The Do's and Don'ts

Mr. Charlie Harary


I think that its's really hard for someone to have a surefire list of things to say and not to say when paying a shivah call. But there’s one approach that I’ve been taught, and I think if we think about this, it really changes the way we walk into a shivah. You know in life, everything we do really comes down to two different concepts: either giving or taking. At every moment, we’re giving or taking. We’re sharing or we’re looking out for ourselves. We’re looking for a compliment, or we’re trying to get something, or we’re looking to help somebody else. At the end of the day, of course, as a Yid I believe that my job in life is to be a nosein. We’re supposed to emulate Hashem: mah Hu, af atah (Just as He is, so should you be), and HaKaddosh Baruch Hu is the ultimate nosein. So to the extent that I am more of a nosein, a giver, I am more connected to who I really am. And this happens a lot in life. Now, this gets complicated when we give in order to take: when we give someone a compliment so that they give us a compliment back; when we give somebody money so that they give us an honor. Whenever we’re in a situation where we’re giving in order to take, we start to blend what is the true giving versus what is the true taking. This happens a lot when it comes to conversations. Do you ever get the feeling when you’re talking to someone that you’re having an argument or disagreement, and you could care less what they have to say? It’s like you’re waiting for them to stop talking so that you can prove your point. There’s not a sense of trying to figure out the truth; it’s a sense of, I know I’m right, and can you just slow down so that I can actually prove to you that I’m right. It’s a taking conversation. This happens all the time with human interactions. We speak to people, and we really want something from them. We want to feel good about ourselves. We want to make ourselves feel like we’re right or that we’re doing the right thing. We want to feel a certain way. The one area where this comes across the strongest is the area of shivah. Whenever we walk into a room to pay a shivah call, there is this immediate need to feel comfortable because it’s such an uncomfortable circumstance. You walk into a room and see somebody who just lost a loved one, and they’re quiet. You just sit in the room, and it is so uncomfortable. You want to help, you want to do something. You want to be the person to say the right words – you want to give, but at the core, you want to feel a certain way. You want to feel more comfortable, you want to feel like you’re the giver. You want to feel like you’re the one to say the thing that’s going to make all the difference. So even though our first inclination is to give, really deep down, I think there’s a tinge of I want to be the one. And that small middah of taking in the regular world is fine, but in the area of nichum aveilim it can be detrimental – because nichum aveilim is about one thing, and one thing only: the aveilim. That’s it. It’s not about our comfort, it’s not about how we feel, it’s not about squirming in our chairs. It’s not about our own feeling toward the deceased; it’s not about how much we miss them. Nichum aveilim is about them. And our job, as uncomfortable as it may be, is to sit there and ask ourselves one question: what’s good for them? How many times have you walked into a shivah house, and the aveilim are telling a story about how their father passed away. You’ve been there for a while, and they’re finishing their story, and they’re exhausted. The next person comes in, the group of people sitting there shifts, and someone says, “So, how’d your father pass away?” And you can see the exhaustion in the eyes of the aveil as he begins again, “okay, well two weeks ago….” It’s not bad enough that they just lost their loved one! Now they have to perform for a whole week. When you sit down in front of the aveil, it’s not about what you want to know, it’s not about what you think, it’s not about whether you want to find out what happened. I see people sitting at shivah calls, and they start asking, as if they are a doctor, “And what happened? And was he wearing a coat? And was it cold out? And did he call beforehand?” Is this relevant, to start hashing out every detail? At the end of the day, everyone means well. Mi k’amcha Yisrael. People can drive four hours to pay a shivah call. At the surface we all want to help. under the surface we want to be the ones to make the difference. There’s still a tinge of self-interest. And in the area of nichum aveilim, there can’t be any self-interest. When we stand in front of an aveil, our only question is what is good for them? Maybe sitting in silence for four straight minutes, that deafening, exhausting silence, could be what they need right now. Maybe just crying with them without saying anything is appropriate, maybe letting them take a deep breath. Maybe letting them decide when they want to talk is perfect for them. So when it comes to the don’ts of nichum aveilim, in my humble opinion, the rule of thumb is to ask yourself before you speak, who am I speaking for? And the answer should be, I’m speaking for one purpose– for them. When that’s our mentality and that’s our focus, we walk in and we think only of them. We allow them to lead the conversation that they want. Sometimes – I see this all the time in shivah houses – they don’t want to be upset anymore, they don’t want to be depressed. Sometimes they’ve been crying for four hours, and you walk in and they want to tell a funny story. They start going off on a lighter tone, and you say, “oh, I’m so sorry.” And you bring it right down, while they were trying to lift it up a little bit. Mourning doesn’t have one straight plane. It’s not like it’s always going to be crying. There are ups and downs. