7 Thoughts on Sitting Shiva by Lauren Shaps (Intro by Lori)


Dear JWRP Sisters,

This week, the JWRP board members had their Annual Winter Retreat where they delved into new dreams and possibilities.

The Talmud speaks about dreams, teaching that they are one-sixtieth prophecy and that the rest is nonsense. In life, we may come up with many ideas and most won't come to anything – but one could be a game changer.

In 2008, the women who gathered to form the JWRP dreamed big dreams of changing the world. We came up with many ideas – about 60 of them. And one, to take thousands of women to Israel on highly subsidized trips to begin a life journey of inspired values, hit the bullseye. 

And now, we are looking to the future, to take what was created to the next level. And with G-d's blessing, anything is possible.

“The only thing that will stop you from fulfilling your dreams is you.” – Tom Bradley

Good Shabbos, Shabbat Shalom,

7 Thoughts on Sitting Shiva

Hi Sisters,

A number of my friends lost parents in the past year, and just a few years ago, my father-in-law passed away during Chanukah. This week's Torah portion, Parashat Vayechi, tells of the final moments of Jacob's life, his death and burial in the cave of Machpela in Hebron, Israel. Later in the portion, Joseph also dies, and the book of Genesis, which chronicles the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs, comes to an end. 

Death is not an easy topic to speak of or write about, but it’s a reality of life that we all confront eventually; therefore, I’ve decided to share seven thoughts on sitting shiva.

1. Shiva is the seven-day mourning period following the death of an immediate relative: a parent, spouse, sibling or, G-d forbid, a child. We refer to it as "sitting shiva." The mourners literally sit from morning to night, getting up from their low chairs for the occasional bathroom or stretch break. The laws of shiva create a structure to facilitate the mourning process. Mourners can't run away from facing the loss. Mirrors are covered. The mourners wear the same clothing day after day, avoid shaving and even showering. 

We might think that the practices of shiva are more pain than gain. However, research reported in the Journal of Experimental Psychology showed that mourning rituals reduced grief after the loss of a loved one. (Norton, Michael I. and Francesca Gino, "Rituals Alleviate Grieving for Loved Ones, Lovers and Lotteries.")

2. The hours matter. Just like a microwaved dinner is not nearly as delicious as food from the slow cooker, so too microwave mourning won't have the same impact. Shortcuts are great for your computer, but in life, they rarely work.

3. Food matters. I usually think that we put too much focus on food. We sometimes lose sight of the deeper meaning of holidays or our relationships with fellow diners. When my husband sat shiva, I saw that all that food was extremely helpful. It was truly comfort food. My niece took charge of the meal list, and friends and family offered to cook or cater lunch and dinner. It was so special, so touching. We felt so full and so cared for. 

4. Family and community matters. My father-in-law's life was filled with giving. When waves of Russian immigrants arrived in New York in the 1970s, my in laws would pick up and deliver donated furniture and household items. They drove friends and strangers to medical appointments. The next generation – my husband and his siblings – have dedicated their lives to building relationships and to community. They attend synagogue regularly and are engaged and involved with Jewish education for themselves and their children. Their network of relationships, constructed through time and effort, swung into action in their moment of need. More than 200 people came in person to the house to comfort the mourners. Others called, emailed, texted and chipped in to provide meals for the week. 

We may get great service from the Apple store or Carnival Cruise Lines, but those are not the people who will bring us soup when we are mourning. Sociologist Robert Putnam, who wrote Bowling Alone, describes this as the process of reciprocity, or building social capital. He writes that the slogan used by the Gold Beach Volunteer Fire Department in Oregon to publicize their annual fundraising effort was, "Come to our breakfast; we'll come to your fire." Perhaps more apropos to shiva was the comment by New York Yankees Manager Yogi Berra, "If you don't go to somebody's funeral, they won't come to yours." That's social capital. You can't inherit it; it accrues through effort.

5. Stuff doesn't matter. Stuff is an accoutrement of life, not its essence. We fill our lives with stuff. Guess what? At the end of our lifetimes, it won't be coming with us. Some will go to close family and friends but most of it will end up in the trash. Shiva reminds us that what lives on after death is our spiritual growth, our relationships, the impact we had on others and our good deeds. That impact is greater and longer lasting than any purchase will ever be. 

6. Shiva creates the time and space to share those special stories. In the busyness of life, we often neglect to ask the important questions. Stories told at a funeral and during shiva fill in some of the blanks. We feel a bit closer to knowing the deceased. Based on his research, Bruce Feiler writes, "The more children knew about their family's history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives; the higher their self-esteem." (The Secret of Happy Families, Morrow, 2013). 

7. Reputation matters. A lifetime is the total of countless moments and choices. King Solomon teaches that it is better to go to a house of mourning than to a party. Life is a journey. We need to think about where we want to go and how we are going to get there. Sometimes it takes a shiva to get us to recalibrate.

May we merit to learn and grow through simchas (joyous occasions), not sorrows. 

Lauren Shaps is a JWRP City Leader and a full-time adult Jewish educator. She works closely with her husband, Rabbi Zischa Shaps, and they are blessed with five children.

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