“Better to go to a house of mourning than a house of joy.” Ecclesiastes
It is a big mitzvah to share in the joy of our friends. We rejoice in their accomplishments – school graduations, career advancements – and dance at their simchas – Bar Mitzvahs, weddings. So great is the imperative to bring joy to the bride and groom that even our greatest rabbis will dance with wild abandon in front of them. When our friends give birth, we throw showers, we buy presents, we cook. We are very good at sharing joy and that is no small thing. It is a privilege to be part of a community and to care deeply and intimately about the welfare of others. We jump at the opportunity to go to an engagement party, a wedding, a bris. We participate enthusiastically in the happiness of our brethren.
You don’t need the right words, you don’t need the sage wisdom, you just need to come.
We are not quite as enthusiastic when it comes to paying shiva calls. For obvious reasons. It feels awkward. It is painful. We don’t know what to say (nothing until the mourner speaks first). And so we may avoid them. We have a whole slew of rationalizations (I know; I’ve used many of them myself). “I didn’t really know the person who died very well.” “I’m not so close with the mourner.”
But I can tell you from the other side that a shiva call is a much greater kindness than attending a wedding. It is more needed. It is more appreciated. And you don’t have to be close to make a difference.
When my daughter was sitting shiva for the loss of her baby, I noticed every person who came – and everyone who didn’t (I wish I could say I was a bigger person than that but it wouldn’t be honest), everyone who called and everyone who didn’t. Each person helped. Each person took away a tiny piece of the pain. Each person brought additional and new comfort.
Sometimes it was people we knew less well whose behavior touched us the most. We were moved they took the trouble to come. Sometimes the words of a friend, or their hug, their empathic silence, or even their joke, were just what we needed. One of our good friends had just broken her foot and the doctor ordered her to remain in bed. But she couldn’t stay away…
That moved us also. Who “can’t stay away” from a shiva house? People who really care, who have your back, who experience your pain as their own.
Those who give during shiva have no idea what it means to the mourners, how deeply appreciated their presence alone is. You don’t need the right words, you don’t need the sage wisdom, you just need to come.
It’s wonderful to share our friend’s joy. It’s a precious part of community life. But it’s even more necessary and more profound to share their sorrow. It’s much harder but much more important and impactful. Sharing pain is also a precious part of community life, even more precious than sharing joy. And even more appreciated and, ultimately, ironically, more life-giving and affirming.