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion. The game of nichum aveilim is to let them lead the dance, to let them lead the way, to be there for them, and to not, in any way, think that our emotions, our needs, our desires could in any way trump theirs. We need to be totally selfless, to act as much as we can b’tzelem elokim, in the image of g-d, as a complete giver. We need to create an environment where all our focus is on what I can do to help give nechamah, to give some bit of platform, if you will, to the aveil to achieve comfort. What are the things that one shoudl say at shivah? This is something that I think applies in every case, but it applies the most when you are at a shivah in which someone’s life was “cut short.” Now, we know that nothing is cut short. We know at our core that everything comes from the Ribbono Shel Olam, the Master of the World. Yet we live in a world of justice; we live in a world where we try to understand tzeddek, justice. And in the world in which we live, there’s an age that we look to as being “justice.” If someone dies at 120, the shivah house usually isn’t as heart-wrenching as when someone dies at a younger age. It’s not because HaKaddosh Baruch Hu is less b’tzeddek; it’s because in our world we see 120 as a ripe old age, whereas we see a younger age as less so. Whenever somebody has lost someone at a younger age, the family usually goes through fear that their loved one will be forgotten. There is a sense that when you have children and grandchildren, when you build things, when you were older, you’ve planted your seeds and your life has meaning, and your life will carry on past the physical body. But when it comes to someone who hasn’t had that opportunity yet, many times the family fears that the world won’t really know their loved one. They know their son, they know their spouse, they know their father, but the world doesn’t fully know them yet. And had he or she just had the chance, their impact on humanity would have been different. Now we know that HaKaddosh Baruch Hu has His plan, and the niftar’s impact is what it was meant to be. But many times what is most helpful is when you share a story that shows the aveilim that this person impacted your life in a way that was beyond the physical world. You can share a story in which they said something or did something or you saw something in them that taught you a lesson that stayed with you, that you’ll never forget. When you share moments in which the deceased inspired you, motivated you, connected you to something deeper, brought you closer to the Ribbono Shel Olam, brought you closer to understanding the concept of ahavas chessed, of loving kindness, that are not just physical but that touch the eternal, what you’re doing is you’re making the deceased more eternal. You’re allowing the family to feel like the life of their loved one, although it was taken from them after a short time, had a greater impact than even they themselves knew. This provides a unique nechamah because ultimately, we know we’re all going to die. We’re not scared of death, we are scared of a meaningless life. We’re scared that our life won’t have purpose. We’re scared that we won’t have the opportunity to share who we really are. And when somebody passes away at an older age, we almost have a sense that they’ve tried to use their physical years for more. But we know that physical time doesn’t impact spiritual power. People can have an impact in a year, and other people can unfortunately have no impact in 120 years. The more we’re able to show the aveilim that in the life that their loved one had there was this spiritual impact, the greater the nechamah. Spirituality isn’t bound by a body; the eternal isn’t physical. We don’t leave after death and just disappear. Yiddishkeit believes that we don’t go anywhere. The essence of who we are is our soul. It just changes form, it sheds its uniform. The question is not whether or not we are still around; the question is what we did while we were here. What was the impact that we had in the time that we were here? And the essence of nechamah, in my humble opinion, is not that they’re coming back – because they’re not. The essence of nechamah is that the time that was spent in this world was impactful, that they are not going to be forgotten, that they left their mark, and their mark is going to be eternal. It’s not going to take away the pain of the aveilim not being able to converse with their loved one physically, but it will allow them to know that their loved one’s life was purposeful and meaningful. I have friends who lost a child, and understandably, they were completely devastated. I watched during the shivah – even they didn’t know the impact this child had made. He was one of those individuals who was such a nistar, so hidden; he would deliberately hide what he did. He would deliberately put on an exterior that made him look like he wasn’t as focused as he really was on being such a giver; the things he would do were legendary. Even the parents had no idea, the siblings had no idea. The larger family for sure had no idea. During shivah, these stories started coming out. This didn’t take away from the pain that they now didn’t have their son, but it added a level of nechamah because of what this child had accomplished at his age. That was, in my opinion, the most that those being menacheim could do for them. Here is one major don;t. Do not decide to explain to the aveil that the eibershter has a plan, and they shouldn’t worry because it’s all in Hashem’s hands. We know that HaKaddosh Baruch Hu has a plan. They know that HaKaddosh