Kenneth Ryesky
Kenneth Ryesky

Current events and sitting shiva

I sat shiva for my brother in 2010, for my father in 2012, for my sister in 2014, and now, am preparing to get up from sitting shiva for my mother.  As those who have been through the experience appreciate, it is a time of great contemplation of the workings of the world and how everything is connected.

And so, I now connect my personal shiva experience to the current events of the day.

Imprimis, having done the drill and being familiar with the process does not make it any easier on the replay; indeed, in many respects, each shiva becomes increasingly more difficult than the previous one.

The most obvious current event that ties into my shiva is the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel from Israel to Philadelphia for the funeral was fraught with uncertainties and inevitable delays.  My cousin, who had been assisting Mom with her affairs even before my Aliyah, decided (with my full approval) to do the burial as soon as practicable.  The earliest time a burial could be scheduled was 1:00 PM Philadelphia time the day after Mom’s passing, which was a Friday; by that time the Shabbat candles would already be lit, so my attendance via the modern communications technologies was out of the question.  My physical absence from the funeral was a stark departure from the prior occasions when all I needed to do was drive down to Philadelphia from Long Island for the previous funerals.

And the shiva-sitting itself had less in-person visits and more Zooming, the nearly universal familiarity with the relevant technologies obviates the need to further expound upon the differences of this aspect.

Another current event that ties into the shiva I sat is the Israeli elections.  Of course, there were the practical mechanics of interrupting my shiva with a walk to the polling station and back.  Going deeper into the hard-core politics, I harken back to a defining traumatic event of my own generation — the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  The main lesson I learned from the Kennedy assassination is that while every person is unique and irreplaceable, nobody is indispensable, not even the President of the United States!  Bibi Netanyahu and his acolytes need to internalize that reality.

Perhaps the most important current event is the imminent arrival of the Pesach holiday.  Every Passover Seder that is, was, or ever will be is a major event, even if it entails a single person sitting alone, reading the Hagaddah to himself or herself.  It commemorates the defining event of the Jewish people becoming the Jewish people.

Our traumas exert a major impact upon defining who we are and how we see ourselves.  The Jewish people have endured many traumas, the most significant (and most defining) one being our enslavement in Egypt.  We cannot and will not forget our enslavement; indeed, we are commanded to remember it.

Enslavement, by its very nature, is highly traumatic, which is why it is unrealistic to tell a group of people who have a history of enslavement to “get over it” because “getting over it” carries an element of denial. We, the Jewish people, have not gotten over our enslavement thousands of years ago; the Pesach holiday is the antithesis of denying our past enslavement.

What we have successfully done (and what certain other groups can successfully do if only they would muster up the collective will to do it)  is that we have moved forward with our trauma of past enslavement.  The operative preposition is “with,” for it is and shall ever be a part of us.

When I sit down for the Pesach Seder this year, I will be moving forward with not only my people’s past enslavement trauma, but also with the trauma of the loss of my mother (and let us not forget the other preposition, “forward“).  Mom would not have wanted me to do it any other way.

This year’s Pesach Seder, then, comes at a very auspicious time; it will facilitate my transition forward from mourning for my mother to the continuation of my life.

About the Author
Born in Philadelphia, Kenneth lived on Long Island and made Aliyah to Israel. Professionally, he worked as a lawyer in the USA (including as an attorney for the Internal Revenue Service), a college professor and an analyst for the U.S. Department of Defense. He's also a writer and a traveler.
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