Visiting a House of Mourning- Shiva

April 12, 2009 · Posted in Life and Death 

It was a weekday evening and my wife Judy and I were enjoying an intimate conversation, recapping recent events and trying to re-connect after a few hectic days. We’d been trying to do that on a regular basis, as it is so easy to exist in parallel worlds – to live in the same house, sleep in the same bed and yet drift apart. So we’ve made a conscious effort to share, to look into each other’s eyes, turn off the Blackberry and the cell phone and just talk, without distractions.

Just then the phone rang. Neither of us planned to answer it, but Judy glanced at the caller ID and said “It’s Batya!” Batya, our oldest lives in Jerusalem. She is 25, married with two children, ages 4 and 2, and she is expecting her third.

My body immediately tensed. Why would she be calling now? It’s 2 a.m. in Israel.

The first words out of Judy’s mouth when she answered the phone were, “What’s wrong?”  I hovered over her trying to discern the answer from the other side of the line. “Batya, Batya, what’s wrong?” Judy repeated, adding to me, “She is sobbing, I don’t understand what she is saying.”

My thoughts went to the worst possible scenario immediately. She
lost the baby, God forbid. Something happened to one of kids … something happened to Yoni, Batya’s husband.

But Judy, getting something out of Batya now, reassured me. “Everybody is okay – the kids, the baby, Yoni…” Instinctively, she knew what I was thinking. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare – the phone call that something happened to one of their children or grandchildren.

I could hear Judy reassuring Batya. “Ohhh, I’m so sorry. How did it happen? When was the funeral? Are you okay? Try to get some sleep…  I love you. Let’s talk tomorrow morning. Try to sleep sweetheart.”

After she hung up, Judy explained that Batya’s best friend from high school had lost her husband. He died suddenly while on a camping trip. He was only 25 years old. The couple had lived in Brooklyn, but they had flown the body to Jerusalem for burial. Now the young widow, her two small children, and her extended family were returning to the U.S. to observe shiva, the seven-day mourning period. Batya asked if Judy and I would pay a shiva call to comfort the mourners.

Judy and I looked at each other. We were saddened but puzzled. How is it possible that a young man of 25 should died suddenly, cause unknown? Without saying, we both were wondering if the actual cause was drug abuse, a problem that has been rearing its ugly head in recent years in the religious world, where previously it had been unknown. (We were unfortunately correct, as we later learned.)

Besides that we were feeling very vulnerable. Our worries always concern our children and their physical wellbeing. It is never far from our minds – the fear: What if?

Of course, I do trust in God that He will take care of my children,
watch over them and He has so far, but sometimes when I kiss my girls good-bye in the morning as they head for the school bus at the corner, an unbidden horrible thought flies through my mind: “What if?”

I couldn’t help but think that now one mother is no longer wondering, “What if?” Now that mother is asking, “How do I go on?”

Of course, if our presence could ease her suffering the tiniest bit, of course we would pay a visit to the house of mourning.

THE HOUSE OF MOURNING

I rarely get over to Brooklyn. I have been to Kiev, where I do business, more times than to Brooklyn, and I often joke that I need a passport to go there. It is a whole other world to me and the one-hour drive in New York traffic from my home in Monsey to Flatbush is not something that I relish. But to comfort the mourners is an important mitzvah, and in this case, one we wanted to fulfill for many reasons, not the least of which was the unspoken bond we felt with the mother of the young man who had died though we had never met her.

The house of mourning was her house.

We parked the car and slowly walked up to the little house, so similar to the other little houses on this street, except that inside a family was grieving.

The front door had been left open so that visitors could walk right in and not ring the doorbell and disturb the mourners. When we crossed the threshold, we were immediately transported into another world. Outside was a warm, sunny, cheerful day; inside dark clouds covered the sun – we had entered a dark, sad place.