Baruch Hu has a plan. The last thing they need to hear is you downplaying the pain that they’re going through and connecting it to a lack of faith in Hashem. Let me explain. The essence of nichum aveilim is to be a nosein. When somebody loses someone that they love and we feel that pain for them, we also don’t want to be in pain. When you’re a little bit removed, it’s easier to grapple with. of course, somebody who was a friend of one who passed away and saw them every once in a while has an easier time dealing with the death than someone who lived with them on a daily basis. We know at our core that HaKaddosh Baruch Hu has a plan, and even something that seems on the surface to be so devastating is Hashem operating in His sweet justice. The further you are from the situation, the easier it is for you see it because there’s less pain. What happens many times at shivah homes is that someone comes in, and they miss the person who was niftar. or they come because they care about the aveil – they didn’t know the father, or they didn’t know the child, but they know the person sitting shivah. And sometimes it’s even that they care about the circumstance, meaning the thought of losing a child is so powerful to any parent that just that moves them. And they immediately start talking about the Ribbono Shel Olam. “It’s all from Hashem. I know you can’t see it, but Hakodosh Baruch Hu runs the world.” often that downplays the emotions of the aveil. It almost pooh-poohs their sadness. Imagine that something happens to you, and someone says, “What’s the big deal?” Your respond, “okay, I know it’s not a big deal, but right now I’m in the middle of something. Could I just get through the fact that I had a car accident, and then tomorrow morning I’ll go to shul, and I’ll figure out the fact that Hashem runs the world?” I’m sitting here by my flat tire. I don’t need you to pull up and say, “oh by the way, it’s all from Hashem,” and drive off. It’s not helpful to downplay my emotions. I need time to express myself. I’m going to get to it, but while I’m going through my pain, just give me some space. Perhaps the reason you don’t want me to have space is because you don’t want me to express my pain in front of you. Maybe it’s because of your pain. Maybe it’s because you don’t want to be uncomfortable. Shivah is designed to allow the aveilim to breathe. our rabbis know what they’re doing. Chazal are so brilliant. All the halachos of shivah are built around allowing someone just to focus on the deceased. That’s it. They will get to HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, and if they don’t, there will be plenty of time after shivah to deal with it. Do not walk in and pull philosophy on them. Don’t be the Rambam. Let them have a moment when they don’t have to be lofty, when they can just be human, when they can even question Hashem; there’s nothing wrong, in a healthy relationship, with staring up at your father and asking, “Why?” It’s normal for someone to look at their loving Father in Heaven and say, “I don’t understand.” I think that if we don’t allow them to at least breathe and we go right to discussing HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, it takes their pain and smothers them with guilt. If you’re close enough to start mentioning HaKaddosh Baruch Hu to them, you’ll see them after shivah. And if you’re not, certainly don’t bring it up at shivah. At the core, being a Jew is not having an answer. Being a Jew is having the stamina to grapple. When we cut them off too quickly, sometimes it has negative consequences because it doesn’t allow them to fully express their own humanness; ultimately this hinders them from going back to HaKaddosh Baruch Hu, which is where deep down we all want to be. I want to touch again the category of losing a child or a spouse at a young age. The greatest fear a parent has when they lose a child is that the child will be forgotten. They invest in the child, they believe the child will make a difference in this world, will do good for the world, will add, will contribute – even if it’s at the base level of just having children. Parents frequently tell me that their greatest fear is that we’re going to forget their child, that now the child’s friends are coming and they’re sitting around and talking about him, but you know what? They’re all going to get married, and they’re all going to have their lives, and they are going to forget about this child. A nechamah for parents and for spouses, especially younger spouses, is when we’re able to express to them that their child or spouse will never be forgotten and that the impact that they’ll have on us will not be something we’re going to forget. Tell them how you’re going to work or do or build or contribute to something that will bear their name, that will carry their legacy and carry their torch. In this way their impact on the world, while it won’t be in the usual course of events – of growing older and having a family – will be growing and growing and growing spiritually. Number Two. This is a littel more complicated, but many people that have experienced loss feel guilty moving on. They feel if I am happy, then I’m doing my deceased a disservice. They’re not here, so why am I happy? If I wake up in the morning and I’m happy, it’s almost as if I’ve forgotten them. The first time that they experienced their loss it was linked with pain. And so they make a succinct connection between pain and memory. If you’re close enough with the aveilim, try to impress upon them that their joy can still be part of their memory. Sadness doesn’t equal remembering. You can remember somebody just as easily when you’re happy, when you’re excited, when you’re impassioned. After an appropriate amount