchildren, or that another passed away a week before my brother’s bar mitzvah? How is it “right” or “true” that Ayelet’s family, who suffered so horribly, didn’t get their happy ending?
Many people will quickly point out to me that the point of the “baruch dayan haemet” formula is to remind us to look at the “big picture,” even—or especially—in the midst of our suffering. A few people will probably invoke the famous tapestry parable: When you look at a tapestry from the back, all you see are threads and loose ends, and it looks rather ugly. The front, though, is a magnificent, intricate picture. As we go through life, we often only see the underside. We see a hodgepodge, a mishmash, where nothing seems to make sense. We have to trust that the picture in the front is breathtakingly beautiful. Sometimes, we are privileged to catch a quick glimpse of the big picture, in all its glory. And those small glimpses hopefully give us enough courage to continue, even when things seem really, really bad.
All those people who will say these things to me are right. This is the ultimate meaning of faith: To believe it’s all part of God’s master plan. The goal of “baruch dayan haemet” is to steer our thoughts from paralyzing grief to belief in God’s ultimate justice.
And I understand it. I believe it.
But, for me, still, the words can be difficult to say.