Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mourners comforting mourners

As a member of a synagogue (actually two), when another member or his or her relative dies, I get an email and/or phone call informing me of the fact, when the person is sitting shiva (first seven days after burial) and the time of any Shiva Minyan.  A shiva minyan is a prayer service at the home of the person sitting shiva.  A mourner during the shiva period  is not supposed to leave his or her home.  (Thus the idea of "sitting" shiva.)  Since the mourner is obligated to say kaddish, the community must come to the mourner's home.

A Shiva Minyan is very different than a prayer service at shul.  There are some liturgical differences (Tachanun is omitted, Psalm 49 is recited).  But the main difference is one of feel.  It's strange to enter someone's home and pray there.  You see pictures hanging on the wall (and secretly judge the person's taste in art), family photos, books, furniture, the layout of the home.  A memorial candle burns.  In New York apartments, people (men) cram into the livingroom.  Space for living is uneasily and temporarily transformed into space for prayer.  You are there to pray and comfort the mourner, even if it's someone you don't know.

The quality of prayer in a house of mourning is also different than shul.  The incongreity of praying in a livingroom often makes for a more intense prayer.  You feel that your prayer is not just your own personal prayer, but rather a prayer on behalf of the mourner in the hope that, somehow, your prayer and presence provides a measure of comfort.

For the past few days, I've been davening at Shiva Minyans each morning and evening.  At a Shiva Minyan, the person sitting shiva (if a man) has priority to lead services, but as some are not comfortable doing so (and others are women), men saying kaddish (e.g., me) are asked to lead the davening.  But how, as someone whose mother died a half a year ago, can I separate my own loss from that of the person sitting shiva?  I can't look at a mourner without also seeing my own sorrow.  There is a selfishness to mourning that is impossible to escape.  Yet as I led prayers last night and tonight, I tried to think of myself as a representative of another in mourning.  My words had a purpose.  A bond of sorrow between mourners.  Mourners comforting mourners.

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