of time – even at a shivah – you can allow the aveilim to start to create memories that will lead to emotions that are positive. This might be by remembering a funny story or a powerful story; this is real nechamah. They need permission to feel good and still keep their loved one alive in their hearts. using words and using stories that are positive about the deceased many times allows them to start creating positive emotions associated with the deceased. They remember how funny they were. They remember the funny things they did. They remember the humor or the strength and willpower they had. The more upbeat, fun, humorous memories, appropriately, that you can give the family, the more you’re giving them a portfolio, if you will, of memories that they can remember them by, memories connected with something positive. Many times, if you lose somebody that you love, the initial emotion you feel when you experienced the loss was that of pain. It’s someone that you care about deeply. It’s someone that you can’t imagine your life without. It’s someone that you want more than anything in the world to be with forever. In our souls we know that people won’t be around forever. But we never want the time of parting to come. We all know that we’re just here temporarily and that the true us is not our bodies. We have bodies, we are not bodies. At the core of Yiddishkeit is the belief that each and every one of us is created b’tzelem elokim, in the image of g-d. We’re created with a cheilek elokah mima’al, a piece of Hashem from above, literally. The power that’s inside of us, the who we are, not what we have, is a piece of Hashem; it comes from that Source. That’s who we are; we’re spiritual. We have bodies. We have roles. We have titles. We have students. We have children. We have bank accounts. We have cars. We have homes. We have all that stuff, but who we are is not from the physical world. It’s a different substance completely. And we go through our lives and lose sense of that because we can’t sense it. We’re all sensory beings. We talk, we listen, we feel, we touch, and so we begin to start to equate who we are with what we can sense. We go even further; we equate who we are with what we do. After what’s your name, what’s the next question we ask? Well, if you’re Jewish, it’s, “Who do you know?” But otherwise, what is it? We ask, “What do you do?” Why is that even relevant? Because we’re trying to capture the essence of somebody, and we need things to hold on to. But here’s the truth. We’re not what we do. We’re not even our name. That’s physical stuff that gets put around us to allow us to operate in this unique world called Earth. What we are is a soul. We’re a piece of a Hashem. We’re brought into this world for between one second and 120 years. We’re then charged with a mission that outshines and overshadows anything physical we can accomplish here, and we’re given power by our Father who gives us the source of life every single second. We’re operating almost in two worlds: world one, the physical, the sensory world; and world two, which is a larger vision. The Ribbono Shel Olam says, “You’re my soldier, you’re my commando. go down to this location and accomplish this mission.” It’s hard for us to see this because we live a regular life, but that’s the truth. When somebody dies, they don’t go anywhere. Their body goes somewhere, but the essence of who they are doesn’t go anywhere. They are still in the world of ruchni, the spiritual world. We just can’t talk to them the same way. We can’t sense them the same way. We can’t operate on the same set of operating mechanisms that we’ve operated on when we first met them. When they were born to us or we were born to them or we married them or met them, we met them on a physical plane. We don’t remember, we can’t sense when we actually met them for the first time, which was in the spiritual world, a world that can’t be stopped or changed because of anything that happens to one’s body. The core truth is that your loved one is still here. The problem that many of us have is that the first time we lost them the experience that we felt was pain because of the change in our relationship. I used to be able to talk to them; now I can’t. Even if you never spoke to them, even if they lived in a different country and you spoke to them twice a year, you knew you could speak to them; now you can’t. And the sense that they’re not here anymore for us to relate to is painful. We now appreciate them like we never appreciated them before. And that experience hurts. Our minds are amazing machines. They operate under a science called neuroplasticity. That means that every thought you have creates a neurological connection, and the more you think that thought, the closer the connection. The reason why when I look at a round substance I say “ball” isn’t because I’m smarter or less smart than somebody in China who uses a totally different word for that same round object. It’s because when I was little I was taught that that’s a ball. And my mind linked up that object and “ball,” so now I don’t even think about it; it’s connected. If I would have grown up in a different country I wouldn’t even know what the word ball is. I would link something entirely different with that round object. This happens all the time. Have you ever tasted something, and then you have a desire to taste something else? You’re drinking a cup of coffee, and you’ll have this feeling like, why do I want a cookie now? Where did this come from? or you’re sitting at a Shabbos table and you have challah, and the next feeling you’re going to have is, I need cholent. Where did this come from? How do we get from Kiddush to salivating? HaKaddosh Baruch Hu is such an amazing