Two days ago, I received a message from someone whose closest friend is unfortunately at the end stages of her life due to cancer who sought some Torah wisdom and chizuk as she braces herself for the days and weeks to come. We fixed a time to speak which worked out to be a few hours before the onset of Chag.
In our conversation I shared various Torah teachings with this individual on the meaning of death. We also spoke about the serious responsibilities of what arrangements may need to be made in the near future. But beyond this, we spoke of the power of their long-standing friendship, and I emphasised that while this individual was looking to receive chizuk, in the coming days and weeks their task is also be to be a giver of chizuk so that when the time comes, their friend leaves this world knowing and feeling that they are loved. In particular, I offered a variety of suggestions which could bring a smile to the face and moments of laughter to their friend – such as creating a playlist of songs that foster positive memories, or sharing stories of their most fun times together. The individual was very grateful for our conversation and we then wished each other Chag Sameach.
Then, this morning, I learnt today’s daf (Ketubot 103b). Admittedly, even before opening the daf I recalled that it is on this page where we are taught about the death of Rebbi, but I must admit that I couldn’t remember much more than that. Then, as I proceeded through the daf, I arrived at a Beraita where we read how ‘when Rebbi became ill, Rabbi Chiya found him weeping and asked him, “My Master, why do you weep? Behold, we have been taught מת מתוך השחוק סימן יפה לו – that it is a good sign if someone who dies amidst laughter.”’ Interestingly, as Rav Yitzchak Landa notes (in his ‘Lishmoa B’Limudim’ commentary), this teaching is itself based on the words of Mishlei 31:25 that we sing every Friday night: עֹז וְהָדָר לְבוּשָׁהּ וַתִּשְׂחַק לְיוֹם אַחֲרוֹן – ‘Strength and beauty are her garment; she smiles as she faces the future’ (lit. ‘to the last day’)’ and which is explained by Rabbi Landa to mean that there are those who are able to have cause to smile even on their last day on earth.
When I read these lines I was truly overcome – as it reminded me of my Erev Chag conversation. But then it provided me with a deeper understanding of our Gemara. This is because someone who is approaching death may not – unto themselves – have reason to smile or laugh. So what is the סימן יפה לו – ‘the good sign’ that is being referred to by Rabbi Chiya? I believe that it is the sign that that individual has people around them who want to do whatever they can to bring a smile to their face. It is the sign that they are loved and that they are valued, and that – notwithstanding the ache of watching their friend ebb to the next world – all those that love them want to do is give them reassurance, comfort and – wherever possible – joy.
Ultimately, whether we are experiencing the sunny or the cloudy days of life, the ultimate סימן יפה is knowing that we are loved and we are valued – and doing what we can to help others feel that way as well.