Last night I attended a shiva minyan for a member of my synagogue whose mother died on Friday. It's traditional to hold evening services at the mourner's home during the shiva period, seven days following the funeral. During that week the immediate family of the deceased is taken care of by their community--prayers, as well as platters of food, come to them so they don't have to expend energy on anything except contemplation of their loss.
My synagogue takes this tradition seriously, even though most of us don't go to evening services during the week. I'm one of many who volunteer to attend shiva minyanim (pl. of minyan) when the family isn't sure the requisite ten Jewish adults will be present. Others help mourners by doing tahara, attending to the body of the deceased before he or she is buried. One day I might be brave enough for this honor, but not yet.)
My only responsibility at a shiva minyan is to be there. I don't even have to pray, if I so choose. I can fulfill my duty simply by occupying space in someone's living room. We're asked to to arrive on the dot, leave promptly, and say little in between; this is the family's time, and the presence of strangers can be intrusive. It sounds easy on paper, but has been an extraordinary challenge for me. One of our rabbis describes a house of a mourning as a kind of twilight zone, an in-between place apart from the rest of the universe whose inhabitants are learning to cross the bridge that spans past and future. Stepping into that world is a privilege, an encounter with all sorts of fears of the unknown, and a reminder to live as fully as the remarkable person I get to glimpse when the family shares stories at the prayer service.
(To be continued.)