I sat down near the young man’s mother, who was hugging the young widow, as the two orphaned children, four- and a one-year-old, hovered nearby. The widow looked much too young to bear such a heavy burden. Then the four-year-old, a gorgeous little girl with flowing blond curls, came over and scrambled onto her lap. She picked up a picture of her father displayed on the table in front of her and started to poke her finger at it. “Daddy,” she said, “Daddy is in heaven now.”

Tears started rolling down my face. Embarrassed, I looked up and saw the pain in the mother’s eyes too great to imagine. She passed me the tissue box, because she couldn’t cry anymore. Then I noticed that everyone else sitting there was crying. This little girl’s innocent act of poking her tiny finger – a touch of flesh against Kodak paper – pierced the soul of each of the observers of this act. We moved from passive visitors to sufferers, from bystanders to mourners ourselves. The simple act of an innocent child brought each one of us in touch with our own mortality.

I hardly knew the deceased. I had never seen this little girl, so why was I, and all the others, so moved?

In answer to all those philosophers and pundits who pontificate about whether or not there is a universal reality, an eternal soul that is common to all humanity, such a moment in time screams “YES! We are all ONE!”

This truth seared through me to the core. It cut me open, leaving me raw, vulnerable, exposed. I think all the people in that room, on one level or another, felt the same.

When we left, Judy and I talked about how moved we both were. We were glad that we had made the hour-long trip to Brooklyn to the house of mourning. It felt good to do something meaningful and real that touched others and reminded us of our common humanity.

GUILT FEELINGS

There were other moments during that shiva call that I will never forget, because they drove home lessons I needed to learn.

When the young widow spoke about how great her deceased husband was with his small children – how they were the center of his life, how he played with them constantly, seemingly never tiring of their simple games – the guilt rolled in.

I don’t play with my little kids enough. On Shabbat afternoon, which should be my prime opportunity, I slink off to take a nap while the kids play by themselves or with Judy. I start off every Shabbat telling myself that this one will be different – this weekend I will hang out with the kids – but my weary body wins the battle and exhaustion wipes out my resolve. During the week, I am torn between work and kids, and work always wins out.

My kids notice, of course. They chide me constantly that I have missed each birthday at least once because of my business trips. I can just imagine what they will say when they sit shiva for me. “Dad never played with us. He missed all our birthdays because he was working too hard.”

At least for some of those years, they will be able to say that he worked too hard to help the Jewish people. Will it matter to them that their father started Aish LA and initiated programs like “Twenty Something” which brought thousands of young Jews back to the fold, that he raised funds for Russian Jews, and that he spread Torah values throughout America with “Words Can Heal,” that he worked hard to raise the profile of Israel in world opinion through “Honest Reporting” and many mission to Israel, that he wrote four books which touch a lot of lives …

Perhaps they don’t all have my books, I thought. I should gather them up while they are still in print and make a package for each of my children so they have something concrete to point to when they measure their dad’s accomplishments versus his absence from the family.

On the other hand, maybe that won’t help. Maybe they will only think of the price they paid for my struggles to get rich. The guilt again … That’s what a house of mourning does to you.

HUGS AND KISSES

Later on during the visit, when I walked down the hall in search of a bathroom, I saw the deceased man’s brother hugging the children. He was holding to them ever so tightly as if trying to replace the love and hugs they were already missing from their father. It was such a special moment. I could sense the strength of the feelings being transmitted in those hugs, and I wondered if from somewhere in the spiritual beyond, the father was channeling his love through his brother.

Right then and there, I told myself to hug each one of my kids when I got home. I’m generally a pretty good hugger, but just yesterday Sara came to ask me for a hug, and then she wanted to discuss her homework, but I was too preoccupied in my work to take the time to do more than hug her. I resolved to remedy that.

Another moment that spoke to me was when the young man’s Torah study partners talk about his commitment to learning – how he always pushed him to get up in the morning, how he was always ready to learn a little bit more. Will any chevrusa say that about me at my shiva? I know the answer to that one. For sure not. The last serious study partner I had, I left behind in Israel 25 years ago. Since then I have been dabbling in my Torah studies, but I have not had the serious commitment to learning like that young man.