designer; He connects things together so quickly that our brains link two different experiences. As you do it again and again and again, it creates almost a rope, and things become tied together. When somebody experiences a loss, what happens neurologically is that they link loss – that their loved one is not here physically – with pain, with anguish. There is a famous story that Shlomoh Hamelech sent out one of his advisors to find the ring that would make poor people happy and rich people scared. After a long time his advisor came back with a ring upon which was engraved three Hebrew letters: gimmel, zayin, yud, which stood for gam zeh ya’avor (this too shall pass). This idea would make a poor person happy and a rich person scared. Shik’chah, forgetfulness, is another gift HaKaddosh Baruch Hu gives us. Time does have a way, not of causing us to forget, but of allowing us to deal with pain. Gam zeh ya’avor. What happens to many people is that as time goes on, they feel guilty for not being in pain. They remember their loved ones, and because that first memory was pain, they feel as if by moving on they are disrespecting or dishonoring their loved one. How can I enjoy this day? This person is not even around. How can we have fun? Do you know that so and so died? How can you be laughing at a shivah house, excuse me? How can I ever walk into a room again if I once walked into the room with my loved one, and he’s not here? The first time we experienced the niftar not being here we were in pain, and we feel like if we don’t come back to that pain year after year, time after time, we’re not doing our job. They’re not here and we’re moving past them? We’re living without them? That’s not right. So the way we connect back to them is that feeling we had when we first lost them, when we didn’t move on, when it was all about them, when we sat at a funeral or at a shivah house. The way we respected them, the way we honored them the first time, was being in pain. So we think we should honor them from now on by being in pain. But, why can't the way we honor them by being b’simchah, by being happy? Why can’t the way we honor them when walking into a room be by never allowing another day to pass without being in full and complete appreciation for what we have? Why can’t their memory be about making every moment of every day filled with overwhelming ahavah? Why can’t we honor them by going to bed every night and kissing every one of our kids? Why can’t we honor them by walking into shul and praying like today is our last tefillah? Why can’t we honor them by having a cup of coffee and talking to them? They may not answer back, but HaKaddosh Baruch Hu doesn’t answer back; He listens. In the world of spirituality we believe at our core that He hears. If we didn’t believe that He hears, then why do we say Tehillim for someone who is sick in eretz Yisrael? The gadlus, the overwhelming awesomeness of being a Yid, is that we don’t get ourselves stuck in the physical world. We’re just bodies, but we live on a totally different plane, and we operate on that plane. And if you will allow yourself to start to link up positive emotions with your deceased, if you will allow yourself to take the legacy of your deceased and bring it out, if you will allow yourself to maybe even enjoy life more because of them, to never let a moment go by without sucking out the joy of every day, if you allow yourself to have your loved one be the reason, the inspiration, for why every second of your life will be filled with every positive emotion the eibershter gives us, is that not remembering them? Is that not bringing their legacy up to the next level? Is that not honoring them in a much bigger way? In the Next World, do you think they are happier or less happy that their legacy is enabling you to be b’simchah tamid, happy always? Walking into a room with a positive mentality is giving them chizzuk right now as they sit next to the Kisei Hakavod, Hashem’s Throne of glory, where they understand, even though we don’t, why they were taken from us at a young age. The more we connect positive with their memory, the more their memory lives on, the more their legacy enriches, builds, creates, the more they’re able to stick with us at every second of our lives; this allows us to move on to be more productive, to be greater, to be more connected to the Ribbono Shel Olam. And – if I can be so bold to say this – we’ll be more able to build the bricks of the third Beis Hamikdash and get to a place and time when we’ll see them once again. It's all about how we view our departed loved ones. When we start to see them like the soul that they are and not the body that they’re not, we start to realize that they’re happy. We may not be, but they are. They get to be themselves again; they get to be souls. We may miss them like crazy, and we may want them to be with us for many more years, but they’re back to where they want to be. They’re standing next to the Ribbono Shel Olam. They’re connected to their true essence, shedding the outside trappings that stop them from being them. We need to see that and feel that and quarantine the pain as missing them as opposed to honoring them. If we allow ourselves to create a little rift between pain equals missing them, which is totally fine, and pain equals remembering and honoring them, we’ll allow the “gam zeh ya’avor principle” to pull away the negativity. In this way we’ll allow ourselves to connect only to their true essence and to live our lives with simchah, with emunah, with courage and with greatness and have them be the reason for that, which I think could be one of the greatest things we can do for them as their lasting legacy.
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