Ritual is an important part of Judaism. But in some cases, the ritual can feel overly prescriptive and can be the lesser for it.
The shiva house for my late father הכ”מ was a busy place. There were six of us ‘sitting’, plus spouses, children, and grandchildren regularly in attendance. And there were hundreds of visitors daily — we all had our slightly overlapping social circles. Rather than all sitting in a row in one large room, occasionally we would take a chair and sit in another part of the room or the house, to get some space, to get away from the hustle and bustle, or to talk to some friends quietly.
I was doing just this, when someone who is a close friend of my sister walked past me and remarked: “I didn’t hamakom you yet”. Now I’m sure she meant to say “I didn’t offer you the standard-form, generic condolence phrase customarily recited to mourners”, but these days, we are in a hurry, everything is abbreviated, and nouns have turned into verbs. Having spent some time with family members she is close with, she wanted to formally offer condolences to all the family members, and so she said those words to me: “המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירושלים” – “may God comfort you with other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem”.
The “hamakom” is a powerful phrase, replete with meaning. During the shiva, several people explained to me different ways to understand the word “hamakom” itself (literally “the place”, and one of the euphemisms for God), and exactly how it is a comfort. Tradition tells us that one should wait for the mourner to speak rather than starting conversation, but that is not always easy. In some circumstances, the right words are insufficient or inaccessible. Sometimes, just sitting quietly with someone is immensely comforting. The prescriptive “hamakom” can help us break the ice.
While it is just a phrase, there is so much symbolism in it. When my own close friends recited it to me, I could hear the pain in their voices. A pain of realisation that said “Oh no! We’ve reached this stage of our lives where we are losing parents” or “I remember when you did this for me, and now I have to do it for you”. It was the same pain I felt when it was their turn sitting on the low chair.
Mourning is an intimate experience. During shiva we feel a closeness with our lost relative like nothing else — a closeness that is not physical, yet all encompassing. There is an intense unloading of emotion as we talk and hear about them.
But how does this experience scale? Our community is large and highly interconnected. We have close friends, friends, and a very large number of acquaintances. We know them, they know us. We see each other regularly in synagogue or in other social settings. They are close enough that we wants to express our condolences at their loss as well as our mazal tov at their celebrations.
This is where the “hamakom” and some of the other mourning rituals can become ‘transactional’.
After the burial, those present form two parallel rows (known as a ‘shura’) and the mourners walk between them. It is the first formal condolence. And it was horrible. I felt like we were being paraded and exposed as we trudged through, hearing the “hamakom” from everyone in turn. Many people attended the service for my father, and the ‘shura’ seemed to never end. For me, it was far from the wall of comfort explained by some.
During the shiva, sitting in a row with my mother and siblings as dozens of people filed past after each prayer service, saying the “hamakom”, felt awful. We were on low chairs, looking up at them as they moved past, one by one. Another one. Another one.
Rote and routine are the natural enemy of inspiration. We can engage deeply with a small number of discussions about our departed relative, just like we can fully immerse in the Jewish rituals and Holydays that only come along once a year. But we simply don’t have the bandwidth to do this hundreds or even thousands of times. The daily rituals of prayer, and of saying kaddish, meld from one to the next and with time become rote. They happen so often you don’t even notice them. They are like micro-doses of a special tonic on a drip feed. Finding inspiration in the daily routine is, according to the Talmudist Ben Pazi, the greatest challenge of Judaism.
It’s not just mourning rituals that can become transactional. Celebrations in large Jewish communities can be equally so. People file in and out of a shalom zachar wishing mazal tov, and then walk to the next one, and the next one. Do you even remember who was there and who wasn’t? In some communities, it’s that way with weddings! If there are ten weddings a year in a local community, they are exciting. But what happens when there are a hundred or more? Friends drop in after work for a few minutes to wish mazal tov, enjoy a drink and maybe a bit of a dance, and then leave. As communities get larger, the challenge is a loss of intimacy and specialness in our relationships. This is simply a by-product of the global village in which we live.
I pine for the excitement of the bar mitzvah boy putting on tefillin, the enthusiastic discovery of the baal teshuvah, or the thrill of someone making challah for the first time in the Shabbat Project. Those experiences may not be ours personally, but they are there and accessible to us by association. We can tap into their inspiration and make it our own.