The Walk of a Mourner

Ruth Fogelman, Israel

Ruth Fogelman is an author and award-winning poet living in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Almost every day, I walk through the Arab suq to or from Jaffa Gate. But since my mother died, my walk has been different. Since, in the year of mourning (for a parent), a Jew does not receive presents, or buy one for oneself, I keep reminding myself of the fact that I have all I need.

I also notice that I actually enjoy saying, “I can’t receive presents this year.” As much as I have always enjoyed receiving gifts, I am, to my own surprise, enjoying not accepting them. The Law is such that I may give gifts, but not receive them. It’s a relief knowing that I don’t need anything more. This is a period of letting go. And if there’s a book that I want to read, for example, instead of buying it for myself, I know that I can borrow it from a friend or from the public library.

I’ve let go of the desire to own more, trusting that God continually provides me with everything I need - today and tomorrow. I see it as a spiritual exercise to take this whole year of not acquiring material possessions - not even - as the Law specifies - the gifts of food on the Festival of Purim. I’m aware that I’ll never enter this frame of mind again and think that following the laws concerning this year creates a space to connect to whatever is happening internally, and to grow from that connection.

Comforting the mourner
In addition, in the Jewish Tradition, Shiva is the week of mourning for a first-degree relative (a spouse, parent, child or sibling). During this week, the mourner sits on the ground or a low stool, refrains from their regular business and household chores, and does not leave the house. It is customary for friends, relatives and neighbors to come and comfort the mourner during this period.

Savoring feelings
The mourner - hopefully - will never have the opportunity of doing this particular Mitzvah (commandment) again, so she needs to perform it as fully as possible: to savor the sadness, the pain and all her feelings - during this very intense week for the sake of her personal health and spiritual growth, as well as for the aliyah (elevation of the spirit) of the deceased.

There are many things a mourner may not do - such as greeting whoever comes by - no “hellos”, no offerings of food or drink (although other family members or friends who are not mourning a first-degree relative may do so), no asking “How are you?” or even answering that question, which at this time is inappropriate.

Time out from everyday life
But there is something very special that the mourner who sits in an appropriate manner (i.e. taking 'time out' from everyday life) can give to those who come to her/him: a space for the “comforter” to be able to work through some of her/his own grief, a safe place for the 'comforter' to cry together with the person sitting Shiva, a place for the mutual sharing of loss.

This is, I think, at least in part, why the 'comforter' says the traditional words of comfort: “May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem” - because at some level (at least for those of us who have reached the age of 45 or so), we are all mourning whatever losses we have had - and most of this mourning is not allowed to express itself in our everyday lives.

Many of the women who came to me needed to cry their own tears even more than I did: my tears were already spent.

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