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300 Hillcrest Blvd Hoffman Estates, IL 60169


Beth Tikvah Congregation

Our House of Hope

300 Hillcrest Blvd, Hoffman Estates, IL 60169  


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From the Cantor's Desk

Ilana Axel, Cantorial Leader


Supporting the Vulnerable Among Us

“When he (your friend) is recently bereaved, do not comfort him.”

This verse from Pirkei Avot 4:18 is a real head scratcher. I learned it originally from Rabbi Max Weiss. It comes from a longer list of “do nots” that, taken together, are interpreted to mean that one cannot expect recognizable reactions from people, even those we know well, while they are angry or in pain. But, to not go comfort our friends when they are in mourning? This is antithetical to everything we love and thought we knew about our Jewish tradition. Someone dies. We fulfill mitvah by accompanying them to the grave. We add mitzvah upon mitzvah by accompanying the mourners in their grief. It is one of the central callings in our community, and one that Beth Tikvah rightfully prides itself on doing well. Yet, have we not all wished at times for some guidance on how best to comfort those in mourning? Most people report some discomfort in this area. I’m not sure what to say. I’m not sure if I’m wanted there. I‘m not sure what I can do. Luckily there is a large body of literature on this topic and a lot of communal experience and knowledge that I would like to share. And it can be summed up best by a single idea: ASSUME NOTHING.

The shiva period – the first week when mourners are purposefully surrounded by the community while the death is still at its most impactful – is part of a larger structure that provides mourners with safe space to grieve, as well as safe space to slowly emerge from deepest grieving. It is both time-based and action (mitzvah) based. Anita Diamant writes about this very eloquently in her book “Saying Kaddish” How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, & Mourn as a Jew” (Schoken Books, NY, 1998). She writes on pages 97-8:

“Judaism places protective fences around grief. Barriers of time and ritual shield the mourner, permitting him or her to do what must be done: weep, rant, rest. But the fences also protect against the excesses of grief; to keep sadness from overwhelming the life of the mourner, to keep death from impugning on the life of the community. The boundaries around mourning rituals become less and less restrictive over time so mourners can fully return to their life-affirming responsibilities: caring for themselves and their families materially and emotionally, repairing the world, participating in community life.”

Our puzzling verse from Pirkei Avot can now be seen as part of this structure of protective barriers for mourner and comforter. It does not of course mean that you are not to visit the home of the mourner. Rather, it is a shield that protects us from saying or doing something regretful, and the mourner from being inadvertently harmed by our good intentions. For example, when entering the house of a mourner it is really tempting to search for something meaningful to say. But our verse teaches us “do not comfort him”. In other words: ASSUME NOTHING. None of us can assume how our words will be heard by one in grief. Our sages therefore taught that when we enter a house of mourning we are meant only to be present. We approach the mourner without words. Really? Yes, they taught we are to do this without words. Jews without words, oy! Hugs, handshakes, and a hand on elbow or shoulder, just standing nearby and available - all these sufficiently represent our presence. And then, we are taught, we wait to see what the mourner wishes to say, and from them we take our cue. If they ask about your own life it is fine to answer but it is not the time to give all the details. And, if they prefer silence, then we answer in silence. It is a radical Jewish notion that this is not only ok, but fulfills the mitzvah itself. ASSUME NOTHING. Assume nothing about what or even if you will find to eat there – the food is actually meant for the mourners. It is not an automatic invitation to party in their home. Assume nothing about how the mourner sees their role, whether as host or as milk toast on the couch in the corner. Assume nothing about who will be there, who will lead the minyan, what the mourner requested from the officiants, how long they choose to sit, when and how they want to rejoin life outside or on what terms. Assume nothing. A simple barrier. An invitation to be sensitive and present and responsive. In our un-assuming, we become sources of true comfort.

As Jews we are accustomed to seasoning our seasons of joy with a bit of sadness. In this spirit I am grateful to you for having read this, as we prepare together for the gladness that is approaching – our holiday of freedom, liberation, renewal and rededication – Happy Passover to all! May we taste the waters of redemption even more than the tears of sorrow.

Categories: Cantor

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