The purpose of the shiva minyan is to comfort the mourner.
Last week I was called upon to facilitate a shiva minyan for a woman whose brother had died in another city. Now that the mourner was back home, she wanted to complete her seven days of mourning with her own local community.
People poured in during the day, but as the seven o’clock evening hour approached only a few people remained. So we waited for the obligatory quorum of ten. When seven-thirty arrived, so did the tenth person.
I assessed the situation: two Jews, two Hindus, two Baptists, two Evangelical Christians, one Catholic -- and me, the rabbi.
Shiva is the most therapeutic of Jewish mourning rituals. It honors the journey of the bereaved by providing friends, family, and co-workers a proscribed setting in which to express their sympathies and condolences.
"'Shiva' means seven, the holy number of the days of creation and the number of days Jews withdraw from daily life to mourn a beloved,” I explained.
"Has anyone been to Jerusalem?" I asked, not knowing what the response would be.
"Oh, yes," came the feedback. "Several times," echoed the African-American couple sitting directly across from me.
"As you might remember, there are seven open gates in the Old City. In ancient times, there were eleven gates, and the temple in the ancient city of Jerusalem had a separate path set aside for the mourners. As the mourners came through this selected gate, they came face-to-face with other members of the community, and the people expressed the recognition of their loss by reciting this Hebrew verse."
HaMakom y’nachem etkhem b’tokh sh’ar aveilei Tzion v’ Yrushalayim.
I had them repeat the words after me and focus on their friend who stood with a torn black ribbon on her jacket above her heart, indicating externally her internal private grief.
We formed a circle around the mourner and recited the verse in unison.
May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Suddenly, we were all on the same page of the heart. We have all traveled the same path of loss and bereavement. Cultural language is not the barrier. Diverse faith traditions do not separate us from the realities of life and death. This unorthodox shiva minyan paved the way towards comforting the mourner.
Let us all say "Amen."