Friday, January 17, 2014

A Word from the Director: 1/17/2014

This week our community has been rocked yet again by the untimely death of a very special young wife and mother. Her sudden, tragic passing has plunged her family, friends, and teachers into a blur of grief and mourning. There has been so much involvement by various community leaders and her mentors, that I even suggested a support group to be mechazek the mechazkim. Unfortunately, this is not the first or even second tragedy of this nature in the past few months here in Los Angeles. I personally lost my best friend just days before his only son’s Bar Mitzvah. And a few months before that, a woman who was a pillar in the community passed away weeks before her son’s Bar Mitzvah as well. All three were eulogized at Shaarei Tefillah where their common middah of chessed, generosity, and concern for others was mentioned repeatedly as a charge to us to learn from them and better ourselves. When a young woman dies and within hours of setting a time for the levaya, 600 people are present, with another 900 watching online around the world, and within days two different learning programs have started, plus a mitzvah campaign that over 400 people have already signed up for, one must reflect and recognize “mi k’amcha yisrael.” What other nation would come together both in sheer numbers of people and effort in such a short time?

As the outpouring of support for the family and friends continues, one must recognize that there is no one way to grieve, and each person affected will experience the grief process differently. Whether or not you believe in the 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), one must acknowledge that as Jews, we have our own stages of shiva, shloshim, and the year leading up to the first yahrzeit. During each one, we must value the intensity of that stage, with each progressive one being less intense than the one before, and try to appreciate the importance of mourning at that level. As anyone who has been to a shiva house can attest, people certainly display different needs as they experience the raw pain of that first week following the loss of a close family member. Some want to talk about the niftar and share their thoughts and feelings. Others want to sit quietly and listen to memories the visitors have of their loved one, while others want to just sit in silence. Chazal knew this and therefore the halacha is that we must follow the mourner’s emotional cue. We are instructed to wait until they speak. And if they cannot – just sit there quietly. In this age of cell phones and constant communication it is one of the most difficult things to do, but nichum aveilim is about the avel, and if that’s the ‘emotional cue’ you get from him or her – do what they need. They must not be made to feel that they have to share stories and entertain you, but if they do open the conversation, don’t grill them with questions to fill the awkward, aching silence. Be still. Be there. We can’t fix it, nor do we have any magic answers, but we can be present and share the pain. As one woman mourning the sudden death of her brother wrote: “The spirit of what your friend needs to hear is simply this: Hang in there. You are brave. You are not alone although this journey is deeply lonely. You are loved. You will not always feel this way. We honor the pain and memory and life-altering experience you are having. We are here to help you. We are not mind readers so we need you to communicate if you need something. Nobody is judging you. We are heartbroken for you. No matter what, we will walk beside you.”

I witnessed this show of support being so beautifully done by a Rebbe for a talmid last night. The young man was making a siyum in memory of his mother who passed away three years ago. His aunt and uncle arranged a beautiful seudah with many family members and friends in attendance. Unfortunately, this boy’s rebbe knew the pain of losing a loved one all too well, as he lost his son in a very tragic and sudden death just a couple of years ago. Watching the two of them together, one couldn’t help but notice that there was clearly a special, unspoken bond between them as they somehow supported each other in their grief. Just knowing that the other understood his pain seemed to bring comfort to both of them. We all have our tzaros, our pain, and our challenges. The Jewish people are an “am echad b’lev echad” and as such must be there to help and support each other, even if it means dropping our own facades sometimes. We all suffer losses of varying types and we need to mourn our own losses, as well as comfort others in their time of pain. May we, as a community, be zoche to see the end of tzaros, large and small, and be consoled by the only One Who can grant us clarity and true comfort – HaMakom yenachem.

Have a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Gavriel Hershoff

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