In every Shemona Esrei there’s a section for refuah shlema, healing. Within that prayer, there is a place to insert the names of specific people who are sick and so every time I daven I have a list I pray for. I have my core list and I have names that come and go. You see a name of someone on Facebook who needs healing, someone says their mother is sick, etc. So when I asked my friend Eliyahu if I could pray for him for anything, he said to pray for his brother’s health.
I never asked him his brother’s Hebrew name… or English name for that matter. And it wasn’t long before he fell out of my prayers like so many others. Then, when I got the email, subject line Baruch Dayan HaEmes, on Thursday informing me of Eliyahu’s brother’s passing, I not only felt a sense of sadness. But a stinging pain that I had let my friend down.
Shiva is a strange mitzvah. The mourner sits in a low chair and talks (or doesn’t) about the person they’ve lost. You as a visitor aren’t supposed to say anything unless you have a story to share about the departed or if the mourner addresses you directly. I would have expected an inconsolable and palpable pain, an out pouring of emotion, but that seems to be the anomaly. Granted I’m sure there are shivas like that. But what I’ve experienced instead are beautiful and touching stories, sometimes hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking. But no matter how many people are sitting in the room, there is an intimacy unlike any other scenario I can think of.
The Week Begins
This week started and ended with a shiva call. Literally. Immediately after Shabbos ended on Saturday night, I drove to a friend, a mentor, and a very special Rabbi, Shlomo Seidenfeld’s shiva. Marc was there and wrote about it in his most recent post. Up until recently I had never attended a shiva or even been to a funeral. But in just over a year I’ve now been to four.
Rabbi Seidenfeld had lost his sister, Gloria. Born with severe cerebral palsy, she had resided in an assisted living facility pretty much her whole life. The idea that he most potently expressed was to address the question, Was she a waste of a life? The weight of the notion so profoundly troubled not only him, but his father, a holocaust survivor. I think when one comes into the shiva process, among the many things they deal with, is the question, why? Where is the sense in it? And through the process I imagine they find some sort of clarity.
For Rabbi Seidenfeld, he could declare his sister made a difference. He certaintly felt it and I’m sure he saw it. As I looked at the pictures laid out on the coffee table of him holding her, I’m left only to imagine what that difference was. Then I look at Shlomo, a man whose norm is wearing his heart on his sleeve, but now balancing between outpouring emotion and a calm and almost serene smile. And I realize the source of his unparalleled warmth and compassion must have come from his sister.
Gloria had been flown to Israel and was buried just before Shabbos. Rabbi Seidenfeld shared a thought; that when we fly to Israel, on our way to a simcha or a vacation, there is most likely someone below us, on their way to their final resting place in our homeland. And most of us are completely unaware of it.
The Week Ends
It’s Friday morning, mere hours before I am writing this and I am looking at Shlomo as he’s sitting on the other side, in the audience, talking to Eliyahu. It’s bizarre the juxtaposition. But also feels comforting, because when you’re in the presence of a mourner, you don’t want to do or say anything insensitive. Which is why you’re not supposed to say anything at all. But none the less the apprehension is still there. Rabbi Seidenfeld is like a guide, having literally ended his week of shiva the day before.
I come to learn Eliyahu’s brother is named Jason. The pictures displayed on the mantle are of a 50 year old man who doesn’t look a day over 30. But there’s one picture that stands out. One of what must be a teenage Eliyahu with an even younger Jason. It’s at that point, a sting hits me. For some reason that picture hits home the reality that my friend has lost his younger brother.
Eliyahu has always come off with a warm sagacity. If you ever told me Eliyahu was angry, I would simply tell you, you’re lying. He and his family, to me, embody everything I believe is right and good about Judaism. And so, to hear about his brother, who wasn’t so connected, I still get a picture of an enthusiastic person who loved life the way Eliyahu loves Torah.
As Eliyahu related, though Jason had lived an exciting life of adventure with his wife, he expressed that he felt like he never accomplished. He never had children and he never took up some cause to change the world. And in the last year of his life, as he battled stage four cancer, he felt it was certainly too late to do anything about that now. As if to invoke the question posed at Rabbi Seidenfeld’s shiva, was this a waste of a life? Eliyahu of course, rejected this notion. As a designer of user interface for Apple, though Jason never invented anything like the iPhone 11, he was an important part of that company. Though he never had children of his own, he was involved with his parents more than any of his other siblings. And with his charisma, in Hebrew we’d say chein, inspired that feeling that anything can be done. An invigorative spirit that Eliyahu will forever miss.
A Matter of Mattering
I missed the opportunity to daven for Jason’s health. A skeptic might say that my prayers wouldn’t have made a difference to a person whose cancer had metastasized to his kidneys and beyond. And in terms of adding years to Jason’s life, they’re probably right. But that’s not what matters. There’s a good chance many of us won’t get to the destinations we set out for. Whether life gets in the way, or worse, that that life gets tragically cut short. The things we do matter in so many ways we can’t ever perceive. Our mere presence at a simcha, or an event, or (most certainly) a shiva, forms connections and creates ripples that forever make a difference.
Going to a shiva is a mitzvah. Mitzvah is often translated as a commandment and people often minimize it to simply a good deed. Both understandings are sorely lacking. At the root of the word mitzvah is the word “tzav” which means connection. We do mitzvahs to connect to God. And in the case of the mitzvah of visiting a mourner, it connects us to life (nothing connects you to life like the awareness of death) and it connects you to the person. And a connection with a person, by definition, creates an effect that matters.
This blog was written in the merit of Gittle bas Yeshayahu and Yotam Amatziyahu ben Aryeh Halevi. May their neshamas have an aliyah.