A Sword Over One’s Neck
Motzaei Shabbat. 11 p.m. A car with four teenage passengers returning from a camp reunion turns on to Peninsula Boulevard in Woodmere, NY. A truck, driven by an intoxicated driver, slams into the car. One of the passengers, a fifteen-year-old girl, is killed. The driver of the car, a single mother, is critically injured. The other girls in the car are injured and traumatized.
This tragedy has devasted a family, a school, a community. That there will be grief and mourning is a given. The question is, how do we move forward from the immediacy of this grief to healing? How do we go forward from mourning to a place where we can once again embrace the beauty and goodness of the world God has given us.
When I was a pulpit rabbi, few things weighed as deeply on me as the need to comfort mourners. How I searched deep in the recesses of my soul to find words and feelings to share with them, to find the emotions to reach them when they were so vulnerable, so broken. At those times, I sought words that acknowledged their loss but also helped them understand that life continues even when, in the immediacy of their grief, they could not fathom how they would be able to “go on”.
In Judaism there is a recognition that mourning is a process; it is a path that the mourner travels. With ritual and custom, that path leads the one overwhelmed by loss back to one who, transformed yes, can engage and embrace the world. Through the first moments of shiva, through shloshim and through the first yahrzeit we mark the change the mourner undergoes, much as we experience the same process encapsulated on Yom Kippur, in which our withdrawal from the everyday pleasures of the world leads us toward teshuvah and transformation.
After the initial shock of death, after the first, fiery flame of grief, there begins the process of avelut, mourning, the goal of which is to return and transform the one confronted with anti-life into the full awareness of the blessings of life.
The process is avelut. The goal is teshuvah.
And yet… how to begin that process? How do we take that first step when, for the mourner, the immediacy of loss is such an unbearable, paralyzing weight?
How do we take that first step? The same question was asked when a young, hassidic boy was kidnapped, his mutilated body found several days later; it was asked when a fire ripped through a home on Shabbat, killing seven children. How will there ever be healing? How can there ever be healing?
When these horrible moments strike the Jewish community, bringing death and grief, there is a need for a knowledgeable, comforting, caring voice to speak not merely to the mind but to the heart. Often that voice belongs to my eldest daughter, Zahava Farbman, the Jewish community’s mental health first responder. A veteran traumatologist, having held the hands of thousands in deep pain and shock for nearly twenty five years, she is often among the first at a tragedy scene, visiting the shiva house, reaching out to classmates and friends of the those injured or killed.
In writing about the grieving process, Rambam never diminishes the difficulty of the mourner. Instead, he plots out the process, the path, the ascendancy of mourning, writing that, for the first three days (of the shiva period) a sword rests upon the mourner’s neck. For the latter four days, it is as if the sword has been lifted from the mourner’s neck and moved to the corner of the room. Then, during the thirty-day period of mourning (shloshim) it is as if the sword has been moved into the marketplace.
What are we to make of what Rambam is saying?
I heard in my daughter’s counsel to the friends and classmates who mourn Liel Namdar a’h, the fifteen-year old who was killed in the car accident on motzaei Shabbat, a profound echo of Rambam’s wisdom. During a Zoom with “Meaningful Minute” shown on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=svRFGrj1IOE), Zahava addressed a number of important questions, one of which spoke directly to the pain of Lial’s friends who wondered how would they wake up the following morning, how would they go to school, how would they move forward, pretending that life was “normal”.
In her words, Zahava seemed to intuit Rambam’s wisdom. “This is only day one,” she counseled them gently. Like Rambam’s sword at the mourner’s neck, the grief, the pain, the confusion is most immediate in the initial hours and days of mourning. Again, and again, she noted that the tragedy had only just happened.
With the care and spiritual strength demanded in these moments, she acknowledged in a powerful way just how heavy that burden is. She acknowledged the weight on their hearts and souls, likening it to a “ton of bricks”. But it was only the first day, she reminded them. Each day, she promised them, the weight of just one of those bricks would be lifted. It would be imperceptible, that first brick or the second or the third. But day by day, a brick would be lifted until one day, the change in the weight would be noticeable. Day by day, one brick and another brick. Just as Rambam counseled that “the sword” would be as if in the marketplace and not directly above us.
In the lifting of the bricks, there would always be small pieces that would fall into our pockets. We will always have the weight there; but we would be able to move forward. Some days we would be more aware than other days but one day, she promised the girls, they would find themselves laughing at a joke or smiling at a baby’s silliness or delighting in the hug of a parent or a friend…
Rambam’s analogy is a description of process. Like the image of bricks being lifted one by one, he is describing what the mourner is experiencing in the earliest days and weeks of grief.
During those first three days of shiva, when grief is so sharp, so immediate, so painful and paralyzing that the mourner might forget to eat, to sleep, to do anything according to what had been the normal rhythm of his life. It is not unreasonable to liken the experience to having a ‘sword against your neck’. Death is that close. That immediate. However, as the days slowly and inevitably move forward, even the mourner begins to be drawn back into the more normal rhythms of life. The immediacy of death is lessened - not by much, but a little. Just a little. And in this subtle change, the mourner begins to become more conscious of the living and to the community. Already, his attention is beginning to shift.
The sword rests not against his neck but rather in the corner of the room. It is slightly removed. And then, as the mourner leaves the shiva period and enters the period of shloshim, when he begins to engage in the reality of the everyday again, Rambam’s sword is even further removed. The mourner continues to ‘feel’ the reality of the sword even in the marketplace, the place of commerce and community. Of course, the loss remains real and yes, the voice is ever-present, but these realities are now intermingling with the reality of the everyday, with the community and with commerce. The mourner is beginning to reenter the everyday world of time and experience.
Even understanding Rambam in this way, one could still ask why he required these additional sharpened and focused descriptives of the tragic reality of ultimate loss. Certainly, they are not necessary to help a mourner confront that "diminished form of human existence" that results from such a profound loss.
Reflections of this nature will put him on his mettle, he will bestir himself- and repent, for it is written: “You have stricken them, but they were not afflicted.” Jer. (5:3) He should therefore be wide awake and deeply moved. (Hilchot Avelut 13:12)
So then, teshuvah is the reason. Transformation. In this understanding, mourning a loved one who has died becomes consistent with the Yom Kippur teshuvah experience. Many of the same prohibitions and restrictions apply to both. If the actions of both are similar, then it seems that the goals of both are similar as well.
As on Yom Kippur, the mourner is cut off from the world of daily activity, removed from the pleasures and routine that has formed the basic rhythm of his life. He is, in short, left - if only by default - to look inward. He is confronted with his own introspection and reflection. He must look directly at himself and his world in the context of his profound loss. And, in the context of that loss, evaluate the meaning and value of his life and behavior.
The difference is that we approach Yom Kippur with forethought. We have had days, weeks to prepare for the experience. With tragedy, we are not given forewarning. Yet in both, there is shock – what is normal is removed, taken away. What is the same is that we cannot remain in a state of shock. We must emerge from each, from our fasting and our prayer, from our shiva. When we do, we should emerge transformed, in a state of teshuva. We should be more sensitive, more thoughtful.
This is not something that happens at once. It takes time. As Zahava reminded her listeners, “… this is only day one.” Change is a process. Teshuva is a process. But it is a process that leads to something.
It cannot be that we would confront something as powerful as grief; that we would come face to face with the harshest reality of life – death – and we would come away unchanged. The question is, how are we changed?