Dan Ornstein
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When God sat shivah

A midrash: The Creator wept with despair for the humans whose behavior He had long stopped trying to control

My story is based very loosely upon a teaching about God going into mourning over the destruction of ancient Jerusalem, one of the main themes of the current three week period on the Jewish calendar. It is found in Lamentations Rabbah 1:1, the rabbinic commentary on the biblical book of Lamentations which we read on Tisha B’Av. May all of our grieving soon be transformed into joy.

Once upon a time, God sat shivah. Surprising, isn’t it, that the Master of life and death, the Source of all existence Who has no ancestors or nuclear family and Who lives eternally as the recondite, unmoved Prime Mover should observe the traditional Jewish mourning period. But after all, this is a Jewish story about the God of the universe, so perhaps this should hardly be surprising.

Things had all ended so badly in the dark, bloody time before the funeral. Some whispered that the Jews had run amok among themselves, engaging in horrendous violations of God’s will, the worst of which was their ceaseless, causeless hatred for one another. The word among the scholars was that the King of Kings had gone crazy with anger, wreaking punishing havoc on His chosen people by using Rome as an unwitting agent of divine vengeance. It was time for appeasement through prayer, repentance, good deeds, Torah study. Say little, do much, give Rome Her due and wait for salvation.

Others said it had nothing to do with the Jews themselves, that they were hapless, victimized cogs in a brutal, calculating imperial war machine which would not tolerate the least stirrings of resistance against the empire. The word on the streets among the young revolutionaries was that God was not at all a factor in the Roman political and military calculus and not much of a factor in anything of real importance. The King of Kings was at best a pretty rack upon which to hang one’s ceremonial coat when making a fashionable appearance on the Temple Mount during the holidays. It was time for strategic retreat and planning. Say little, do much, give Rome Her due, then strike at Her black heart again.

Meanwhile, God surveyed the charred remains of the precious city which had once been full of His precious people and which now sat in solitary desolation. God wept with guilt for His explosive rage; God wept with utter despair for the humans whose behavior He had stopped trying to control a long time ago.

Then God decided to sit shivah.

“What do I do?” the King of Kings asked the ministering angels. “I’ve never sat shivah before. Should we consult a rabbi who can give us some guidance about mourning practices?”

The angels eyed each other with sad dread. “Master and Mourner of the universe, we’ll have to be Your rabbis. Our counsel is that You should mourn the way all human kings would mourn,” they quietly explained. God sighed heavily as the acrid smoke and the ghostly echoes of anguish reached His throne. “How do they mourn?” God whispered.

The angels barely stuttered through their tears, “They mourn the way that any person would, only more so. When a person dies, a commoner grieves for the world that is gone and the worlds that will never be born. A king does that, yet a king also grieves for how He failed to protect that person from death in the first place.”

God heard their words and understood. As He sat mostly in silence all seven days of the mourning, with the ministering angels attending to Him, God remembered His people who had died; God spoke about His ruined city; God dreamed about Rome, the promise She held and the predator She had become.

When shivah ended on the morning of the seventh day, God felt a small modicum of comfort. The angels could do little to end God’s suffering, but by being near, they had done much more than they and God had anticipated.

Then the angels pointed to earth below, where the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem had gathered. They slowly explained, “Your grief is moving forward now, and their grief has just begun. It will stab at their lives again and again.”

God said to them, “Let me go comfort and weep with them. Each time in the future they gather to comfort each other, to help each other recognize that joy and hope will return to the streets of Jerusalem and the walls of their houses, they will know that I am there with them.”

God went to pay a shivah visit.

When we visit a shivah house, we say to those who have suffered loss, “May God comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” We feel God there with us, comforting the mourners and strengthening the comforters.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at
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