"Remain at the Communion Tent's entrance day and night for seven days. You will thus keep G‑d's charge and not die, since this is what was commanded." (Leviticus 8, 25)
We learn in a Braisa, "From where do we deduce that mourning is for seven days? Said Rabbi Yaakov in the name of Rabbi Zeirah, It is written: 'Remain at the Communion Tent's entrance day and night for seven days. You will thus keep G‑d's charge...' Just as G‑d watched over his world for seven days so shall you watch over your brother for seven days." Jerusalem Talmud, Moed Katan
Moses commanded Aaron and his sons to remain at the entrance of the Communion Tent for seven days as the final preparation for their Sacred work in offering the sacrifices both in the wilderness and subsequently in the Temples in Jerusalem. What is the connection being inferred by our Sages in the Talmud when they suggest that this G‑dly decree provides a source from which we can deduce the rule of Shiva - the seven day mourning period? The Torah Tmimah states that just as G‑d watched over His world for seven days (at its Creation), he did the same at its destruction, "Seven days passed and the flood waters were on the earth" Genesis 7, 10. Just as seven days were required to establish the validity of the Priestly class - their assignment to offer the sacrifices that would aid in returning humanity to its Holy state intended to be the norm during the seven days of Creation, so too an individual's destruction, death, would be mourned for a seven day period.
Jewish tradition ascribes concepts to various numbers. Seven has traditionally been seen as a completion number. G‑d creates this very world in seven days. Likewise the destruction of this world is related to the number seven. And when one considers the Creation in its entirety, we readily recognize that the pinnacle of G‑d's handiwork was the creation of humankind. Indeed the Sages teach us that the human being is considered as a world. Does not the Talmud Sanhedrin state, "One who saves an individual, is considered as though he had saved an entire world?" Our Esoteric teachings present the human being as a microcosm of the entire creation itself.
The sense that the death of an individual is as the death of a world, that the death of a loved one is significant in the life of not only the immediate family but in that of the community as well, was always a part of my youth. Not being raised in a traditional family, in fact, to be truthful, not knowing any Orthodox Jews during my entire childhood, I still vividly recall that when it came to death all Jews were scrupulous in their observance of our tradition. Large crowds appeared at the funeral Chapel for a service. Attendance at a funeral service was not limited to immediate family or personal friends. Individuals took off from work to attend the funerals of neighbors, fellow workers, community figures.
Everyone sat Shiva. Each day of Shiva was marked by a constant parade of those expressing their condolences to the mourners. Each individual deserved formal mourning.
All made an effort to attend Yizkor services. As a young man one of my duties at our Temple was to distribute the special Yizkor books to the throngs of individuals who descended upon the Congregation for Yizkor not only on Yom Kippur but on Shmini Atzeret, Passover and Shavuot as well. People filled the pews and the aisles to listen to the Yizkor prayers intoned by the Cantor, to join in the collective recitation of Kaddish bringing to a close this section of the service. The Yizkor service itself was made all the more poignant by the many tears shed. During the Maale Rachamim for the "six million" the emotion in the Congregation grew. By the time the Congregation was called upon to join in the Kaddish, most of the people were sobbing with many crying aloud. The sense of loss permeated the Sanctuary. It was a loss felt by the individual yet shared by community.
How the world has changed. As I am intimately involved in the day to day arrangement of funerals in the Chicago Jewish community I can state that Jewish life has changed radically since those days of my youth. Today many people opt for a graveside service at which a handful of individuals, usually immediate family, attend. Many no longer observe the Shiva for seven days, or as the Reform tradition generally does, for three days. If they do anything at all they merely have folks who attended the interment back to their home for a few hours after the burial.
During the last decade, the Jewish community has seen an ever increasing number of cremations. The remains are cremated, perhaps a memorial service is held and the funeral director delivers the cremains to the family.
How sad this turn of events is especially when one considers that the very purpose of the Jewish traditional funeral and its mourning rites is, first and foremost, to deal with the psychological and emotional issues of the mourner. Surrounded by community, from the funeral service to the preparing of the meal of condolence and continuing on through the seven days of Shiva visitation, the mourner is held afloat, so to speak, by the compassion and love of the community as a whole. The mourner is allowed to express his/her feelings in a comfortable manner unique to his/her disposition. In sharing stories about the deceased, the mourner learns to appreciate new dimensions in the life of the loved one not previously known. A sense of the totality of their loved one's life, its purpose and real meaning emerges. All of this positive support which allows for real catharsis so necessary to carry on one's life after the death of a loved one is contingent upon community involvement in the mourning process.
Sadly, I see so many individuals today who do not elect to observe Jewish tradition remaining with unresolved emotions after the formal interment of their loved one. Alone, left with their feelings in turmoil, they have significant difficulty in trying to cope with death, with the loss of a family member whom they dearly loved. The need to express one's feelings is left unaddressed. The sense of loneliness, of devastating loss, is allowed to continue unabated.
Understanding, as our Sages did, that as human beings we draw tremendous strength from one another, is a fundamental understanding Judaism expresses with regard to community. May we always be able to depend upon our fellow in times of sorrow. For without others with whom to share this normal human emotion, it becomes distorted and unresolved.