A look behind the new phenomenon of mourners for hire and friends for rent.
The following story is completely outlandish – and true.
A congregant of a rabbi lost his mother. After the funeral, the man turned to his spiritual leader with a question. "I know that I am now supposed to sit shiva. I'm aware of my religious obligation to stay home and refrain from work for seven days. But this is really my busy season. I’m wondering if it’s possible for me to hire someone to sit shiva for me."
At first I didn’t believe the story, but after reading the remarkable new book by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, The Outsourced Self, I changed my mind. "Mourners for rent" is an outgrowth of the new reality of "personal outsourcing" that is gaining greater popularity and acceptance.
Yes, people today are hard pressed for time and are willing to pay for the privilege of having someone do things for them faster and better instead. I have no problem with people going to an accountant to file their taxes or to a manicurist to file their nails. Outsourcing these onerous tasks are well deserved benefits of being able to afford them.
But in addition to mourners for hire, the following intimate life services are now available: friends for rent, grandmas for rent, holiday gift buyer, photo album assembler, gravesite tenders, dog walkers, personal chefs, closet organizers, interactive motivators at parties, potty trainers, thumb-sucking specialists, dating service checkers, nameologists, wantologists and so much more.
What’s a nameologists? That's a specialist who will expertly guide you to the right name to give to your newborn child, which will save you from the difficult task of choosing a beloved ancestor whose memory you want to perpetuate. And what's a wantologist? That’s someone you can hire to help you figure out what you really want! (I'm not making this up.)
The common denominator in all of this outsourcing – from the personal to the commercial realm – is the tragic loss of the emotional component that ought to be the key to our relationships. The gift that I buy for a loved one because I chose it expresses my feelings far better than what my "holiday gift buyer" expert deems perfect because it's in fashion. The photos I put together in my album may not be the ones chosen by the “professional photo album assembler," but they will reflect the memories precious to me as I see them, not the ones I'm told to treasure by a stranger.
And the incredible category of "friends for rent" – have we lost all sense of the very meaning of the word friend? According to the ancient proverb, friends are one mind in two bodies. By the friend-for-rent standard, they are no more than a commercial transaction between a payer and a payee.
Transferring Emotional Involvement
Jewish law long ago set the parameters for when it is permissible to delegate a task and when personal responsibility trumps this possibility. There is the role of a “shaliach” in Hebrew, a personal agent that acts on your behalf in certain situations. A writ of divorce, for example, may be sent from husband to wife by way of a messenger. The goal here is merely to have something delivered.
But when the great 18th-century Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, known by the name of his greatest work Noda B’Yehudah, was asked why the Talmudic principle of "the agent of a person is like himself” wouldn't apply to delegating someone to perform a mitzvah on his behalf, he clarified the distinction by way of a simple concept: A responsibility predicated on personal and emotional involvement can never be passed over to another. The person must perform it himself.
No one can listen to the shofar for you. You would never personally experience its call to repentance. No one can sit in the sukkah in your stead. You would not gain the feeling of the frailty of the walls you count on to protect you and your total dependence on the heavens beneath which you dwell. No one can put on tefillin – the phylacteries bound on hand and head – for you. It is the works of your hand and the thoughts of your mind that must be made subservient to the greater power of God.
Mourning requires personal grieving. The tears must be our tears.
So too, the mourning process for our departed loved ones requires personal grieving. The tears must be our tears. They cannot be counterfeit products of purchase. Any mitzvah rooted in emotion demands that it not be delegated.
It’s a mistake to think that professionals who get paid will do everything better. When it comes to the most important relationships of life, the most meaningful expressions of what we believe, as well as the most powerful demonstrations of our spiritual values, God has commanded us personally.
We are to be good parents.
We are to be faithful and loving mates.
We are to be supportive and grateful children.
Attaining the inspiration, elevation and refinement that comes through fulfilling the mitzvahs can’t be done by proxy. There are no shortcuts to spiritual growth. We need to take the time and care to be personally engaged and perform these treasured tasks ourselves.