“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…a time to keep silent and a time to speak.”
The wisdom in this song is not for the Byrds, it comes from the wisest of all men, King Shlomo. While the picture of many shiva homes today filled with people, food, and conversation is anything but silent, the Midrash interprets “the time for silence” as proscribing our behavior when comforting the bereaved. When Iyov, the very symbol of human suffering, experienced devastating loss, the pasuk (2:13) describes that three of his friends came to comfort and console him: “They sat with him on the ground for a period of seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, for they saw that his pain was very great.”
Consolation can be provided with words, but it is communicated even more powerfully through silent companionship, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable it may feel for the visitor. The acknowledgement of pain and willingness to share it by simply being present is the essence of a shiva call, nichum aveilim. The Talmud (Berachos 6b) in fact states in the name of Rav Pappa, “The reward that comes from visiting the house of a mourner is for one’s silence while there.
In an article in Jewish Action in the Fall of 2000, Rabbi Edward Davis shares the story of the time he went to get a haircut while visiting London. As he sat down in the chair the barber asked, “Talk or no talk?” The barber was sensitive to Rabbi Davis’s preference and comfort and didn’t impose a conversation on someone who preferred to sit in silent contemplation.
The Shulchan Aruch (y.d. 376:1) mandates that the visitors are not allowed to speak until the mourner speaks first. Essentially, the proper etiquette in a shiva home is to sit with the mourner and through our patient silence offer him or her – talk or no talk?
It is natural to struggle with silence. Sitting silently is intimidating, awkward and uncomfortable. Well-intentioned people therefore, sometimes fill the silence by saying things that are in fact insensitive, thoughtless or even hurtful. When people do things like tell the family members about treatments or doctors that may have healed their loved one, or say to someone who has lost a child that at least they have other healthy children, they mean well, but their words are unkind. A woman who lost her father reported a visitor asking her why her mother doesn’t look as perky as usual. An older person who lost his wife shared that someone told him “speak to me after shiva, I have a great shidduch idea for you.”
Perhaps because finding the right thing to say can be difficult, the Zohar, as quoted by Rav Wosner (Shevet Ha’Levi y.d. 213), instructs us to specifically prepare our words and our sentiments before we walk into the shiva home.
As a community Rabbi I have spent significant time in shiva homes and many mourners have shared their observations following shiva. I share the following advice based on their feedback:
- A shiva home is not a social scene. The purpose of the visit is solely to interact with and comfort the mourner. Don’t congregate in other areas of the home or enter social conversations with others.
- While it is not forbidden to eat in a shiva home, it is not the purpose of the visit and should not be the expectation.
- Don’t visit at inconvenient times for the mourners, even if they may be convenient for you, such as meals times, early in the morning or late at night.
- Keep the conversation with the mourner focused on their loved one. If you knew them, share stories, anecdotes, memories or the impression they left on you. If you didn’t know the deceased, ask questions like: Where was your mother or father born? How many siblings did they have? What kind of education did they receive? What did they do professionally? What is your favorite memory of them? How would they want to be remembered?
- Do not ask details about the deceased’s illness. Don’t say things like, “At least he or she had a long life.” Or, “At least they are not suffering any more.” These are things the mourners can say if they feel them, but they are inappropriate comments from visitors.
- Don’t tell the mourners about your loss, illness in your family or the challenges you are experiencing unless it directly relates to providing comfort and support to them.
- Don’t take out your cell phone while paying a shiva call. Answering a call or even looking at text messages is rude and distracting.
- Shiva visits should never be unduly prolonged. Don’t create a burden on the mourners who feel obligated to play host.
May God indeed comfort those in mourning among the mourners of Tziyon and Yerushalayim and may we merit to see the day in which, “Bila hamaves la’netzach,” (Yeshaya 25:8) death is no longer part of our experience.
A terribly disturbing scandal occurred this week that generated varying reactions. A number of celebrities who saved highly personal pictures in a storage cloud were hacked and their revealing pictures were leaked online. When the FBI catches those responsible, they could face hundreds of years in prison for the crimes they committed and the damage they caused the victims.
Some were terribly disturbed by the unavoidable realization that we are all so vulnerable. This egregious crime occurred to high-profile celebrities, but one cannot help but recognize that when any of us embraces technology and implement it in our personal lives, we assume the great risk of intruders, thieves, and hackers violating our finances, our relationships, our privacy and our most personal pictures and information. It is terribly disheartening and even frightening to accept that once we upload something about us anywhere on the Internet, no matter how many passwords or firewalls are in place, we have potentially just shared it with the public.
