The shiva trap: To say or not to say?

We all know this scene too well. Walking into a shiva house and sitting down with the mourner. Perhaps it is someone who just lost a parent, a spouse, a sibling or even a child. The awkwardness of the moment is inescapable. What do you say? What can you say? Anything you say will be inadequate.

Remaining silent is unbearable as well, so you naturally feel compelled to say something. But the words you will utilize will be average, meaningless. Maybe even worse, insensitive or inappropriate. Then, you can always change the subject, by talking about sports or politics or maybe even cracking a joke to make light of the matter. Again, totally inappropriate.

You are a victim of the shiva house trap. No easy solutions to this dilemma. No one comes out from this awkward situation feeling good about themselves.

As a rabbi, I am always asked how to behave at a Shiva house? What does our wise Torah say about dealing with this sensitive situation?

One of the first tragic deaths, recorded in the Torah, is the untimely deaths of Nadav and Avihu, the two promising sons of one of the most beloved biblical figures, Aaron the high priest. The children of Aaron die mysteriously on the opening day of the very first synagogue of the Jewish people: the portable tabernacle in the wilderness.

After reporting their deaths, the Torah turns its attention to Moses the most famous leader of the Jewish people who approaches Aaron his brother, in an attempt to comfort him and he engages him in a noteworthy Shiva exchange.

Moses attempts to comfort Aaron who had just experienced one of the worst possible nightmares of life: losing two children in a single day.  He attempts to explain to his brother the philosophical reasoning behind the tragedy.

” I will be sanctified by those whom I have chosen” he says. G-d takes those that he loves most. Nothing is an accident. Whatever G-d does is part of a bigger plan. It was meant to be.
This rationale given by his brother must have been very meaningful to Aaron, especially when it was offered not by a random philosophical speculator or hypothesizer but by Moses, a prophet of G-d, who was privy to the bigger picture.

Yet the Torah tells us afterwards that Aaron remains silent. It doesn’t say he resonated with the explanation offered, rather he remained silent.

By not stating that Aaron was comforted by his brother’s rationale, and instead chose to remain quiet, the biblical narrative subtly suggests that silence is the wiser approach to dealing with tragedy and death. It gives Aaron’s approach the thumbs up even in comparison to Moses’s.

We see clearly from this exchange between the two famous brothers that the Torah’s approach is that silence is viewed as the wiser approach to dealing with great tragedy. Regardless of how uncomfortable silence may be, it is endorsed as the recommended path!

So practically speaking, with silence being the recommended modus operandi when encountering tragedy, what does one do at a shiva house?

First thing is to learn the art of listening. Let the mourner do the speaking first as is advised in the Code of Jewish law and then just listen silently. But one needs to hone their listening skills. Don’t listen passively. Listen compassionately and actively. Nod your head and repeat catch phrases of the mourner. You are even welcome to do some mirroring and validation of their feelings but not more. Definitely, no explaining the tragedy. If you are courageous, you can even give them a hug (when COVID-19 is over of course!). A hug goes a long way.

Next, we can give the mourner a hand in moving forward. One of the most insightful directives on this subject comes from a letter written by the Lubavitcher Rebbe o.b.m. in 1956. It was after a terrible tragedy at the Chabad village in Israel called Kfar Chabad, when a terrorist broke into a school and murdered cold-bloodedly five students and their teacher, that the Rebbe wrote a letter of comfort to them. In the letter he explains to the villagers that he didn’t write immediately because it is the time of ” the silence of Aaron”. But he explains that this silence applies only to rationalizing the hurt but as far as what to do going forward, the Torah says clearly in the book of Exodus: “For as much as the Egyptians would afflict them (the Jews), so they would increase and prosper”.  When Jews are hurting, they don’t pack it in. On the contrary they get stronger!

While we are instructed not to try to explain and rationalize to mourners the tragedy, we are encouraged to speak to them to find creative ways to find positive growth in the wake of tragedy. We need to speak to them of how to perpetuate the memory of their loved ones  by continuing their loved ones story and following in their footsteps.
That is where they will find comfort!

Based on my recently released book “Seven Conversations with Jerry: A book about the human soul, bereavement and the afterlife.”

About the Author
Rabbi Avraham E. Plotkin is an emissariy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Markham, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto. He is the spiritual leader of a very dynamic Synagogue and Jewish Centre there. Rabbi Plotkin is a longstanding member of the Rabbinical Council of Toronto. His classes on Kabbalah and marriage, have been received by sell-out audiences around the world.
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