Sitting Shivah | Congregation Beth Am

Sitting Shivah

By Rabbi Janet Marder on
February 6, 2004

Out in the world, I know that this was a busy week. There were seven primary elections, and the Democratic presidential race started to narrow down to a few finalists. There was a Superbowl Game, and, I gather, a rather notorious halftime show. Oracle moved in on PeopleSoft. The bird flu continued to wreak havoc in Asia. Controversy continued to swirl about whose fault it was that our president called us to go to war in Iraq on the basis of false information. Rabbi Gerald Raiskin, longtime spiritual leader of our sister congregation, Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame, lost his beloved wife to cancer.

All this and more transpired in the past seven days, and life here at Beth Am went on, as well, with its usual vibrancy: our kids came to Hebrew program and to Tuesday night program and Havurah High, and our regular weekday adult classes met, and hundreds of people came here last Saturday night for our annual Feast of Jewish Learning. All of this happened, I know, but I confess I had very little awareness of any of it.

In your lives, too, I know that much was going on: ordinary business, and good things, and some bad things as well – illness and struggle and sadness in your families. As in every week that passes in our congregation, there were transitions. A baby was born to one of our families; another sent their daughter off to Israel for a semester; two others got ready for a Bar Mitzvah this weekend.

In our family, too, there was a transition – one that cut me off, temporarily, from the news of what was happening in yours, and from feeling as connected as I want to feel, in ordinary times, to what is going on with you.

In Genesis chapter 50 we read: “Joseph went up [to the land of Canaan] to bury his father, and…they held there a very great and solemn lamentation, and he observed a mourning period of seven days for his father” [vs.7,10]. Joseph and his brothers grieved for their father Jacobshivatyamim – seven days ofavelut, of deep mourning; and thus was born the Jewish custom of sittingshivah.

 One week ago, just after midnight on Shabbat morning, my husband, Shelly, lost his father, Jack, whose Hebrew name was Ya’akov, Jacob.

 I have learned aboutshivah before; I have even taught aboutshivah before, but I have never observed it before. My parents, thank God, are still living, and when they lost their parents they did not observeshivah. I have paidshivah calls, and of course I have ledshivah minyanim. But, as with so many other things in life, it is different when it happens to you.

So these words that I bring you tonight, as we join with our congregation for Shabbat, are offered in the midst ofshivah, as a personal reflection on how it feels.

            Shivah is observed, according to Jewish tradition, for seven members of one’s immediate family: at the death of a father or mother, a spouse, a brother or sister, a son or a daughter.Shivah begins, you begin to count the seven days, when you return from the funeral and you light the seven-day candle, thener neshama, the light of the soul. There is one burning now in Paris, where Shelly’s brother lives with his family, and in Palm Springs, where Shelly’s sister lives with hers.

In our house it is burning on a mosaic table that once sat in Jack and Frances’ apartment in Jerusalem, where they lived for ten years. Around the candle we have placed photos of Shelly’s dad – in his army uniform; at his wedding; with his wife and children and grandchildren; and in all the places he lived – New York, Israel, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he ended his days at the Jewish Home. Next to the candle are the words we say when we light thener neshama: “The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord,” from Proverbs chapter 20 [vs.27]. “As the light of theshivah candle burns clear and bright, so may the memory of our beloved forever illumine our lives.”

For Shelly, Betsy, Rachel and me, the candle burning in a corner of the room is the place we have consecrated to the soul of our father and grandfather during this week of mourning. He will be with us always, but he is with us especially in this first seven days.

 What does it mean to observeshivah? I have sometimes seen people confused by the concept. “What do you mean?” they say. “You mean you stay home for a whole week? You just sit around and do nothing?”

Well, yes and no. The verb that is always used withshivah is “sit.” You do sit. You sit with the death. You sit still. You don’t go out. You don’t go back to work. Your responsibilities are lifted off you for a while. You don’t run errands. You don’t run anywhere that takes you away from what has happened.

“But doesn’t it make it worse,” people ask, “just to sit there and brood about it? Why take so long? Doesn’t it help to get back to your normal routine? What good does it do to sit there all alone in an empty house?”

They’re right, of course. Sitting all alone in an empty house, brooding, would not really help, I think. The idea is not to be alone but to step back from the world. You step back to acknowledge that something significant has happened to you. As there are seven biblical days in the world’s creation, so you set aside seven days to acknowledge that your world has altered forever.

 In October, 1896, when Sigmund Freud was 40 years old, his father Jacob died. Shortly afterwards Freud wrote in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess that this death “has affected me profoundly…has reawakened all my early feelings…I feel quite uprooted.” He wrote that in his eyes the death of one’s father is “the most important event, the most poignant loss, in a man’s life.”

