Rabbi Daniel Lichman
I want to begin by honouring our Bereavement Support Team who are seeking to create a system in our community to support those amongst us in our community who are in their year of mourning. I also want to acknowledge you - a builder in this community who in reading this is engaging in the question of how you personally and communally engage in the mitzvah of comforting the mourner.
I want to share with you the impact that this mitzvah has had on one of our builders:
“The community of mourners in the kaddish group has enfolded me in its welcome since I joined this autumn. ”Joining” doesn’t quite express the process of being gently assimilated into its tender rituals. This spirited group has provided an anchor to mourn the pain I have felt since my mother’s death in January, a repeated practice whose familiarity both acknowledges and soothes, and a sense of shared recognition, despite the Covid-imposed distances. Long may it continue. “ Karen Adler
This illustrates how the new system of supporting our mourners so powerfully embodies our community vision (Link) https://www.willesdenminyan.com/ where we state: ‘We respond by building this community to show that another world is possible.’ A world where human beings are not simply individuals expected to take care of their own needs, but part of something bigger, shown by being present for each other in our moments of joy and struggle.
In this piece I want to explore our approach to comforting the mourners in light of our values of: Chesed, Torah, Kavannah and Hineni.
Chesed: Building a community of kindness, care and friendship; showing up for each other’s joys and struggles.
The mitzvot associated with Chesed are most clearly outlined in the commentaries to Mishnah Peah 1:1. The mishnah, edited around the year 200CE is the foundational text of Rabbinic Judaism.
Mishnah Peah states:
‘The following are the things for which a person enjoys the fruits in this world while the principal remains for him in the world to come: Honoring one’s father and mother; The performance of gemilut chasidim (acts of kindness); And the making of peace between a person and his friend; And the study of the torah is equal to them all.’
When the mishnah talks of the ‘fruits in this world’ it reminds us that when we take on these mitzvot we are likely to benefit in the doing of them and benefit from being a part of a community that values these mitzvot: if we are part of a society that encourages us to be kind we are likely to receive that kindness in our moments of need.
One of the acts of gemilut chasadim is the mitzvah of ‘comforting the mourner’. For us to understand how to do this we turn to Torah
Torah: Learning and being in active conversation with ancient wisdom that holds, moves, informs and challenges us.
The mitzvah of ‘comforting the mourner’ is found in the Torah in the book of Bereishit/Genesis. We read in 25:11:
‘After the death of Abraham, God blessed his son Isaac.’
The medieval commentator Rashi understands the moment of God blessing Isaac to refer to God comforting Isaac following the death of his father. Rashi’s commentary is based on the Babylonian Talmud at Sotah 14a where Rabbi Hama son of Rabbi Hanina explains our obligation to act with kindness in the way that God acted with kindness based on the verse in Devarim/Deuteronomy 13:5 which states: ‘After the Eternal your God you shall walk.’
The question then arises: what constitutes comforting the mourner?
This depends on the stage of mourning that the mourner is in: the shiva (week after the funeral); shloshim (30 days after the funeral); year of mourning up until the first yahzeit or annio (anniversary of the death in Yiddish and in Ladino).
One tradition is to visit, phone or write to a mourner during the week-long period of shiva immediately after the funeral. According to Rabbi Maurice Lam the purpose of this visit is to ‘relieve the mouner of the intolerable burden of intense loneliness.’ The purpose of these comfort calls is not to discuss or talk about anything specific with the mourner but instead to simply be alongside them. Traditionally mourners are advised not to work during this week and in many communities the community takes it upon themselves to bring food to the family for that week.
For the shloshim - and in the case of mourning for the parent, for the year - our tradition offers the community distinct ways to act as comforters. One of these is in the Friday night service where amidst the joy of welcoming in Shabbat we acknowledge those amongst us who might find it hard to experience joy at this moment (see page 123 of our siddur). The main moment is when the mourners recite Kaddish at the end of each service.
The Kaddish, a prayer in Aramaic which affirms life and is a statement of hope, comes in several forms at different moments in every prayer service. The Kaddish Yatom (literally ‘orphan’s Kaddish’) is recited by mourners with the community responding with the various ‘Amen’s.
The recitation of the Kaddish Yatom requires a minyan - a quorum of people who enable certain prayers to be said. In our community we women and men are both included in the minyan. In ancient times there were multiple traditions of the number of people needed for a minyan. The position of the Babylonian Talmud that the required number is 10 became the dominant position over the minority position in Palestinian sources of 7. This tradition is a powerful statement that whilst an individual is having their own private experience, they exist within a society of other people: within a community. The primary expression of the mitzvah of ‘comforting the mourner’ in the shloshim and year of mourning is to make up the minyan that enables the mourner to say kaddish.
Having consulted the wisdom of our tradition in our Torah section - the next stage is to consider how we observe this in our community.
Kavannah: Creating meaningful Jewish rituals that guide and build intention: engaging intentionally and creatively with Torah and Jewish practice to inspire meaning and connection in our lives.
Our value of Kavannah reminds us to create rituals that work for us as a community and enable us to realise our vision.
For the shiva period the community will announce the details of the shiva gatherings. This will usually be one evening with an evening service, memorial prayer and opportunity to hear about the deceased followed by greeting the mourner.
For the shloshim and year: we are already, as a community, in the habit of gathering as a minyan on Friday evening and shabbat morning and on festival days, enabling the mourners amongst us to say the Kaddish.
The additional suggestion of the Kaddish Group arises out of the direct experience of mourners in our community who have found this to be an important space as testified above. It began as an initiative during Allison’s year of mourning and was something that other mourners found to be a source of support leading us to turn it into a community project.
The question of how each of us in the community respond to this opportunity is a question that our value of Hineni responds to.
Hineni: ‘Here I am’/leadership - every one of us has something of value to offer and the power to make change.
‘Hineni’ in it’s biblical expression refers to responding to a call with presence. In our community there are many different calls and different opportunities to participate in contributing to the realisation of our community’s vision of individuals collectively entering the ‘practice of how to be more compassionate, loving and just human beings, who make an active contribution to the world we want to see.’
For many of you participating in the Kaddish calls, enabling mourners to say Kaddish in a rota system will be something you are able to do. For some of you it will not be the way for you to contribute to the community at this moment.
The approach that we have tried taking in the first piloting of the Kaddish group is in the spirit of obligation and exemption. Most people in the community have been placed in the rota. This is an invitation for you to consider this obligation of comforting the mourner. And many of you will be exempt from it because it is not, at this moment in your life, for lots of good reasons, the call to which you can say Hineni.
We hope you will experience the warmth that Naomi found as a supporter of the group previously organised by Allison:
“I started attending a Kaddish group in response to a request to help make up a minyan. I wasn’t sure what to expect.The level of commitment seemed a little daunting. What I have discovered is any attendance is appreciated and attending has been as much a support to me as it is to the mourners. Baruch HaShem , I have not lost a relative this year, But there have been other losses and having the opportunity to be in a space where vulnerability, loss and pain are honoured was a blessing. I am delighted that Makor Hayim is continuing these groups as it is another easy way for us to extend care and support to each other - a reminder that sometimes we are the supporters , and at other times, the ones in need of support.”