Some Random Thoughts While Leading a Shiva Minyan
Often when I lead a communal service sudden and unexpected insights come to me. This is especially so when I lead a Shiva minyan. As I lead, I try to focus on the family I am in the midst of. I also try to keep my thoughts focused on the deceased who is at the center of their gathering. Sometimes, when I do this internal “kavanah” (intention) the prayers yield new insights.
Yesterday, I led a Shiva minyan for the family of Marilyn Reinman, a beloved and lifelong member of the congregation I serve here in Albuquerque. Among the many roles she filled at the synagogue, the most impactful was her role as religious schoolteacher for decades. She was a beloved teacher who touched the children she taught. To her family she was a beloved mother and grandmother.
As I focused on the family grief and on Marilyn’s life, a new insight about the V’ahavta passage came to me. The v’ahavta passage is part of the Shema which is a quotation from Deuteronomy 6:4-9. In verse 7, we read “Teach them diligently to your children….”. It came to me that the Shema is a what we call in our times, a parenting handbook.
Marilyn was a gifted teacher. But she also was a devoted parent. It seemed appropriate to give intention to this most famous passage from that perspective. As I thought about it during the prayers, I realized that one way to look at these most familiar prayers is as a resource for a parent seeking guidance on how to instruct children about what God asks of us. This first paragraph of the Shema (the v’ahavta) offers a path for a parent to teach the next generation about loving God.
I also noticed that the language about teaching children occurs also in the second paragraph of the Shema (V’hayah im shamo’a): “Teach them to your children….” What is the subject of the teaching in the second paragraph of the Shema? When reading the paragraph, you will notice that the theme is about the collective responsibility and consequences of observing or not observing the commandments. The consequences are apparent in nature and the land we inhabit. This paragraph is in the plural, not in the singular as in the previous paragraph.
This paragraph is also about parenting, about teaching children using very similar language toward the end of the paragraph as in the first paragraph. I was left wondering as I led the prayer about the task of parenting the teachings of the second paragraph. Is the second paragraph about teaching the child collective responsibility? Something to ponder.
The value of the Shiva for the community.
Much has been written by rabbis and educators about the beauty, comfort, and value of Jewish mourning rituals. For me, the fundamental value of the Shiva is that the community comes to the home of the mourners. Even in a virtual minyan on Zoom that we held last night, it was very impressive to see all the faces of members of the congregation and family friends from all over the country and beyond. The Shiva galvanizes the community to reverse the normal pattern of community gathering. The community comes to the mourner.
I am always grateful to families who hold a Shiva. It is not always the case. In these days, many families consider a death in the family to be a purely private matter. But when a family holds a Shiva, not only do family members benefit from the comforts of mourning. The family also benefits deeply from the presence of community and the consolations of a wider circle of people.
By holding a Shiva, the family also benefits the community. The family is inviting the community in to their home. One of the roles of the community is to console the individual within the community, to be present during a time of grief. By holding a Shiva, a family is giving an opportunity to the community to fulfill its purpose for existence.
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg
25 Nisan 5781, 10th Day of the Omer.