What I Learned in a Shiva House

Yesterday, I made a shiva visit in a nearby neighborhood. A neighbor of mine was sitting shiva for his brother, and I found my way over to the other area of the city to be “menachem avel.” Truth be told, I knew nothing about his brother, but that has never been a reason to not visit and comfort a mourner. Being that my neighbor is relatively young, questions began to swirl in my head. Was this an older or younger brother? Married? Single? Kids? The “usual” questions you consider when visiting a mourner’s home for someone you really didn’t KNOW when he/she was alive.

We entered, sat down and the questions began to answer themselves, as the mourner began to speak about his brother. I learned that he had had a congenital brain illness and that about 14 years ago had some form of surgery. After that surgery, he was more or less in a vegetative state. He did not live at home, as the care for him would not have been possible there, so he was in a facility not far from the family. Although he was in a vegetative state, he still had use of his eyes and was able to smile a smile of recognition. I saw the pictures of him on the table and, indeed, he had a beautiful smile.

And that is when I heard something that struck me as being quite profound. The actions one takes in taking care of a deceased individual (the preparation of the body for burial, the eulogies, the burial) fall into a category known as “Chessed Shel Emmet.” This loosely translates into “TRUE acts of kindness.” The reason for that is that, while we are always doing things for other people, the POTENTIAL for doing something for another in order to reap some personal benefit (be it ever so remote) makes that act of chessed not 100% pure. It is only the act of kindness we do with the dead that is 100% pure, in that we can not expect, even in the remotest possible way, any form of “payback” from the individual.

And that is always how I looked at and learned the subject of “Chessed Shel Emmet”…until yesterday. My friend looked at me and said that the care his family and friends gave to his brother was also in the category of Chessed shel Emmet! This young man (who passed away at 36) could in no way, shape or form “repay” the ones doing things for him nor could ANY act for this young man EVER be tainted by even a remote hope of some repayment in kind from him. No, all the acts of love and care were indeed pure acts of chessed, as well.

Not only are we able to do ultimate acts of chessed for those who are no longer living, but, it would certainly seem accurate, that this definition extends also to some of those alive as well.

About the Author
After living in Chicago for 50 years, the last 10 of which Zev Shandalov served as a shul Rav and teacher in local Orthodox schools, his family made Aliya to Maale Adumim in July 2009. Shandalov currently works as a teacher, mostly interacting with individual students.
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