Secrets from My Mother’s Shiva

March 10, 2016

BH

Some people dismiss observant Jewish life as “too restrictive,” but I have found it to be quite the opposite. Who knows better than G-d what I’m supposed to do at any given moment? This was especially true during the disorienting time of my mother’s shiva. For seven days, G-d said, “sit.” So sit I did. My chair was lovely but low. (I questioned if loveliness overrides lowliness but it doesn’t.)

I know shiva etiquette advises visitors to remain silent until the mourner speaks, but I have made shiva calls where nothing is said and they’re grueling. With my mother’s shiva, I wanted to talk. When I was exhausted, I just said, “thank you for coming.”

Knowing how comforted I was by people, I hope to be better about letting people know I’m thinking of them, G-d willing only for good occasions.

As every rabbi of every denomination says at every funeral: V’ hachai yetain el libo, the living shall take it to heart. Through death we can learn about life.

I may have officially learned the Hebrew phraseology during my mother’s shiva, but G-d gave me this message loudly and clearly when I was seven years old.

I don’t remember what my sister Stephanie and I were doing that February night in 1963 when our grandfather, our mother’s father, called us on the phone. I just remember we were busy. We loved Max (that’s how he wanted us to refer to him), but he called us a lot. That night, we told our mother we didn’t want to talk to him.

What I remember most about the next day is my father’s red eyes when he was explaining to me that Max had been taken to the hospital. “So, he’s not going to get better?” I asked, already knowing the answer. When my father told me Max had passed away, I learned a devastating lesson that I have never forgotten. You can be sure that for the next ten years until my grandmother passed away, I would interrupt the most challenging homework assignment or juicy phone conversation so I could kiss her goodbye before she left our house.

But I learned something deeper about myself when my father gave me the shocking news. My immediate response troubled me for years:

All I said was, “So? Susie doesn’t have a grandfather either!”

It was true. Our dearest family friends had just gone through this. It was normal for grandparents to pass away. My second grade teacher wasn’t even nicer to me when I handed her the note explaining my absence. I would be okay. Nobody would be whispering about me or pointing at me.

I cared more about appearances than my own feelings.

I needed to learn an inner lesson from the experience but it would take time. Eventually though, this inner lesson would become my raison d’être–I live to try to understand that G-d does everything for a reason, that He creates everyone with a purpose, and that if I truly have Him, I don’t have to be afraid of anything. (Reaching middle age does help with this effort, but I think it’s meant to take a lifetime.)

I learned something else during shiva: the phrase traditionally said to comfort a mourner. I never made learning it a priority, but I guess learning also happens when you hear something enough times.

Now I can say, Hamakom yenachem eschem besoch shaar avelay Tziyon v’Yerushayaim, May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Yerushalyim.

Herein lies the comfort: Ever since the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, all Jewish people mourn the loss of our collective “body.”  But we’re all consoled by knowing that the Third Temple will be rebuilt with the coming of Moshiach. And, after that, bodies and souls will be reunited in the subsequent Era of Resurrection.

This concept may sound far-fetched, but it’s Maimonides’ Thirteenth Principle of Faith. And it is a comforting thought.

We may not be there yet, but we can’t get there soon enough.

That’s why, to people who comforted me with this phrase, I gave a blessing: May you never have to say these words again.

It’s a bit radical, I know, to think of death disappearing. But I try not to get bogged down by the details of how G-d is going to do it. I just want Him to do it already.

12 Comments

  1. Reply

    Ali Leverton

    Another honest and excellent piece! Good Shabbos!

    1. Reply

      Lieba Rudolph

      Thank you, Ali…Good Shabbos to you, too!

  2. Reply

    Rus Sandomire

    Beautifully written. Hamakom yenachem eschem besoch shaar avelay Tziyon v’Yerushayaim.

    1. Reply

      Lieba Rudolph

      Thank you so much, Rus. Good Shabbos to you.

  3. Reply

    DRF

    I always wondered about the meaning of the phrase, Hamakom yenachem….Thank you for explaining the deeper meaning beyond the actual translation.
    What I learned from this shared experience was that spirituality (however one experiences it) is a lot like exercise or schooling or anything else worth our time and effort – it takes work. No Pain; No Gain. Not that spirituality is at all painful – what I mean is that if you don’t put any effort into it, you sure won’t reap any rewards. And a spirituality that makes no demands of us makes it that much more likely that we will dial it in rather than doing the hard work and making the effort to attain whatever it is we are seeking. I mean, if we don’t at least try to listen to and hear what G-d is asking of us, how do we know what is expected of us? (If we don’t think G-d is even talking to us, then what is the point of being part of any so-called sacred community? What makes it sacred? What makes it a community? Who decides? What are the elements?)
    The “restrictive” rules around shiva serve a purpose. I was watching from the sidelines as you and Bobby mourned in your own ways. What some might think is restrictive, I saw as giving structure to a very difficult process – for the mourners as well as for the comforters. It is always helpful to know what our role is in any given situation and what exactly is expected of us. All rules are by definition restrictive, but maybe it is better not to have to start figuring things out on your own every time life takes a twist or turn.

    1. Reply

      Lieba Rudolph

      Thank you for your insightful comments, Deborah, especially regarding “restrictions.” Only G-d is unrestricted; for us, by definition, “A” restricts “B.” Glad you enjoyed!

  4. Reply

    Linda

    Our custom of Shiva is meaningful and calming. One still must face loss and grief but Judaism provides a very good road map.

    1. Reply

      Lieba Rudolph

      Thanks for commenting, Linda. It’s very nice to hear from you…

  5. Reply

    audrey

    how beautifully written…your mother was blessed…fondly, audrey

    1. Reply

      Lieba Rudolph

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Audrey. It’s nice to hear from you…

  6. Reply

    rachel rosenstein

    Hi, Leeba and I did not realized you write so well! May Hashem bless your beautiful family with only simchas, and you should find peace. Hamakom yenachem otach betoch shaare avelei tzion, it’s still during the shloshim so i guess i can say this, and today Purim should be a happy
    day for you. I have lost both my parents, I am here if you want to talk, i just subscribed, call me if you wish. We can always become closer friends. Simchas. Rochel Rosenstein

    1. Reply

      Lieba Rudolph

      I am so happy to hear from you, Rochel, and thank you for your kind words. Purim is a good day for us (and all Jews!) to become closer friends!

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