The Gift of Shiva
A little story about being fully present:
A young man left his younger brother’s room in the hospital and headed home for some desperately needed rest. He had been at his brother’s bedside for 48 hours straight. The worst was hopefully over. His brother’s condition had been critical but was now, thank God, stable. Time for some rest.
He had felt helpless and frustrated the whole time he was in the hospital because there was nothing he could do to help. All he did was sit there. He couldn’t even think of anything useful to say. He just sat in the chair next to the bed, held his brother’s hand and murmured, “I’m here, I’m here . . .”
Early the next morning he returned to the hospital and found his brother smiling, sitting up, with good color in his cheeks. The worst truly was over. The younger brother looked up at him and said, “Thank you, thank you so much!”
“What’d I do?” he asked his brother. “I didn’t do anything.”
The younger brother answered, “You were here. You were here with me. I knew that. And that made all the difference.”
An ancient story of being fully present: The Binding of Isaac. When God calls out to Abraham at the beginning of the saga, before even knowing what it is that God wants, the old patriarch replies, “Hineini.” “Here I am.”
Hineini – a contraction of the words, “I” and “here”. It’s a challenge to translate because it means much more than the simple statement of the fact, “I am physically here.” Because it is never used casually. If the teacher is taking attendance and calls your name, “Hineini” would be a bit over the top.
It’s a word used only 12 times in the entire Tanakh, throughout the entire Hebrew Bible. Half of the time it is used by God, and half of the time by human beings.
When God says, “Hineini”, it is never casual. God uses the term only at the most important moments. In the story of Noah, just before the great flood begins, God declares, “Hineini, behold, here I am, I am about to bring the flood upon the whole earth.”
When the word is used by human beings, it is likewise never casual. When God called upon Abraham, and Abraham answered “Hineini”, he was saying, “All of my being, my love and my faith, and my full attention are here for you now.” And when, later in the story, the boy Isaac – obediently following his father up the mountain, curious about the true intent of their journey, he asks, “Father?” Abraham replies, “Hineini b’ni”, “here I am my son.” That is, “I am here for you with all of my heart and all of my being.”
In the hospital, when, for all of those hours, the older brother was fully there for the younger brother. That was a time of profound Hineini.
One of the most beautiful ways that we as human beings and as Jews can embody the essence of Hineini with the simplest of actions: making a shiva call.
As rabbis and cantors one of the unique circumstances we encounter is that to and from funerals we are often sitting quietly in front seat of the limousine. And that means we hear some very sweet and moving conversations from the seats behind us.
The subject of the conversation in the back seat is almost always the same: Who came, who was there, who took the time to show up for the funeral or the shiva.
They don’t talk about what people said to them, or what people brought or what they wore. They are deeply moved by those who took the time to be present. And that brings much comfort.
This is what you hear in the shiva home when everyone leaves:
- Did you see Cousin Fred drove overnight from South Carolina? That’s so special.
- How sweet that Jordan’s college friends drove from school upstate to be at his grandpa’s funeral.
- Uncle Dan was there, even though his sciatica is really bad these days. He didn’t have to do that.
- Look at all the people who came from work?
We are simply so moved by the people who show up.
There’s wonderful wisdom in our traditions of mourning. During the few days following a funeral it’s so important to have these guidelines and this structure to provide the many ways for people to be there for us; and to keep us busy and occupied.
To just come home after a funeral alone; or to just go right back to work or school the next day, gives us no time to mourn. And people have to mourn.
Those first few days are so critical; we’re often so vulnerable, emotional, confused, overwhelmed, in denial, angry, numb . . . or most likely some combination of all of the above.
Joseph Telushkin, in his book on Jewish Ethics gives us a straight forward definition: “According to Jewish law, seven days of intense morning, Shiva – from the number 7 – is observed by the deceased’s seven closest relatives: mother and father, sister and brother, son and daughter, or spouse.” (Pg. 116-7)
The guideline is 7 days; but for some one day is sufficient, and for others 3, and for some, the entire 7 days.
And for some of our families, 7 will make perfect sense. People coming from faraway places; family tradition; having different nights in different family member’s homes who may not live close to one another. The 7 of Shiva can make sense.
For some of us, based on the make up of our families and where we all live, 3 days may be perfect.
And in other circumstances, 1 may be just what we need. (Shira, David and I are more than happy to help you navigate that question if the time comes.)
Whatever its length, gathering for shiva brilliantly provides a loving embrace by our friends, family and community, so that we might manage those first few days; those first few tentative steps forward into our new reality.
Shiva is so important; Shiva is so healthy; and it’s so wise.
Sometimes though we get in our own way and prevent ourselves from either helping others in their mourning; or from letting others help us in our mourning.
The reasons are understandable. There are some very real concerns that can get in the way of making that important visit.
These are some of the reasons we may hear:
- Things about death make me nervous.
- I don’t know what to say.
- What if I say the wrong thing?
- I’ve never been to one before and I’m not sure what to do.
- I’m not Jewish, should I go?
- Do I need to know Hebrew to make a shiva call?
- I’m not sure I know the family well enough to even go?
Maybe tonight can help us overcome some of those concerns.
Do you have to be Jewish to make a shiva call? Of course not. The power of your presence knows no specific language or religion. You don’t have to know Hebrew or any Jewish prayers. During the short service that takes place, you are participating in the most beautiful way possible, just by being there.
The biggest worry is usually “What am I supposed to say?” “It’s so awkward!” “What’s the right thing to say?” “What’s the wrong thing to say?”
