DON'T GO TO A SHIVA HOUSE HUNGRY
and other lessons about
comforting the mourner.
And Rabbi Chama the son of Rabbi Chanina said, "What is the meaning of the verse, 'After the Eternal, your God, shall you walk (Deut. 13:5)'? Is it possible for one to walk after the Shechina? And isn't it already stated, 'For Eternal your God is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24)'?
Rather [it means], to follow the middot/character traits of the Holy Bountiful One...
The Holy Bountiful One comforted mourners, as it is written, 'After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac (Gen. 25:11);' so too you shall comfort mourners.
The Holy Bountiful One buried the dead, as it is written, 'And God buried him in the valley (Deut. 34:6);' so too, you shall bury the dead."
ואמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא מאי דכתיב (דברים יג, ה) אחרי ה' אלהיכם תלכו וכי אפשר לו לאדם להלך אחר שכינה והלא כבר נאמר (דברים ד, כד) כי ה' אלהיך אש אוכלה הוא?
אלא להלך אחר מדותיו של הקב"ה
הקב"ה ניחם אבלים דכתיב (בראשית כה, יא) ויהי אחרי מות אברהם ויברך אלהים את יצחק בנו אף אתה נחם אבלים
הקב"ה קבר מתים דכתיב (דברים לד, ו) ויקבר אותו בגיא אף אתה קבור מתים
Rabbi Shimon the son of Elazar says: ...Do not comfort them when their dead lie before them...
Because at the time of the destruction [of the Temple], as if, the Holy Bountiful One was in mourning. The ministering angels tried to comfort God, but the holy spirit responded to them: Do not try to comfort me.
And so to, regarding comforting them at a time when their dead is lying before them, for surely this when they grieving, and great mourning. If one comes to comfort them, they would add to and further intensify their mourning when they come to nullify their distress...
The comforters are not permitted to begin a conversation [with mourners], until the mourners begins one first.
When one enters a shiva house he or she often makes a bee-line for the immediate family of the deceased. After all we are there to offer comfort. And so we say our "hellos", our "I’m so sorry's" and then we move aside so others can offer their condolences. What do we do then? Most people find another person they know in the house and begin the small talk: "How are the kids?" "Did you see the news?" "What do you make of what President So-and-So said to Prime Minister Such-and-Such?"
This is exactly what happened in the home of a lovely elderly man who was sitting shiva with his two children for his wife who had passed away. Both he and his wife had been in a car accident six weeks earlier. He escaped with minor bruises while she suffered broken ribs and a broken sternum. Unfortunately, her recovery did not go as expected and pnemonia after pnemonia and complication after complication eventually led to her death.
I was sitting with this lovely man's adult daughter, who is a congregant of mine, when she told me that after everyone had left earlier that evening, presumably for dinner, she and her father and brother had a chance to sit down quietly. They were reflecting on the funeral and the beginning to shiva when the father and husband expressed his appreciation that everyone was there and his surprise that all the time they were there, "they didn't even talk about her."
One of my many "strange" minhagim (customs) when I visit a shiva house is I never make small talk with anyone other than the mourners. I will often see other congregants there who want to catch me up or inform me of their grandson's latest achievement. But in a shiva house I simply don't allow it. I have had to ask people to call me in the office the next day or, perhaps to just wait until we step outside of the house - and I have gotten some nasty looks. Especially when I'm not talking to the mourners, but instead sitting quietly waiting for them to approach me, people have a hard time understanding why I won't engage in idle conversation.
A shiva call is for the family of the loved one. They should drive the conversation and when they don't our initiating, if we do so at all, should be about their loved one. A shiva house certainly isn't a time to schmooze with friends.
Being in our Space
In all of our varied faiths we have many names for God. The Jewish tradition is no different. We call God: ADONAI, Eternal One, Compassionate One, Healing One, and the One. One of our most powerful and interesting names for God is HaMakom, literally “the Space,” or as it is more often understood, “the One Who Fills All Space.”
Space. Space is a wonderful thing when we are buying a home or leasing an office. Space is a gift when we are appreciating the expanse of the sea or the beauty of a field or forest. Space can indeed be a blessing. And space can also be terrifying.
When our doctor first tells us that we have cancer; when we lose a loved one; when we are facing the world with despair and anger – there is a nagging emptiness in the pit of our stomach. In those moments – we seek to fill the space, the void, and the emptiness in our lives and ourselves. It is so much easier to pretend that we can somehow put something else in that space and that will make the pain and anger go away. If we could only fill it and feel whole again: Fill it with words, painful smiles, and questionable hope – anything to fill that space!
