I led another shiva minyan tonight. Something strange is in the air; two weeks ago we had four deaths, but last week (among various parents and grandparents) six births. And then this week, five more deaths. Maybe the universe will be symmetrical and seven babies will arrive over New Year's. I hope so.
This woman's father died suddenly last week. At the previous minyanim I led, tables were set and books carefully shelved; maybe those families found solace in cleaning while awaiting the inevitable. This apartment, in contrast, was filled with piles of newspapers, love, and numbness. People wandered in and out. A few hundred snapshots, from old scalloped black-and-whites of carefully coiffed hairdos to Polaroids of a grandfather captured in motion blur as he pushed a gleeful infant on a swing, were strewn across the dining room table like the crime scene of a life abruptly pulled into a tight embrace. They didn't have a minyan at first, although people had been visiting all day; for awhile I wondered if they'd cancel the service. Then a friend got on the phone and called more friends, and I understood that they would have recruited strangers on the street if needed. Having a minyan, for this family, was like wearing shoes in winter; there was no choice. Grief wasn't supposed to be lonely.
A friend of the bereaved, wanting to make sure her loved ones were in good hands, once again quizzed me in the nicest possible way about my non-rabbi credentials. Just like the other two times, I hear myself talking calmly and slowly and see clenched shoulders drop, iron faces soften. My role is to be neutral, quick, and quiet, and pay complete attention. I wonder why the other sister doesn't speak, and who's the man in the crocheted kipa? I feel like a nosy sponge. The daughter looks me right in the eye and cries for ten minutes as she speaks about a father who, each and every day of her life, told her she was beautiful. I feel guilty--who am I, a stranger, to merit the gift of such honesty? The least I can do is be authentic in return. I try. I give a 30-second d'var, hoping that sharing of memories during shiva is like the lighting of Hanukkah candles at this darkest time of year, a promise of the return of light and comfort. I tell her how blessed I am to get a glimpse of this wonderful man. My words feel scripted and inadequate.
But now I understand what the rabbi said about a house of mourning as a kind of twilight zone, a bridge between worlds upon which outsiders are privileged to step. I used to be scared of this place. As a service leader, my task to impose some order on the messy business of sadness, I feel like we've reached a truce. Maybe this sense of peace will follow me when I'm the one crossing the bridge, whatever chasm it might span.