|The Torah Connection-Acharei Mot-Reflections on Sitting Shivah|
|Written by Rabbi Yaakov Shlomo Weinberg|
“Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of Aaron’s two sons … and they died.” Tragically, several years ago my brother, Shmuel, alav hashalom, was niftar (passed on). On such occasions halachah (Jewish law) requires close relatives to sit shiva (seven days) after the burial. “Sitting” means (aside from sitting no higher than twelve inches from the ground) that they do nothing. No work, no preparing, no planning, not even learning Torah (except those parts that pertain to mourning).
How do we understand this concept of doing nothing? Of course, family, friends and neighbors come, often from far and wide, or call, to express their shared grief and to offer their condolences. But there is plenty of before, after and in between space that has to be dealt with. Indeed, how does one deal with it?
Halachah gives us the time, “wants” us to have the time for a number of reasons. To attempt to come to terms with one’s loss, one’s hurt, one’s emotions. To think and dwell upon the niftar, on memories, on relationships. It is a validation of one’s feelings. It is a healing process.
Perhaps most importantly, it gives one the opportunity to think about life itself, its purpose, its meaning. But not just to think about it (one has most likely done that before, perhaps often) but to experience, visualize and actualize those thoughts into one’s emotions, and thereby to act upon them. To realize that, yes, one really does have limits. The author William Saroyan said on his deathbed, “I always knew that everyone died but I never thought it would happen to me. Now what?” “Now what” – the two most horrifying words in the English language. When it’s too late to do anything about it – “now what?” Indeed, “now what?!”
Fat on the Kidneys
“The wicked know that they will ultimately die but they have fat on their kidneys …”
The knowledge of “I always knew that everyone died” does not register or affect the emotions or psyche to sound the warning bells regarding the ultimate danger and to act before it is too late. “But I never thought it would happen to me. Now what?” There is a disconnect. But it is not just the “wicked.” Many, perhaps most of us, fall under this spell of whistling past the graveyard. There is so much of our lives that we waste on narishkeiten (foolishness) or worse.
When one is required to sit shiva it means that indeed the unthinkable has touched the periphery of the “me” and it is time to sit up and take notice. It is time to take stock. This is why the halachah requires a person during shiva to do nothing – not even to learn – in order to give him time to think, to think again, and to think some more. These were some of the thoughts that crossed my mind during the above painful happening.
But having touched upon so delicate though so crucial a topic I would like to elaborate. I was once on a plane. Across from me was a young man in his early thirties. I said hello and we exchanged a few pleasantries. It turned out he was American (perfect English) Israeli. After some gentle probing I discerned that his interest in Judaism was minus zilch. We spoke some more and in the course of the conversation this question of, how does one deal with the “after one-hundred-and-twenty years”
issue, came up. He answered that he was not bothered by it – it was a part of life (sic) and he accepted it.
I thought to myself, “well done and said when one is in his early thirties. But what will his thoughts be thirty–forty years from now as the time of “now what” approaches?
And then I think of the, by now, much battered and bruised theory of evolution. “The old grey mare just ain’t what she used to be.” However, I’m not qualified to administer the final rites. Nevertheless, what perplexes me is that someone who, G-d forbid, is diagnosed with a life-threatening malady will search far and wide, high and low, conventional or non-conventional, for some kind of hope, for some kind of potential remedy. Yet here is most of the Western world cheerfully accepting their ultimate inescapable demise – forever. That’s a lot of fat on the kidneys!
“But belief in G-d is not scientific.” So much the worse for science. “If you’re not allowed to look behind the curtain how do you know there is nothing there?”
The truth is that science cannot teach us what we most need to know. This is not a dissertation on the pros and cons regarding science. My wonder is only that there is not a scramble and a hysteria to attempt to find answers before the “now what” time approaches.
1 Leviticus 16:1
2 Shabbos 31b
3 I’m not sure why the kidneys.
4 Jews customarily wish each other “till one-hundred-and-twenty years.” That was the age Moshe Rabeinu (Moses our Teacher) lived.