Last week, I wrote of the emotional journey that we take after the death of someone we love. Today, I write about the way by which Jewish tradition understands and patterns periods of mourning so that we have a path for that journey. I’ll focus not on each and every one of the many ritual practices but, rather, on the overall structure and its meaning.
There are two primary mitzvot when someone dies. The first is k’vod ha-met, that we honor our dead. The second is nichum avelim, that mourners have the opportunity to mourn and that we comfort them.
There are three periods of mourning, once the burial has occurred. The first is shiva (7 days), the week beginning with the burial and ending on the seventh day. The second is sheloshim (30 days), the remainder of the month after burial. And the third is shana (year), which dates from the death itself and which concludes with the first yahrzeit (anniversary).
To understand these periods best – and to see how they serve the two goals of honoring the dead and enabling mourners to mourn – I’d like to introduce a metaphor: the cocoon.
The caterpillar weaves its cocoon of silk in order to provide a protective covering for the pupa. While the cocoon exists in nature, the pupa also is set apart from nature so that its work of growth can occur. Withdrawal and protection enable the butterfly to evolve safely and emerge transformed.
Shiva and sheloshim are the spiritual equivalent of the cocoon.
During a traditional shiva, we withdraw from the world and societal obligations so that we can honor and mourn. We retreat and are held safe within our homes, surrounded by family and friends. The very act of dedicating a week to our loved one is a way to honor her; the stories told of her goodness do further honor; and the daily recitation of Kaddish in her memory provides yet a third. Social conventions are set aside: we are not to concern ourselves with how we “doll ourselves up,” as I like to say, how we dress and how we shave and how we perfume and bejewel ourselves. We don’t go to work, we don’t shop; and within traditional practices, obligation for performing mitzvot is suspended. Mourners are not even supposed to rise when someone comes to console them. Our social responsibilities are suspended so that we may focus on ourselves, our loved one and our loss.
We are no longer, for the duration of shiva (and to some extent sheloshim), social beings. We are returned to our rawest, most primal selves, so that we might experience our pain without dilution or distraction, so that we might begin the hard work of absorbing our new reality into our sense of self: who we are, where we are, and how that all came to be.
On the morning of the seventh day we rise and leave our home for the first time (other than on Shabbat, when we go to shul). We emerge from the cocoon of shiva in order to begin to re-enter society, with its interactions and its benefits, its stresses and its obligations. We return to work and begin to observe other social norms, but our departure from the cocoon is not a complete one; for example, a mourner continues to avoid social gatherings, entertainment and other light fare. We continue to recite Kaddish in memory of our loved one.
Finally, the year concludes with the yahrzeit, a formal recognition that the ritual period of mourning has come to a close. We concluded saying Kaddish daily at the end of the eleventh month and now light a twenty-four hour candle in memory and say Kaddish together with the community. This is also the time when the gravestone is dedicated.
Does our mourning and grieving end here? Yes and no. Since by “mourning” I refer to the rituals we observe and by “grieving” I refer to the feelings that we experience, we end our mourning but our grieving might continue.
INHOSPITABLE AMERICAN CULTURE
For those raised outside of these practices, these might seem strange, excessive. There is nothing in our American culture that supports this . . . making its observance, I think, all the more crucial. And, in fact, aspect of our larger culture work against their practice.
Many times people confide in me, “You know, rabbi, I went back to work and no one said anything. They didn’t mention the fact that my father died. They didn’t ask how I was doing. It was as if nothing had happened and I was supposed to return to work and act normally.”
And how many times have people explained to me that they must go back to work because . . . well, because they have to? Because the work cannot wait, it has to be done, no one else can do it.
And more to the point: when we must return to work, to our normal disposition – when we are not allowed to mourn, when we cannot take the time to grieve and remember and cry and curse and smile and hold and be held – we are treated not as a human being but as a machine, a device meant to produce, not to be. The irony, of course, is that without proper maintenance the machine will cease to function properly. Isn’t that true of us as well?
Our American culture is one that denies sorrow as well as death. We are victims of that denial. And we are the poorer for it.
THE JEWISH PATTERNING OF TIME
Are these time periods arbitrary? Yes and no. They are arbitrary from this vantage point: there is no scientific evidence of which I’m aware that says that exactly one week, one month, or one year will allow the grieving and effect the healing that we need. A couple of days more, or less; an unveiling at ten months or at thirteen; perhaps it doesn’t matter.
On the other hand, within a Jewish mindset they are not arbitrary. The week is based on the seven-day week ending in Shabbat which, we know, is rooted in the seven-day week of creation. As we absorb this loss, we also set out recreating who we are and who we understand ourselves to be.
Four weeks adds up to a lunar-solar month, each new one – each new moon – celebrated with a blessing as the orb reaches its nadir and then begins to grow again. With the death of a loved one we are diminished but then can begin to grow as well.
The year brings us full-circle and, as with the High Holy Days, we can look back from that vantage point and see where our journey has taken us.
All of life is a journey to places seen and unforeseen. Our tradition provides us with maps and methods to make the best of that journey – wisdom generated by generations of those who went before us.