Don’t be so hard on yourselves. There are no right words. Somebody just had a death in their family. They are going to be sad for a while. There’s nothing you can say that will make go away. You are greeting them in their sadness. No magic words exist. And the mourners aren’t expecting any.
As a matter of fact, having nothing to say is often the best move. Silence. Just a hug or a nod.
Joseph Telushkin explains (Pg. 119-20) “The tradition of not having to speak at a shiva call comes from the Bible in the story of Job’s three friends who come to comfort him after the death of his children. The Book of Job says, “Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar ‘met together to go and console and comfort Job. When they saw him from a distance . . . they broke into loud weeping; each one tore his clothes and threw dust onto his head. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights. None spoke a word to him, for they saw how very great his suffering was” (Job 2:11–13)
What mattered was that Job’s friends were fully with hm, not that they tried to comfort him with words at the time he felt anguish beyond words. Their Hineini was silent.
Telushkin shares another more recent story of silence at a time of shiva: “Rabbi Jack Reimer was with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel when they heard of the death of Rabbi Wolfe Kelman’s sister. Rabbi Heschel insisted that they go to visit Rabbi Kelman and his family immediately: “We went to the airport, we flew to Boston, got into a cab, and went to the house. Heschel walked in, he hugged the mourners, he sat silently for an hour. He didn’t mumble a single cliché. He just sat there for an hour. And then he got up, hugged them, and we left.” (pg. 120)
So, if there are no words, what can we do? During that period of time, the friends and community and co-workers of the mourner can do so much to relieve the mourner of everyday tasks and worries.
- We can make sure meals are taken care of,
- When we pick up a relative or one of their kids from the train station.
- When we clean up after a meal.
- If we are a coworker and we make sure the office won’t bother you for those few days.
- If we are a neighbor and we put their trash cans on the curb for pick up.
- We can offer to print up copies of the directions to the cemetery to hand out at the funeral service.
- When we help take care of your little ones.
You don’t need Judaic scholarship or any expertise to help.
Lisa Borowitz heads our wonderful – but I must say small – team of people who do an amazing job of leading shiva services in people’s homes when we rabbis and cantor are spread too thin. Lisa recently shared with me and Shira and David, that fewer people than in the past are observing shiva services in their homes following funerals.
That’s such a shame because shiva services are so helpful.
We can get a little confused about the mood of this Shiva thing. Sometimes you hear a lot of laughter and food is being served and sometimes there’s liquor. People often ask themselves, is this supposed to be a party?
But when you gather for Shiva, some laughter can be quite lovely and even helpful. Certainly, if the laughter comes from a wonderful story about the deceased, or you’re remembering what used to make them laugh.
So, if it’s feeling a little party-like, a beautiful balance occurs when we pause for the 10 or 20 minutes for the service. Because then there is a clear focus as to why we’re all here, why we’re all gathered in that living room, in that home. The service embraces everyone into the same emotional locale. And it is indeed comforting for the family.
I know hundreds of you have had this experience.
Let me end with a story from a shiva that took place in our Kol Ami community in early August. Our congregant Stephen Weisglass had lost his mother. He gave me permission to share this.
I was invited to the home to lead a Shiva service.
If I or any one of the many friends who gathered at his home were not exactly sure what Shiva is all about, Stephen helped us to see its essence that evening.
When Stephen greeted me at the door, with perfect honesty he said, “You know I don’t really think we need to do a Shiva service tonight. Besides,” he continued, “you know I don’t really consider myself a religious person. But tell me what you have in mind.”
That was up to him. I told him that I could drone on for a couple of hours, if he wanted. I did go to rabbinical school, after all. I’m a professional. (That didn’t seem to be what he had in mind.)
I told him a shiva service is usually very brief.
And that if he wanted, we could pause in the middle of the service for anyone in the family to share a story about his mother.
Though he didn’t necessarily feel connected to the worship part of the experience, he said he’d give it a shot. And he added that he probably would not be sharing any comments.
When everyone was gathered in the living room, we had begun our Shiva minyan. After a few minutes there came the time for anyone from the family who wanted to share.
There was a moment or two of quiet, with Stephen sitting on the couch looking around the room filled with friends who really care for him and were there for him at that important moment in life.
And in that silence, you could hear this big beautiful “Hineini” emanating everyone there.
Then, Stephen stood up to speak.
“All of you know that I’m not exactly a religious person. You know I didn’t have great experiences as a child in Hebrew school. Pretty much the opposite. They didn’t seem to want me there and I didn’t want to be there either.
Everyone in the room smiled and understood.
Then he choked up a bit, and his eyes filled as he looked around at his many friends and his precious family.
He continued: “Now you know that it doesn’t have anything to do with Judaism or religion, but I can’t tell you how moved I am, and how much it means to me that all of you have come to be here with me at this difficult moment, with the passing of my mother. Having you as friends and having you here means the world to me. I can’t thank you enough.”
Everyone in the room was silent. Everyone in the room was powerfully present and listening and hearing. And Stephen clearly felt the warmth and embrace of that loving circle of family and friends.
Stephen, I disagree with you on one point; that it all had nothing to do with being Jewish.
I think that’s exactly what Shiva. Over many centuries the Jewish people have wisely and lovingly molded that moment to be exactly what it was for you.
And I thank you so much for so beautifully articulating the essence of Shiva at that evening in your home.
“The brother had felt helpless and frustrated the whole time he was in the hospital because there was nothing he could do to help. All he did was sit there. He couldn’t even think of anything useful to say. He just sat in the chair next to the bed, held his brother’s hand and murmured, “I’m here, I’m here . . .”
The younger brother answered, “You were here! You were here with me. I knew that. And that made all the difference.”