This scandal provoked a fascinating debate with some commentators pointing fingers not only at the perpetrators, but also at the victims for uploading such private and intimate pictures in the first place. How foolhardy and reckless to take unnecessary risks, some argue, like walking alone at night in an unsafe neighborhood, or leaving valuables visible in your car essentially tempting criminals to harm you. Certainly the perpetrator bears the sole responsibility for the crime and must be held accountable, but the victim is not entirely free from criticism when he or she takes unnecessary risks with known dangers. Why would celebrities, male or female, or anyone for that matter, upload photos of themselves exposed, thereby also exposing themselves to the high risk of being hacked?
With all the reactions and discussions that have ensued, one of the important conversations that I believe must take place is about the boundaries and limits of how we use technology. As a community that is committed to the values of appropriateness and modesty, is it ever acceptable to take a racy selfie, even if it is never uploaded anywhere?
Don’t get me wrong; Judaism is not a prudish or puritan religion. The pursuit of pleasure in intimacy in the appropriate context is not only tolerated, but is a mitzvah and indeed a marital obligation.
However, intimacy is achieved, according to our Torah, by experiencing something privately, confidentially, in a reserved and modest way that is inaccessible and unshared with others. While taking an immodest picture with no intent to share it widely might seem innocuous and benign, I would argue that in fact it is harmful, for it devalues and cheapens one of our greatest commodities we have, our self-respect. Intimacy quickly becomes indecency when it is recorded or captured.
Our parsha, Ki Seitzei, teaches “V’haya machanecha kadosh, and your encampment should be holy.” While the verse regulates conduct on an army base, our Rabbis expansively interpret the pasuk to be a directive for every Jewish home and community, challenging us to live with modesty and sanctity.
Please God, we will never be hacked and our private information will never be shared. But if we were, are we proud of what the public would learn about us? I am not referring to our financial data, but rather to our online viewing history, our pictures, the sentiments and language in our email and text message conversations and the record of how we truly used our time.
If the thought of someone seeing those things makes us blush, squirm, be filled with regret, anxiety or fear,* then realize that without being hacked, someone already does have access to all of our private information, both in the online cloud and down here on earth.
“Histakeil b’shelosha devarim v’ein atah bah liydei aveira: dah mah l’maaleh mimecha, ayin ro’eh, v’ozen shoma’as, v’chol ma’asecha b’sefer nichtavin.” In Pirkei Avos our Rabbis teach: “Look at three things and you will avoid misbehaviors – know who is above you, an eye is watching, an ear is listening and all of your actions are being recorded.”
During the beginning of the twentieth century, as the world was experiencing a technological revolution, the Chafetz Chaim wrote in his Shem Olam that we can learn valuable lessons from all the new inventions. Concerning the camera, he wrote that it enables us to palpably see that the Mishna’s warning of “ayin ro’eh, an eye is watching,” is not just a metaphor, but a tangible reality.
Learning that some celebrities were hacked and their personal pictures shared, many were filled with regret for things that they had uploaded or looked at and wished that they could somehow erase the history or take the information down. Sadly, the reality of technology is such that once something has entered the online world, it can never be fully removed or erased.
The same is not true when it comes to the eye our Rabbis described that watches from above and records all of our actions. With His boundless mercy, the Ribono Shelo Olam, the Master of the Universe, enabled and empowered every one of us to spiritually edit our online and offline histories by simply engaging in the sincere process of teshuva. Recognizing our mistakes, regretting them, and genuinely committing not to repeat them purges the indiscretions from our past and deletes them from our record permanently.
Rosh Hashana is rapidly approaching and the three books will be open before the Almighty. We have less than three weeks to get busy editing our personal history from this past year so that when it gets revealed before the Heavenly court we can be proud of all that it contains.
*For those struggling with looking at inappropriate material on the Internet, https://guardyoureyes.com/index.php is an excellent resource for help and support.
I have been longing to go to Israel all summer. Each day while following the news and connecting closely with the unfolding of events I have felt drawn to walk the land of our forefathers, to be one with our brothers and sisters and to experience the destiny of our people not as a spectator on the sideline, but on the big stage itself. While some have experienced Israel fatigue, growing tired of the rallies, sermons and articles focused almost exclusively on Israel, I have felt the opposite – an increasing appetite and craving for more.
All summer long we have watched and read about the incredible displays of unity, the remarkable acts of chesed, the courage and bravery of a people forced to endure the kidnapping and murder of three of their children, the incessant fall of rockets, the danger of sending their boys into battle and the challenge of living normal lives in utterly abnormal circumstances. The people of Israel have more than risen to the challenges; they have been brave, filled with faith, and resolute in their unwavering commitment to our land, our people and our values. Like an uncomfortable itch that is gnawing to be scratched, each and every day of this summer I have been uncomfortably itching to show solidarity and to be part of our people’s experience in Israel directly, not simply watching from the side.
