I led a shiva minyan last Sunday night, and another the week before (as a last-minute replacement after the scheduled leader got sick). I hadn't led one of these since the beginning of the summer.
Each minyan was very different from the others but they were all, in a way, more powerful experiences even than helping lead on Yom Kippur. After other services, even the sad, serious ones, I've felt a kind of elation, an electric jolt of joy at what I was able to do and the energy created and share in that moment. But after a shiva minyan I feel a deep peace, as if the act re-boots me, dials me back to zero. Initially I figured this was the calm of self-confidence. There's no rabbi to run things; I'm in charge and have to set the tone, judge the mood of the room, decide on the spot whether or not to give a little d'var Torah, pick a song to sing at the end. I did get some training about how to do this, and attended many minaynim before I became a leader--but there's an element of improvisation. I walk into a strange home quite aware that I hold tools to help heal or harm someone's vulnerable, raw soul. I wonder why in the world I have any right to be there at all; it's empowering, and also overwhelming. I am awe of how rabbis live so often in this twilight world of other people's grief. A half hour every few months is enough to wring me to pieces.
Or perhaps my feeling of peace, afterwards, is gratitude--that I am not the one with a loss. Been there, done that, but I never really got to complete the ritual. I sat shiva after my parents' deaths, but was not Jewishly involved at the time; the act was truncated and I had no community around me to underscore its meaning. Every shiva minyan I attend is in their memory, and in gratitude that the pain was long ago. Sometimes I leave the minyan so bursting with unspoken thanks, and not sure why, that I just want to walk the length of Manhattan and hug everyone I bump into before I get back home.
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