I’ve often wondered why we Jews sometimes refer to God as “the Space.” It was only after the death of my daughter, Liat that I came to understand why we do. In the Jewish tradition, when we offer words of condolence to mourners, we traditionally say, “HaMakom yinacheim etchem” “May ‘the Space’ console you.” Usually this is understood as a plea for God to bring comfort to those who mourn. But I have come to understand it differently. When we must face a “space”, an “emptiness” in our lives, we pray not for God or anyone else to fill it – and shield us from it, but instead that that very space HaMakom should itself become a source of comfort.
How can it be that illness or loss and the void they leave behind can be comforting? It seems to me – the comfort comes in controlling the space. Not destroying it, not ignoring it but putting the “space” in its place. I have known many cancer patients and their families, including my own, who have allowed that space to take over their lives. In their pain and grief, they become nothing more than a patient, or a mourner. That emptiness that comes with illness and loss takes over and subsumes their entire being. This is not unexpected or bad – it is natural, for as Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for everything under the sun. There is a time for us to be all patient – all mourner.
And there is also a time for us to allow that empty feeling – that space - to become a part of who we are rather than the totality of who we are.
It never goes away. Nor should it. We must be able to honor that chapter in our life and hold onto it without allowing it to overwhelm us every moment of every day. In his book “At the Will of the Body,” Arthur Frank writes, “Illness takes away parts of your life, but in doing so it gives you the opportunity to choose the life you will lead, as opposed to living out the one you have simply accumulated over the years.”
Seeing our pain, our loss – our space, as a part of who we are and who we are to become is the blessing that God – the One Who Fills All Space – challenges us to recognize. When we have found that measure of balance in our lives, when our emptiness and our pain is acknowledged, honored and given its place in our lives, then we will be able to spend time in that space and re-emerge to find ourselves surrounded by joy, beauty, hope and faith.
You Do NOT Know How I Feel
It’s uncomfortable at best to greet a mourner. What can we possibly say to someone who has just lost their wife, husband, brother, sister, father, mother, son or daughter? The urge is almost overwhelming to share empathy, or at the very least sympathy, with our loved ones and friends in their time of need. We yearn to answer their questions to make sense of their tragedy and to offer words that will fill the gaping void of loss and emptiness.
“I know how you feel;” “You’ll get over this;” “It’s better this way;.”
The problem with words is that they are almost always inadequate. “I know how you feel;” “No you don’t." “You’ll get over this;” “No I won’t." “It’s better this way;” “No it’s not!"
We say these things, not because we know them to be true but because we don't know what else to say. When the silence is too deafening we search for words to fill that space and all too often - the wrong words come out.
One of the most powerful shiva calls I ever made was to the family of a college friend who died far too young of a brain tumor. After the four hour drive to New York from Boston, I entered the home to see my friends father-in-law and some of his colleagues sitting quietly in the living room. My friend's husband, who was also my friend, was upstairs taking a nap. I spoke to no one because no one spoke to me. I sat silently for close to two hours when I finally excused myself for the drive home.
The next day I received a call from my friend to thank me for my visit. "I didn't even see you or get a chance to talk to you" I said. "I knew you were there and your presence meant everything to me" he replied.
Our presence is so much more powerful than our voice, particularly in times when words fail us. If you are not spoken to - don't speak. If you are spoken to - choose your words carefully. If there are no words to say - just be present.
I am the Entertainer
Part of leading people through the funeral and burial process is offering guidance regarding shiva as well. Questions about whether mirrors should be covered, a water pitcher placed outside and when the candle should be lit are all par for the course. And then comes the discussion about atmosphere.
Traditionally, shiva is a time for the community to care for the mourner. We provide meals and services in which to say kaddish. We clean up at the end of the day and get things ready in the morning. Our job is to take care of everything so that the mourner can truly BE in their grief.
Shiva today, in liberal Jewish circles in America, has become more of a cocktail party. We don't bring meals for the mourners, we bring cookie platters and fruit baskets for the visitors. Worst of all, mourners prepare for shiva by ordering deli platters and crudite. Soft drinks and spirits abound while mourners greet their guests and offer them a little something to nosh. Mourners have become entertainers, distracting them from their pain and denying us the sacred obligation to comfort the mourner and care for all their needs.
Next time you visit a shiva house or hear of a loss in your community consider what you might do or bring that will be specifically for the mourners. Do they need a meal? Maybe you could organize a rotation so that all meals are prepared by different members of your community for the week. Do they need help getting the children to and from school or after-school activities? Would they appreciate someone coming to clean the house or do laundry?
Our responsibility in a shiva house is not to make sure the guests are comfortable or accommodated but to ensure that the mourners have what they need, and the space that they need to mourn.