And so, when the opportunity presented itself to join nine of my rabbinic colleagues on a very brief solidarity visit to Israel organized by the Orthodox Union, I jumped at and I remain deeply grateful to my wife and our BRS President for giving their consent, support and encouragement.
What could one really accomplish in two days? How much could one see, do, and experience? The answer, I learned, is an enormous amount.
Our group made a shiva visit to the Turgemans, whose four-year-old son was murdered by a mortar. We visited an iron dome installation and a tank unit still gathered on the Gaza border. We met the people of Sderot, shopped in their stores, visited their Hesder Yeshiva and met with its Rosh Yeshiva. We met with an incredible youth program in Sderot and participated in a siyum by one of their madrichim (youth leaders) who studied most of the mesechta (tractate) during his time fighting in Gaza. We toured a Kibbutz two miles from Gaza that was hit 19 times by rockets in the last three months alone. We spent significant time with the Shaer family whose son Gil-ad was kidnapped and murdered. We met with the Chief Rabbi of the IDF as well as with Col. Bentzi Gruber, an expert on war ethics who is responsible for directing 20,000 soldiers. We visited Soroka hospital and spent time with injured soldiers and their families.
The real question is did our visit matter, not only to us who got to scratch our itch to be in Israel, but to the people of Israel itself? I must share with you that as I read our itinerary on the plane over, I was somewhat skeptical and even cynical. All summer we have seen pictures and read testimony of American rabbis and lay people who went to Israel to show solidarity. But while the trips made those who took them feel connected, inspired and motivated, what impact did they truly have on those whom they came to support?
Were the soldiers on the army base, the injured ones in the hospital and even the Sha’er family just going to humor us? Were the people in the south and dignitaries we met going to be courteous and kind on the surface, but in their hearts feel like props in a photo op? Our visit would certainly make us feel good, but would it really matter to the people we came to see?
Among the powerful messages of this short trip is not only did our visits matter, but we were blown away by how much they seemed to matter. I want to share with you a few of the reactions to our visit, not as an expression of self-congratulations, but to communicate and hopefully inspire you to coordinate a visit of your own as soon as possible with the recognition that it truly matters.
- A few of us took a cab to daven at the Kotel early our first morning. The driver described that in the last 50 days he has barely had any business. He averaged 70 shekels of income a day while his fuel costs exceeded 100 shekel a day. He asked us to encourage visits to Israel as soon as possible to help the damaged tour industry recover and thanked us for being in Israel and supporting the economy.
- We stopped in Sderot on our way to an army base in order to buy cold drinks, food and treats. The owners of the stores we entered described how challenging it has been to make a living this summer with so few people leaving their homes as the sirens sounded regularly and rockets fell incessantly. While of course we thanked them for the resilience and courage in not allowing our enemies to drive them from their homes, remarkably they overflowed with gratitude to our group for visiting and showing support. The woman who owns the Judaica store described how she was born in Sderot, got married in Sderot and will not be driven from Sderot. We hit a remarkable impasse when we tried to support her by shopping broadly while she insisted on giving us discounts in appreciation for our visit.
- When we arrived at the army base on a steaming hot day, I knew the soldiers would appreciate the goodies, but I didn’t realize how much they would welcome our warm sentiments and love. Rabbis Topp and Posey bought cards written by the children of their community in LA. I watched as they handed out the cards to the soldiers and wondered if they would even read them after we left or just toss them aside. As we were gathering to get on the bus, I was amazed as a soldier rushed up to R’ Topp and asked him, “can I please have one too.” Our well wishes and messages of support clearly matter.
- Our visit with Ofir and Bata Galim Shaer was transformative. They are beyond exceptional people who have emerged role models and teachers to us all. Their response to the kidnapping and murder of their son Gil-ad is nothing short of heroic. As we pulled into their home in Talmon, I wondered if they really wanted to meet with us. After all, shiva and sheloshim were completed and I imagined that they must be trying their hardest to return to some sense of normalcy. Not only did they greet us warmly and host us graciously, they were tremendously expressive of their gratitude for our visit and for demonstrating that we have not forgotten their ordeal. We went around and all shared the rallies, tehillim gatherings and sheloshim ceremonies held in our communities. We told them about how you, my beloved friends, felt their pain personally without even knowing them. They told us how our visit closed a circle for them as they heard about the support from American Jewry, but meeting us in person and by extension feeling the love of the communities we represent, gives them great comfort. Ofir hugged each one of us and gave us his email and cell phone number asking us to keep in touch.