I miss it. I also miss not being involved in my community the way I used to be when I lived in LA. There I had a lot of friends and contacts whose lives I was able to touch and who touched me in a meaningful way. In Monsey, I hardly know anybody. I have so few friends here. How many people would come to my funeral? I doubt that the people I am making business deal with would show up. Why should they? Of what value would I be to them dead?

Since I have left the non-profit world, I have felt a void in my life. In that house of mourning I resolved to fill it with meaningful stuff, to make a difference again, to leave an imprint when I am gone, so that my life would have counted for something.

I know that I went to pay a shiva call to comfort the mourners, but the visit turned out to be a look in the mirror – and the picture was not pretty. Am I overly guilt ridden? Well, wouldn’t you be if you were me?

As I was sitting there, my chairs – one of many delivered by a special non-profit organization that brings chairs and prayer books to the houses of mourning – suddenly collapsed under me. The screws holding it together let go, and it broke apart. It was as if the weight of the thousands of people who had sat in this chair became suddenly too much for it to bear, and it collapsed either from all that pain or from the added burden of my guilt. I knew right then and there that God was sending me a sign: Wake up before you collapse.

Thank you, God, but I think I got it.

Meanwhile, everyone got upset about my mishap. The young widow endeavored to help me up, and in that moment I saw the tear in her blouse. Jews wear a garment torn over their heart during the period of mourning. The tear is called kria, and it is a very moving moment during the funeral when this is done. It is as if the rawness of the pain is exposed in that act of tearing. I well remember doing this at the funerals of my mother and father. It was as if I wanted to tear my heart open, but since I could not, I tore my garment symbolically. Those were probably the most painful moments in my life. That memory brought my sympathy for the widow to a new level – she was much too young to be rent like this.

GOD’S COMFORT

With great sadness, we left the house of mourning after an hour’s visit. Going out, we pronounced the traditional words “May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” In Hebrew, a strange name for God is used in this salutation – HaMakom, literally meaning “the Place,” but generally translated as “the Omnipresent.” I have never really understood it why this is said here and nowhere else. Why does “the Place” comfort us? Why not Rahaman – “the Merciful One”?
 
After I got home, I research it and found that people who have lost a loved one often feel that they have been abandoned by God; that there is no God where they are. Therefore, those who come to comfort the mourners remind them of the omnipresence of God, that God is everywhere — He is the place and the context of everything.

The greatest comfort that the mourners can receive is to be again made aware of God’s constant presence and care. According to Rabbi Yisrael Rutman, “the name of God HaMakom asserts that God is everywhere and everything: physical and spiritual, matter and energy. All of this makes up the oneness of God. Thus, the contemplation of HaMakom during a time of pain can comfort the mourners with the realization that their loved one’s physical death is only a part of the bigger picture.” Just as a birth is a part of God’s plan, so too is a death.

A NEW LEAF

The next morning, I turned a new leaf. Instead of letting my girls take the bus to school, I decided I would drive them myself. “My work can wait,” I told myself. I woke them up with kisses and hugs, and I rolled out the family convertible to make this a really fun ride.

The day was warm and sunny. I put on a tape of Jewish A-cappella and let it blast out as I drove down the street with two of my most precious  belongings sitting in the car with me. They were laughing as we drove with the top down on a beautiful spring day singing together to the music, waving our hands over the top of the car. We stopped for hot chocolate and bagels on the way, and by the time we arrived at the school, I felt so good – to be enjoying the simple things of life, time with my kids.

When we arrived at the school, I let them out, kissed and hugged them and sent them on the way to class, hoping that they will remember this day. Life is a series of moments. Nothing more, nothing less.

That day, inspired by the experience of the house of mourning, I tried to create a moment they will remember. It made my life a little bit more meaningful. I hope they will talk about it when I am gone.

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