What I cherish about shiva
November 13, 2012
Is it strange to say that I cherish shiva minyans? Of course, a shiva minyan means that people are grieving. In that sense, I can't say that I look forward to them. But loss and death are a natural part of every life. We can't imagine them away, no matter how we might want to try. And given that reality, I find the custom of sitting shiva, and of convening a shiva minyan, to be both meaningful and sweet.
The custom of the shiva minyan originated at a moment in time when it was presumed that all Jews prayed three times a day. Imagine that you're in the habit of daily prayer, and then you lose a loved one. There's a gaping hole in your life. Your heart and soul feel raw and bruised. You don't want to put on a fancy suit and high heels (or whatever your version of getting all dressed up might be) and venture out of your house in order to daven in community.
So we come to you, and you get to daven weekday prayers and say kaddish for your loved one, and while we're there, we also do our best to take care of you. Usually, in my experience, people brings food. There are hugs. People will sit together with the mourner(s) and listen to them talk about the person who has died. Sometimes we look through photo albums and we tell stories. We cry and we laugh in remembrance. And -- traditionally -- the next night, we gather and we do it again. And again, until the first week of mourning after the burial is through. Sometimes we talk. Sometimes we sit in companionable silence. The conversation ebbs and flows. And at the appointed time, we pray.
Ma'ariv, the evening service, is short and sweet. It's very like the morning service, though there's an extra blessing after the shema, the hashkivenu prayer, in which we bless God who spreads a shelter of peace over us at evening when we go to sleep. There is something particularly poignant, I think, about davening the evening service (including that hashkivenu prayer) in a shiva house. Sleep, says the Talmud, is 1/60th of death; every night when we recite the bedtime shema and its prayer for forgiveness, we are clearing our spiritual slates in preparation for death. And there's a parallel between the way that we ask God to spread a shelter of peace over us as we sleep, and the way that we ask God to spread a shelter of peace over our loved one who has entered eternity.
Most of all, I just love that this is our custom when someone is mourning. We come to them. We comfort them with our presence as best we can. We pray with them. We give them the witnessing-community in which they can recite the mourner's kaddish, which never once mentions death, but which has rhythm and cadences which take me (take many of us, I suspect) into a different headspace and heartspace than we otherwise inhabit. There's nothing else one has to "do" during a shiva call, no fancy rituals or elaborate social expectations. It's really mostly about presence, about being present with and present to the person who has suffered a loss.
I find the shiva journey meaningful in all four worlds. In assiyah, the world of action and physicality, it's about being there, sitting with the person who has experienced the loss. (And in today's increasingly interconnected world, when we may have loved ones around the globe, I've known people to pay shiva calls via Skype. Telepresence is meaningful, too.) In yetzirah, the world of emotions, it's a chance to connect heart-to-heart. To open ourselves to someone else's loss, and to create a safe container in which the person who has experienced the loss can grieve. In briyah, the world of thought, shiva is an opportunity to reflect and remember together. And in atzilut, the world of essence, it's an opportunity to connect with the ineffable.
The traditional blessing spoken to someone who is grieving is המקום ינחם אתכם (Hamakom yinachem etchem), "May God comfort you." Or המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים (Hamakom yinachem etcham b'toch sha'ar avelei tzion v'Yerushalayim), "May the Holy One comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem." Some choose instead to say תנחמו מן השמים (tinechamu min hashamayim), "May your comfort come from heaven." But I appreciate the reminder offered by Rabbi Irwin Kula and Vanessa Ochs in The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices that "The right words -- which may be no words at all, just a rich, holding silence -- will come from our hearts." In a tradition so attached to words, I love this reminder that it's okay that sometimes our words may fail us.