Freud’s feelings about his father were ambivalent, to say the least. His father had struggled financially, had been unable to support his son through medical school, and had had the humiliating experience of having to accept help from his wife’s family. Freud considered his father a failure. Yet the death struck him hard [from Armand Nicholi, Jr.,The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund FreudDebate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life”].

It is not quite acceptable today, I think, for an adult to acknowledge how powerfully you feel the loss of your father or mother when they are no longer in the world. Even if they were very old. Even if they have been sick, or diminished from who they once were. Even – especially – if your relationship has sometimes been difficult. You are not supposed to need your parents, after all, once you grow up. But it is a very great loss, a life-changing loss, as are the other losses for which the tradition prescribesshivah.

I know that, for Shelly and me, rushing to immerse ourselves immediately in our familiar routines would not have felt right. Someone we love very much is gone, and we needed time to feel the loss.Shivah, above all, is the gift of time and attention. 

Because of my mother-in-law’s illness we have not gotten to experienceshivah fully during this week, but we have had a chance to appreciate the wisdom of this gift. This is what we did during our week, in between visits to the hospital: we listened to music, mostly composed by Shelly’s brother. We looked at family pictures. We read cards and notes of condolence. We sat together and talked. We spent time in solitude. We rested and slept. We read sometimes, but we didn’t watch tv or listen to the radio. Like mirrors (which some traditional families cover duringshivah) they felt to us like distractions, and we had no interest in them. During ourshivah the world narrowed and we focused on essentials.

Most important, we were not alone. The essence ofshivah is not theminyan, the prayer service that takes place usually in the evening, but the visiting that takes place during the day, often during hours specified by the mourning family. People who know the tradition know that it is proper to drop by for short visits during that time. They know that it is proper to let the mourners direct the conversation and to talk about what the mourners want to talk about. They often bring food.

Here, too, I learned something. I have heard people talk about the hassle of having a house full of people when you don’t feel like being with people, and about how overwhelming it is to have so much food around. But the way it was for us is the way it is supposed to be. When you are grieving, you are not supposed to become hosts who are catering a party. Instead, you are held, fed and cared for by others.

That is why people bring food to the mourners. That is why it’s traditional for friends and/or the community to prepare the house and the meal of condolence so that when mourners return from the funeral, everything is ready for them.

Shelly and I did not know how this was going to feel, and we discovered that it felt incredible. At a time when our own emotional resources were so depleted, people reached out to us in the most practical ways and held us up. The day after my father-in-law died someone appeared at our door with not one but two meals for us and our relatives who were in town.

With all our hearts we want to thank those who cared for us. We are grateful to every person who called, who wrote, who stopped by, who left food on our doorstep.   

I know, having been there myself, that people often feel awkward about what to do duringshivah. They are afraid of “intruding.” They sometimes feel that they don’t know the mourners well enough to get involved, and that those who are closer must be “taking care of things.” That’s why it is so valuable to have a few people who take upon themselves the responsibility of organizing the community’s response. That is what happened for us, and we are especially grateful to those individuals.

You cannot really observeshivah without friends and community around you – and not just anyone but people who know the tradition, and who offer support with sensitivity and understanding, as it was offered to us. Shelly and I were fortunate to know the power and beauty of a community of loving concern. We can’t fully express what your kindness has meant to us during this time, but we can say that, having experienced how good it feels, you want to be able to offer it to others.

One of the things we re-read this week was “Kaddish,” Leon Wieseltier’s book about the first year after his father’s death. These are some of his words:

“When I left the shul this evening, I walked over to the park. The heavy summer air was filled with fireflies, hundreds of them, burning and vanishing, burning and vanishing. The park was a field of floating, passing intensities. I sat for a while and watched the little eruptions of brilliance. Wherever I looked, it was the beginning and the ending of light. No light lasted long, but there was not a moment of total darkness. This, I thought, is another ideal of illumination” [p.61].

I carry those words with me now, understanding in a new way that at every given moment of our lives, we witness the beginning and the ending of light – lights burning and vanishing, burning and vanishing without end. Babies come into the world – little eruptions of brilliance; boys and girls step over the boundary of childhood; teenagers leave our home and move on; lives come to an end and we lose the people we love. 

Theshivah week is the first milestone of mourning – the first step you take in the necessary task of separating from the one who has died. Sitting alone one night by the light of thener neshama, I took comfort in looking at all the pictures of our family spread out around the candle. It shone upon the face of the good and gentle man we miss so much, and it shone upon the face of the son who is so like him, and upon the children who will go on after us.

So we read each year in the liturgy for Rosh Hashana: “As night follows day, the candle of our life burns down and gutters….Yet we do not despair, for we are more than a memory slowly fading into the darkness. With our lives we give life. Something of us can never die…” 

No light lasts forever, but there is never a moment when the darkness is complete.