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.