A number of my friends have lost parents this year and just a few years ago my father-in-law passed away during Chanukah. This week’s parsha, Parashat Vayechi, tells of the final moments of Jacob’s life, his death and burial in the cave of Machpela in Hebron, Israel. Later in the parsha Josef also dies. The book of Genesis chronicling the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs comes to an end.
Death is not an easy topic to speak of or write about, but it’s a reality of life that we all confront eventually; therefore I’ve decided to share seven thoughts on sitting shiva.
1.Shiva is the 7-day mourning period following the death of an immediate relative: a parent, spouse, sibling, or G-d forbid, a child. We refer to it as “sitting shiva.” The mourners literally sit from morning till night, getting up from their low chairs for the occasional bathroom or stretch break. The laws of shiva create a structure to facilitate the mourning process. The mourners can’t run away from facing the loss. Mirrors are covered. The mourners wear the same clothing day after day, avoid shaving and even showering.
We might think that the practices of shiva are more pain than gain. However, research reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that mourning rituals reduced grief after the loss of a loved one. (Norton, Michael I. and Francesca Gino, “Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers and Lotteries.”)
- The hours matter. Just like a microwaved dinner is not nearly as delicious as food from the slow cooker, so too microwave mourning won’t have the same impact. Shortcuts are great for your computer, but in life they rarely work.
- Food matters. I usually think that we put too much focus on food. We sometimes lose sight of the deeper meaning of the holiday or our relationships with fellow diners. When my husband sat shiva, I saw that all that food was extremely helpful. It was truly comfort food. My niece took charge of the list and friends and family offered to cook or cater lunch and dinner. It was so special, so touching. We felt so full, so cared for.
- Family and community matters. My father-in-law’s life was filled with giving. In the 1970s, when waves of Russian immigrants arrived in New York, my in-laws would pick up and deliver donated furniture and household items. They drove friends and strangers to medical appointments. My husband and his siblings have dedicated their lives to building relationships and community. They attend synagogue regularly and are engaged and involved with Jewish education for themselves and their children. Their network of relationships, constructed through time and effort, swung into action in their moment of need. Over 200 people came in person to the house to comfort the mourners. Others called, emailed, texted and chipped in to provide meals for the week.
We may get great service from the Apple store or Carnival Cruise Lines, but those are not the people who will bring us soup when we are mourning. Sociologist Robert Putnam (“Bowling Alone”) describes this as the process of reciprocity or building social capital. He writes that the slogan used by the Gold Beach Volunteer Fire Department in Oregon to publicize their annual fundraising effort: “Come to our breakfast; we’ll come to your fire.” Perhaps more apropos to shiva was the comment by New York Yankees manager Yogi Berra, “If you don’t go to somebody’s funeral, they won’t come to yours.” That’s social capital. You can’t inherit it; it accrues through effort.
- Stuff doesn’t matter. Stuff is an accoutrement of life, not its essence. We fill our lives with stuff. Guess what? At the end of our lifetimes, it won’t be coming with us. Some will go to close family and friends but most of that stuff will end up in the trash. The shiva reminds us that what lives on after death is our spiritual growth, our relationships, the impact that we had on others and our good deeds. That impact is greater and longer lasting than any purchase will ever be.
- Shiva creates the time and space for sharing those special stories. In the busyness of life, we often neglect to ask the important questions. The stories told at a funeral and during shiva fill in some of the blanks. We feel a bit closer to knowing the deceased. Research shared in Bruce Feiler’s book, “The Secret of Happy Families” (Morrow, 2013) shows that, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives; the higher their self-esteem.”
- Reputation matters. A lifetime is the sum total of countless moments and choices. King Solomon teaches that it is better to go to a house of mourning than to a party. Life is a journey. We need to think about where we want to go and how we are going to get there. Sometimes it takes a shiva to get us to recalibrate. May we merit to learn and grow through simchas (joyous occasions),not sorrows.