I remembered the rabbi's suggestion during our class two years ago and prepared a short d'var Torah (or, as he said back then in Ashkenazic style, "Just a little wort...") to offer after the service. Although I've written a few of these, I'd never spoken about Torah in front of a group. It felt very chutzpadik (and in fact I had a conversation with a guest right before we began who zeroed into all my doubts by kindly but insistently demanding to know why I, a mere layperson, had the right to stand in front of the group and pray--I gave him a good answer, and was not unnerved). I was a little terrified it wouldn't make sense, but the family was very appreciative. Here's an outline of what I said:
"In this week's Torah portion, Vayishlah, after Jacob wrestles with the angel and has a dramatic reunion with his brother Esau, he goes back home to Canaan and sets up camp and an altar right outside the city. The great Hassidic commentator the Sfat Emet noted that teachers of old interpreted this line, "He camped in front of the city," to mean that the place was gracious and holy for everyone who lived there. But unlike sacred time, which has been holy from the very beginning, the moment God created the universe, sacred space becomes holy only when good people like Jacob and the Israelites occupy it. [I forgot to mention that this interpretation comes from Art Green, commenting upon the Sfat Emet's commentary.]
I was thinking that by this standard, a house of mourning is one of the holiest places on earth. Everyone who's been here all week brought good memories of love and comfort--that's what fills a place with God. I hope, as this week of shiva ends, you will continue to be able to draw upon and get strength from the holiness you've created together by sharing so much love and comfort in this sacred space."
Being in charge, even though it was just for 45 minutes--making sure everything went according to schedule, announcing pages, trying to act like someone who could offer support--was very profound, and completely different from standing next to a rabbi and singing. A few weeks ago seemed like a dress rehearsal in comparison; this was for real. "I'm an adult now," I thought as I walked back home. It made no sense, but felt a little like that first time I left the Secret Rabbi Room and stepped up to the bima, a fledgling kicked out of the safety of the nest. My challenge now, as always: to figure out what this means in the context of the rest of my life, all the other stuff that has nothing to do with prayer.