Es chato’ai ani mazkir hayom.
I am going to share something I am a little ashamed of, but I think it’s rather instructive, so I am going to swallow my pride.
This took place in 2013, I had just started at Ner Tamid. I remember exactly where I was standing when I took the call I am bout to describe. It was from a member of the shul who had recently lost a loved one. They had not asked me to officiate the funeral – I was new to the shul, and I didn’t really know them and that was just fine. However, I did not attend the funeral. Not only that, I did not attend the shiva. I had no shortage of excuses as to why I didn’t attend; I didn’t have the time, it was a “crazy week,” etc. etc. But the truth is, I really didn’t know them, and I was nervous; what was I going to say to these people who were grieving? Nothing. I barely know the individual who passed and I didn’t know them at all. So I came up with every legitimate excuse not go.
And now, I was on the phone with the family who were quite upset at me for not coming to the shiva house. And they were 100% right. I should have swallowed my pride, gotten over the fact that I had nothing to say to them, and just showed up.
I apologized, of course. Profusely. But they ended up leaving the shul.
Rabbi Berel Wein, the famous Jewish historian and former congregational rabbi, wrote a book about his experiences as a rabbi. He has a section on funerals in which he describes the many times he’d be enjoying a hard-earned vacation and he’d get a call that someone had passed away. He’d deliberate, going back and forth in his mind if he should travel home, and his wife’s advice would win out every time. She’d say, “Berel, people only die once in their lifetime. This is your only chance to be there for them.” (As an aside, after too many cancelled vacations, he decided to only vacation overseas so he wouldn’t be forced to make these difficult decisions.)
His wife’s somewhat comical line how people only die once in their lifetime is something worth reflecting on, not just for rabbis, but for all of us.
Thank G-d, for the most part we are all self-sufficient. We’re hopefully employed. We have some basic level of social support. We’re okay. But invariably, in a person’s life, there will be times when our basic support is insufficient. Moments of crisis, moments in which we feel like we’re free-falling, lost, living in a deep, deep fog. For most people, thank G-d, that’s rare. But it happens. It happens to all of us. Often, other people don’t know when we’re free-falling or struggling. But there is one time when it is apparent to all, and that’s when we experience a loss. And it’s at moments like those, that we need each other, not just our rabbi, but each other, all of us, to just be there for us.
The traditional words that we say to a mourner are, Hamakom yinachem eschem. May G-d, who we refer to as ‘Hamakom’ – the place, G-d who fills all the space of the world, may He comfort you. There are many explanations as to why we refer to G-d with this unique name of ‘the place.’ But today, I’d like to share with you a homiletic interpretation on the word, Hamakom, suggesting that it does not refer to G-d. Rather, it refers to the place that is surrounding the mourner. If the space, the room in which the mourner is sitting is filled with people, not necessarily saying anything, but just being there, that provides nechama, comfort. If the place is empty, if there are no calls, no texts, no gestures, and instead the mourner free-falls on their own, if instead the mourner is lost on their own, if instead the mourner navigates the fog on his or her own, then there is no nechama.
It’s been well-documented how wise the laws of shiva are for the mourner. Burying their loved one as soon as possible as a way to give closure. Taking a break for seven days to give emotional space to focus on the loss. And the notion of visiting the mourner, making a shiva call, to receive comfort and strength from one’s community.
To fulfill the law of nichum aveilim, comforting the mourner, one need not say anything at all. All you need to do is show up, to be there, to demonstrate that you are with them. The Halacha actually states that you are not meant to say anything until the mourner speaks first. And if they don’t speak? You don’t speak. That’s okay, you’re there for them. That’s what’s important.
We’re not very good with silence and so we end up talking about silly things. Or far worse, we’re afraid, like I was, that we have nothing to say, or that they don’t even know us, so we protect our pride and we let our community member sit all alone, in an empty place.
In the very first message that Hashem conveys to Moshe to tell the Jewish People, G-d does not say, tell them I will save them, G-d does not say, tell them I will assist them. Rather,
כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם
Say to the Jewish People, “’I will be’ sent me to you.” (Shemos, 3:14)
G-d describes Himself with this new name, a name we don’t see anywhere else; “I will be.” What does I will be mean? Says Rashi, I will be with you in your pain. Imcha anoch b’tzara. The very first message that Hashem conveys to His enslaved people is not one of redemption or even of hope, but rather, it is one of presence. I will be with you. I am here with you.
We often don’t know when people are going through a hard time, we have no way of knowing. But when someone experiences a loss, we know. We may not know them all that well. We may not have anything to say. But being a member of a community means being there for one another, not by doing or saying, just by being there. Imcha anochi b’tzara, I am here with you, to listen if you want to talk, but even if you don’t, I am here for you with my presence.
I often speak to people who are going through hard times. More often than not, I don’t have any solutions or cannot find words of chizuk, of encouragement, that will resonate; I know they will come out flat. But I’ve realized over these past years that my job, and not just my job, but the job every human being, every member of a community, is just to be there. Not to problem-solve, not to fill the silence with noise, but to touch and feel and taste the pain our community member is experiencing to the best of our ability and to just be there.
That means showing up to shiva houses. That means sending someone a one-line text even if we don’t know them that well, “thinking about you.” That means clicking the “care” button on Facebook when someone posts something sad. Imcha anochi b’tzara.
I’ll conclude with a poem I wrote a year ago. It was born out of my discomfort with the silence that being there so often entails.
I struggle for words, I bite my tongue, I sigh from the depth of my soul,
Your pain’s so deep, my words so weak, am I helping or hurting you more?
My mind can’t stop racing, ideas, solutions, I am trying to not waste your time.
My eloquence fails, my wisdom sails, all I muster is one more deep sigh.
To the sleepless parent whose child is lost, to the orphan with nowhere to turn,
To the suffering in silence, calming minds that can’t stop, and fears that always return,
To those stuck in bed, with nothing to live for, fighting to go on for one more,
To those haunted by demons, by loved ones who hurt them, who robbed them of all youthful joy.
To those hiding in closets, living two lives, torn into pieces and shreds,
To the voices not heard, the people not seen, they walk among us, the living dead.
To the lonely soul yearning for connection and love, whose hope hardened into despair,
To those who heard (/read) this and wept, their pain not expressed, truly, my greatest fear.
So as I struggle for words, as I bite my tongue, as you wonder if I’m even still there,
I am trying my best to feel your pain, and to be there with you, and to care.
I don’t have solutions, or words of wisdom, I don’t mean to waste your time.
I just want you to know that no matter the reason, imcha anochi b’tzarah.
We may not always have the words, we may even be afraid to share that we do not have the words, but as community members, let’s take a page out of G-d’s playbook, let’s be there for each other in times of pain.