The scene is all too familiar. The husband (let us say) of a friend has died — suddenly, from a massive heart attack – and you are getting out of your car for a shiva call.. You thought you might be out together enjoying a movie this Saturday night. Instead you are visiting on Thursday, and you wonder what to say when you get inside.
Some scenarios are worse. It might be a son or daughter who dies: in a car accident perhaps, no fault of their own. Either way, you are about to visit the grieving family. It is the Jewish thing to do, and you’ve done it before. But you wonder again: “What will I say? What comfort can I offer?”
In a week, we get to Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort. It began after the defeat by Rome and the destruction of the 2nd Temple, and we generally treat it as a time of national disaster. But it was equally personal: soldiers who died in battle; families whose homes were burned by marauding soldiers. Widespread famine and more deaths. People made shiva calls then too – and had the same question:
“Comfort? How can I comfort someone whose father never came home? Whose daughter was raped and killed by enemy soldiers?”
This is the time of year when our calendar instructs us on tragedy and trauma; when we remember again that every day of life is a gift, a tenuous extension of the day before, which was itself nothing to take lightly. Why should we be here at all? Why should human life even occur in this remote outpost of the universe that just “happens” to have the right gaseous makeup, and sufficient evolution to lead to you and me? Then too, instead of reading this column, you could be one of the two million children reported by the United Nations as enslaved for sex around the world, or running for your life in Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Liberia, or a dozen other failed states where life is cheap and you know for sure how tenuous it can be. “All flesh is grass,” says this week’s Haftarah; “All its goodness like flowers of a field. Grass withers and flowers fade.”
So you exit your car, and wonder again, “What can I say to comfort?” Again, the Haftarah has anticipated you, as if it knew the inner dialogue that haunts you. “One voice cries out, `Speak!’ Another asks, `What is there to say?'” Precisely. You will go inside and have to speak. But what is there to say?
Then comes the answer. “Comfort,” God says, “Speak tenderly.” There it is, “Speak tenderly.” The Hebrew phrase is, “Speak to the heart,” that is (say our commentators) “words that are accepted by the heart,” not the rational faculty we call mind. There is nothing logical to say right now. Go find reasonable grounds for a grieving mother to heave a sigh of relief, when she has just buried a daughter! Impossible!
But lacking something profound to say does not mean that you should settle for small talk. A loving embrace, a heartfelt look from eyes that understand, some fond memories of the person who died, and a few short sentences that mean, “I love you; I’m sorry; it’s awful; I don’t understand either; but I am here with you in your moment of grief” — that is the comfort we have to offer. As Jewish wisdom puts it, “Words spoken from the heart enter the heart.”
“Do not reason with people when their deceased lie before them,” advise the Rabbis. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid visiting. You can park your car outside the next shiva home knowing that having been through Shabbat Nachamu, you are positively prophetic in your power to comfort. Step confidently through the doorway and “speak tenderly.” What comes from your heart will go directly into theirs.