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Shiva and Sheloshim: Personal Reflections

June 29, 2015 | by Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith

How the Jewish mourning laws counteract the upheaval left in death’s wake.

Sitting shiva and observing the 30-day "sheloshim" period of mourning for the death of my mother revealed a number of things that I would not have appreciated had I not been thrust into this experience myself.

I sat shiva in Toronto, along with my brother (who, like me, lives in Jerusalem), my father and our three siblings. There was a constant flow of phone calls from friends, colleagues and neighbors in Jerusalem and from around the world. A handful of friends even flew in for the day to visit and express their condolences in person.

I was caught off guard by how much these expressions of condolences meant to me.

I was caught off guard by how much these expressions of condolences meant to me. It didn't really matter what they said; what mattered was that friends and family took the time to pay a shiva call or picked up the phone and called. They cared. We were not alone. We felt buoyed by the bonds of our friends and family. Sitting shiva and being on the receiving end, I realized how delinquent I've been in performing this mitzvah. I would hesitate to go over the shiva house – do they really want to see me at their time of grief, and what am I going to say?

How wrong I was. Don't hesitate; just go and show up. And if the mourner is in a different city, pick up the phone and call. Every visit, every call registers and gives strength to the mourner. As long as you don't ask inappropriate questions, it pretty much doesn't matter what you say. And brief is good!

Our family sat shiva together for seven days, with no distractions – no TV, no novels, no computer, limited Torah learning (Jewish law limits what you can learn to matters related to death and mourning), and no work. That's an awfully long time. And for my family, spending this much time together was unprecedented. Sitting shiva together brought us closer. In between visits (which at times felt like a high school reunion, catching up with people I have not seen in 35 years) we looked at old photo albums, reminisced about our mother, and gave each other the strength to face our loss.

When the shiva ended and my brother and I were heading back to Jerusalem, we felt that we should do something to keep the family connection alive, and not wait for sad circumstances to bring us together. My siblings felt the same way. So we decided to learn Torah together for 15 minutes every Sunday over the phone, spouses included. I can't imagine the nachas my mother must be getting!

Death is a rupture in the fabric of one's life. It upends things, creating a sense of dislocation and upheaval. Some of the customs of Jewish mourning reflect this sense of disruption. I am now experiencing how eloquently they express the mourner's inner turmoil. When I go to shul I cannot sit in my usual seat; I have to sit elsewhere, somewhere foreign, unfamiliar. I am uprooted, physically and emotionally.

One of the most dramatic differences in my life as a mourner is my new role as shliach tzibur, the person who leads the communal prayers three times a day. After shiva there is an understandable desire to withdraw and seek solitude. The customs of Jewish mourning urge the mourner to lead the prayer services and say Kaddish for 11 months. Instead of retreating I am suddenly forced to front and center of the community. This is the first time in my life leading the prayer services (a great fear of mine!) and it has transformed me overnight into a far more active member of the community. It's one more example of how these mourning customs promote a healthy way of processing the death of a loved one within the embrace of the community which would perhaps not have happened otherwise.

I can channel that feeling of loss in a tangible, meaningful way.

My mother may no longer be alive, but I feel that she is still an active part of my life. She has left the physical world but her soul endures in the Next World, and I can elevate her soul through my actions. I have my mother in mind when I say kaddish, learn Torah and make a siyum, celebrating the completion a tractate of the Talmud. My kids, even my four-year-old son, are going out of their way to do acts of kindness on behalf of their bubby. This as well is the main impetus behind our weekly family learning sessions.

Her death has created a void, and by being more serious about my spiritual growth I can channel that feeling of loss in a tangible, meaningful way. I can no longer speak to my mother on the phone, but I do feel her presence throughout the day. And her death propels me to push beyond my pettiness and fears to embrace what’s really important in life.

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