I've been meaning to write about a shiva minyan I led a few weeks ago. I wasn't feeling well, had a cold, and had to rush to get there on time after a class. I was worried I might be too tired to react with composure to the brokenness I would surely feel in the room. But I happened to know some of these mourners personally, and it was the last day of shiva--most of the tears had already been shed. Everyone was ready for stories about the deceased, and didn't want them to end. So I listened and laughed for over an hour, and by the end could pretty much see a guy in a grey fedora sitting in the corner, smiling along with us. I sang a few prayers, almost incidentally. Maybe because my head was all stuffed up, I had an image at that moment of life as tunnel, a slow, claustrophobic passage from one place to the next. (Or perhaps Rabbi Nachman's "narrow bridge.") But I don't think death is empty, like the Lincoln Tunnel at 3:00AM. Rather, other people fill that same space with our stories. It still belongs to individual souls, as it did when they were alive, and remains as crowded as rush hour, but with memories instead of actions.
I'm leading another shiva minyan later this evening and, for the first time since I've been doing this, I knew the deceased. Not well, but he was very funny and supportive of me, always joking whenever I happened to lead: "So, are you taking over yet?" Attempting to relate this week's Torah portion to his life, or even to ideas about community or consolation, seems in this case artificial and distant. I think I will just talk a bit about his smile, and sit back and enjoy the stories--there will be many.