(The Book of Ecclesiates)
[This article was written before the very sad events of this past week. As a congregation, We stand in absolute solidarity with our fellow Jewish community of Pittsburgh, PA. At the same time, we express deep gratitude that our local neighbors and friends have been so concerned about us. As was stated in our initial letter to the congregation after these attacks, Adonai Li V’Lo Ira. God is with us, we are not alone and we will not fear. We are blessed to have one another and we are blessed to have such neighbors.]
Our congregation has experienced a remarkably sad several weeks, with an unusually high number of deaths. We have not had weeks like this since my arrival here as your rabbi. Despite the real sadness of these days, I am not only pleased but proud at how our congregation members support one another at these difficult times. We show each other compassion at the highest levels and demonstrate a strong commitment to our ages-old Jewish traditions around the time of death.
I have observed several themes that seem to recur at each of the homes of mourning in recent weeks. I thought I would summarize these here for all of us. May we not benefit from this wisdom, however, until the time is correct.
Our families observing Shiva have expressed how important it has been to them to have visitors come during “off” hours. While it is nice to have a full house during evening Maariv service times, having visitors in smaller numbers throughout the day truly enables us to comfort the mourners by hearing and sharing stories of the deceased in much greater detail then can happen in the evenings. When you see long Shiva visiting hours posted, I implore you to plan your visit during “off-hours” and solicit stories from our members about their loved ones. They are comforted by sharing these stories one-on-one, perhaps, in a different way than in a larger setting. Even if we don’t know the person well – or at all – a Shiva visit helps both the mourner and the visitor.New and strong relationships can be built at the Shiva home. Perhaps that part of the point – to fill the bereft and empty space within us with new relationships.
Members of our congregation who have observed Shiva for most or all of the week of mourning have indicated how important it has been for them to have this complete period of mourning. While the days are long and exhausting, coming to the conclusion of shiva is an accomplishment and an act goes according to human psychology. We want to be “sick” of Shiva; we want to be ready to move to the next stage of mourning. Shiva that is “cut” too early may not allow for adequate mourning. On the other hand, we must know ourselves and make decisions based on the complete picture. In ancient times, death was often a surprise; medical issues, of course, were not diagnosed in the way that they are today. Today, we often mourn a loved one before they even die as we know so much more today about when death is imminent. The mourning period may begin far in advance of actual death. Many take this into account when deciding on shiva plans.
Finally, while our tradition encourages the mourner to get up from shiva and go back to normal life, we must all make a concerted effort to remain in regular contact with the (former) mourners. The 30-day period of Shloshim is the next stage of mourning and requires close contact by the wider community with the mourner, even though their initial period of Shiva is over. Call regularly, continue to visit often. Take them out of the house. Help them with the myriad logistical and technical details that arise in the aftermath of the death of a loved one. Especially if you have experienced death, you understand what help someone truly needs. Even if you don’t know them or know them well, we are all part of the same community. We’ve chosen to be part of this same holy community and the more we are here for each other in difficult times, the more we will have to celebrate in happy times.
May these weeks and months with an unusual number of deaths within our community not repeat themselves. However may we also be prepared when we must comfort our fellow, beloved community members, in accordance with our ages-old traditions.