William Hamilton

Rush Hour or Hush Hour

The air in a shiva house is different. It feels still with patience. Traditionally, visitors encircle the mourner quietly, awaiting opportunities to respond to her or his prompts. Rather than expecting those bereft with grief to respond to others, the setting encourages the opposite. What’s known as a shiva call, actually finds the mourner doing the ‘calling’ within the rhythm of call-and-response.

As I complete shiva week for my beloved father, Bert Hamilton, the touching texture of listening and responsive love has helped me and my siblings a lot.

Throughout his good and long life, my father and I enjoyed daily conversations that were rich in substance. I miss them. Yet they’ve been revisiting this week and filling shiva’s patient space.

Here’s one from a few years ago. We were actually lamenting the lost art of conversation. “Listening is a gift and it’s a declining art form” he said. I agreed. Then I confessed that I often find myself thinking about what to say next rather than considering what my interlocutor is telling me. He nodded, adding that with contentious conversations, “These days it’s like the time for listening has become the time for reloading.”

The Hebrew word for ignore, hitalem, takes the word olam, meaning world, and makes it personally reflexive. So the person who ignores does so by making him or herself into the center or even the entirety of the world. This word appears three times in this week’s portion of Torah, imploring bystanders to be up-standers by returning, restoring, and relieving that which is not where or how it belongs (Deut. 22:1,3,4).

Setting aside my story for the story of another feels like a helpful way to make a rush-hour into a hush-hour.

“A good conversation is a smoothly flowing river” writes gifted conversationalist Celeste Headlee.  As I continue to try to honor you, dear father, I sense the riverbanks of our cherished visits continue to gently overflow.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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