Friday, October 29, 2010

Healing ritual is all about community

It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of “Interesting Jewish Stories and Facts” (IJS&F). Today, let’s spend some time exploring the why of shiva.

I’m at home, sitting shiva for my mother who died over the weekend. The Hebrew word literally means seven, in this case detailing the number of days you spend mourning the loss of a relative.

There are many rituals and rules associated with sitting shiva – covering mirrors in the home, not shaving, sitting on a low stool, sharing meals and eating certain foods. Essentially, regular activity, both work and play, is interrupted, a constant reminder that something has changed.

Judaism is a religion of laws, rituals and customs. There’s much that deals with the cosmic and divine, but where I think the religion gets just about everything right is how it deals with death and dying. I doubt there were any psychologists doing work as grief counselors when our ancestors codified the mourning process. But someone – or some group – in our distant past understood the importance of grieving and made it part of the faith.

Shiva, just one part of the mourning process, makes it clear to Jews living in a world that moves at warp speed that it’s all right to take time to mourn a loved one. It’s okay to miss a little work, skip a party or ignore the marathon football fest that eats away at our lives each weekend in the fall.

Earlier this week, a good friend who feels little connection to the details of Judaism, performed a mitzvah, paying a shiva call and spending time with me. Later that evening, surrounded by dozens of people – friends and family, colleagues and acquaintances – I realized what I should have told him when he said he really didn’t “get” this Jewish thing.

There’s lots about the faith I don’t understand, but as I grieve the loss of my mother, I “get” the importance of shiva. There’s something healing and healthy about being surrounded by people, many simply offering a word or two of understanding, others sharing their own grief and sorrow.

Years ago, my father use to drag me along with him when he made shiva calls. I always felt awkward and out of place, and never knew what to say to the grieving family. As often as not, I stood in a corner and said little. Hey, I was a kid! Today, I realize that’s okay. Simply being in the home meant something to the family.

The minyon held each evening of shiva in my home is important; so, too, the food that’s been brought over by family and friends and the schmoozing that fills the night. But the most meaningful part of the whole exercise for me is simply walking from room to room, seeing family and friends with one another – talking, laughing, arguing, eating, drinking … living!

And so it goes.

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