A good name is better than fine perfume,
and the day of death better than the day of birth. — Ecclesiastes 7:1
I recently attended a funeral for woman who had lived a very long life. Yet, as anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the pain of losing a close relative comes no matter how long that person might have lived. The group that assembled for the funeral was solemn and tearful. Yet, when one of the speakers began to eulogize the deceased, he began with the following verse from Ecclesiastes: “A good name is better than fine perfume, and the day of death better than the day of birth.”
I have no doubt that the day that the departed had been born was a joyful one. And as I looked around at the faces of the mourners, it was clear that the present day was a sad one. So what did King Solomon mean when he said that the day of death is better than the day of birth?
The Jewish sages relate a parable to illustrate the idea.
A brand new ship was being set off to sea for the very first time. A group of people gathered to send the ship off with great joy. At the same time, an older ship was returning from its final journey. That ship was old and worn, ready to be retired upon its return. While everyone else was cheering on the new ship, only one man happily greeted the old ship.
The others asked the man why he was more excited about the old ship that would soon be a heap of junk than the new one on its maiden voyage. The man explained that when a ship begins its journey at sea, its future is unknown. It might be overtaken by pirates or it could sink in the middle of the sea. Whether or not the vessel would complete its mission was beyond anyone’s guess. However, when an old ship arrives from sea having successfully completed its mission, then all doubts are removed. The ship was successful and that is reason to be joyful.
So, too, when a person is born, we do not know how the person will turn out. But if they have lived a good life, remaining faithful to the Lord, then when their life is complete we can rejoice and be comforted in their successful mission even in the midst of our sorrow and grief.
Let us remember that as long as we live we are like a ship at sea. It’s up to us to keep the ship on course and to fulfill our respective missions. We determine the success of our life. If we remain focused and resolute, then our final day can be even better than our first.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President