- There are, thank God, only three soldiers remaining in Seroka hospital ailing from their injuries due to the war. The first, Dan, who has undergone 12 surgeries in the last month, was not feeling well enough to receive us, but we spent time with his family. The second, Yehudah, sustained a direct injury to his head and has been in a coma for the last few weeks. He will please God wake up to find out that his wife has given birth to their son. The bris took place outside of his hospital room shortly before our visit and we were invited by the family to eat from the seudas mitzvah and share in the simcha, as bittersweet as it was. The third soldier, Roi, has undergone three surgeries in the last month and still needs more. We visited with him and his parents and frankly they all seemed tired from the attention and eager to just go home. They were lukewarm in our conversation until we shared with them how in all of our Shuls, every single day following davening we say tehillim on his behalf and for all of his comrades injured in battle. Roi and his parent’s eyes literally opened wide as they had no idea and couldn’t believe that people in our communities from the East Coast to the West Coast of America think about and care deeply about them literally every day. Their shyness to our visit turned to expressive appreciation as we invited Roi to visit our communities and enjoy a vacation to America on us.
Not everybody can go to Israel on short notice for a very brief trip. However, we can all continue to do more to show our appreciation, support and love to those who are sacrificing so much, some economically, some through trauma, some sustaining injuries and some paying the highest price for our people and our land.
If you can plan a trip to Israel in the short future, don’t hesitate, do it now. If you can’t, you can continue to contribute to causes that provide for our soldiers, you can send cards and messages to those who have experienced loss from this war and you can continue to daven for the recovery of the injured and the well-being of the IDF.
We learned so much from this trip, but most of all we learned that our expressions of support and love truly matter, so please don’t stop sharing them.
It is remarkable how precious and cherished personal items can become “stuff” for someone else to get rid of literally overnight. After a BRS member recently passed away, I was visiting with a member of her family in her home when he shared that he had set aside items that are meaningful to him and proceeded to kindly offer me to take whatever I like for myself or for the Shul.
I looked around the room at the china cabinet, the bookcase and the paintings on the wall and was overwhelmed with the realization that just a week before, these were the precious possessions of this wonderful person and only a week later, they are now stuff, junk, things that need to be donated, given away, or even trashed.
It is said, you never see a U-Haul attached to the back of a hearse. Our Rabbis teach that while you cannot take any of your possessions with you, you can take your acts of kindness and good deeds. Contact with the finality of death naturally elicits a sense of our own mortality and provokes thinking about what is truly important in life and how we should take advantage of every single day.
“Re’eh anochi nosein lifnechem hayom beracha u’kelalah.” Our parsha begins by telling us, “behold I have placed before you today blessing and curse.” This verse is traditionally viewed as expressing the concept of free will, of our ability to recognize that set before us are options of good or evil, right and wrong and that the choice is ours to make. However, I would like to suggest an alternative punctuation and meaning.
Re’eh anochi nosein lifnechem…hayom. Behold, I have placed before you…today, the concept of mortality. I have set before you a feeling of transience and impermanence. That feeling can be channeled in a number of ways, the pasuk continues. It can result in beracha, blessing, or it can result in kelala, in curse.
If we allow our feeling of vulnerability, of hayom, to bring us to a state of despair and of depression then it is kelala. If the recognition of our mortality makes us complacent, stagnant or content, it is a curse.
However, if our sense of being fragile and unstable, of hayom, causes us to take advantage of the moment for it may be fleeting, than we have turned it into beracha, for it has been the catalyst for change.
Indeed, Chazal, our Rabbis, have contrasted these two perspectives of hayom. On the one hand, they discourage us from approaching life with the attitude of echol, v’shaso, ki machar namus, eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we may die. This attitude and interpretation of hayom leads to a hedonistic lifestyle. Recognition of our own mortality has for some become a license to be self-serving and pleasure seekers. With this outlook, hayom, our vulnerability, is a curse.
But Chazal encourage us to say rather im lo achshav aimasai, if not now, when? Judaism teaches us to take our feelings of fragility and vulnerability and use them as springboards to grow, change and make a difference. A sense of mortality should encourage us to take advantage of every moment and to cherish every opportunity. Indeed, the Torah subscribes to an attitude of carpe diem, seize the day to contribute to society, positively affect other people and become a better spouse, parent or grandparent.
An awareness of just how unpredictable and volatile our lives can be must motivate us to stop procrastinating and take advantage of hayom, of right now. As we prepare to welcome in the month of Elul, let’s make a commitment to stop saying I will get to it later. This can truly be our best year ever, if we only say ha’yom, I am going to make it happen today.