I’ve just returned from a condolence call at the home of relatives who were "sitting shivah". My cousin, Benj, 17 years older than I, had just passed away at an age that, by today’s standards, is fairly young.
Shivah is a Jewish ritual that’s been capturing headlines lately. Translated literally, the Hebrew word "shivah" means “seven,” which is why it seems oxymoronic when an occasional New York Times obit advises that a Jewish memorial week will be observed for just three days. Still, even mourners who conduct an abbreviated version of this tradition are usually glad they did. The process can be cathartic for both those who have lost a loved one and those who come to pay respects. It’s no wonder King Solomon concluded that, when the choice presents itself, better to go to a house of mourning rather than a house of feasting (Ecclesiastes, VII: 2).
Actually, if you have been to a shivah house then you know that feasting often occurs as well, since there is typically an abundance of things to eat. But there’s also no shortage of storytelling in most shivah houses as people find themselves searching for the right words to use in remembering the deceased. In addition to inspiring us to recall good times, shivah beckons us to contemplate opportunities lost and to contend with regret.
At the shivah house for my Cousin Benj, I reminisced by telling two stories. First, when I was a child of around seven, Benj used logic to try to make me feel significant. He pointed out that his nickname had come into being because of me. Soon after I’d been born, when both of us had been known as Benjie, family members had resorted to adding the modifier “Cousin” to his name to prevent confusion. To reduce the chances of ambiguity further, his name dissolved into "Benj". Logic, then, Benj insisted, required me to conclude proudly that I was an important dude.
Next I recounted a story that did not make me proud. In 1980, prior to entering medical school, I spent a year as a seminarian at a yeshiva in Israel. At the time, Cousin Benj was living in Jerusalem. Once a week, he’d meet me so that we could have a bite and share a schmooze. In late March of 1980, when I celebrated the holiday of Purim with him, Benj wrapped his arm around my shoulder and told me how much our having bonded over the year had meant to him. "Of course," he playfully pressured, "you''ll be with us for the seder next month." "Of course" I assured him.
Back at the yeshiva, two days before Passover, word leaked that the most accomplished professor -- a woman in her seventies -- intended to host three students at her seder. Everyone wondered who the lucky selectees would be. Having seder with an academic legend was sure to provide an experience that you could relate to your grandchildren. To my surprise, I was one of the chosen. My peers accorded me instant big-man-on-campus status. Given the professor''s elitist background as a member of the European intelligentsia, I envisioned an evening of fine wines, continental cuisine, and well—to be honest--a full blown intellectual orgy. There was, of course, one minor detail. I would need to inform Cousin Benj that I would not be joining him for his seder.
To accomplish that mission, I hopped on a bus to Benj’s house. On the way, I managed to suppress my sense of reneging on commitment. At his door, Cousin Benj greeted me with his hand raised for the conventional high-five sign. I lightly tapped his palm. "Just 48 hours from now, right?" he exulted. At that moment, I realized that this wouldn’t be easy.
I had some second thoughts but quickly convinced myself that Benj would understand and do the same if roles were reversed. But then, instead of announcing my decision, I swallowed hard and coyly asked if it would be okay for me to participate in the professor''s seder. "I''m gonna let you go," Benj said gracefully and without hesitation.
I think he understood, but I''m positive now that, had he been in my shoes, Cousin Benj would not have done the same thing.
I felt bad but then I felt worse on the night of the seder and beyond. Aside from the three students, the professor invited four of her contemporaries. One of them introduced himself to me as the "de facto leader of the diaspora of German intellectuals living in Israel." I found this to be a thought-provoking point since I generally regarded the Diaspora as an entity of Jews residing outside of Israel. This was probably the final insightful comment of the evening as all of these smart, older people dozed off early at different junctures. In fact nothing followed the script I anticipated. We drank grape juice. The food was Spartan. We zoomed through the text of the Haggadah with barely an exchange of ideas. Nary an intellectual orgasm to be had! We didn’t even sing the merry melodies that conclude the seder ceremony.
Later, I called Cousin Benj to find out how his seder had gone. He told me about the songs they’d sung and the festive atmosphere. He added that, as good as it all had been, it would’ve been even better had I participated. "Next year in Jerusalem!" he exclaimed with the time-honored phrase that Jews utter in eager anticipation of the seder that will take place twelve months downstream. I was happy for Benj and his family, and I was touched that he’d already issued me another invitation.
But in thinking back, there were other, more salient sentiments. There was, for instance, disappointment that the professor''s seder was a bust. But even had the illustrious professor’s seder fully potentiated itself, for me, the over-riding emotion would have been regret at having missed Cousin Benj''s seder. By the time I’d immigrated to Israel, he’d returned to the U.S. There would be no next year for us together in Jerusalem.
Yesterday, at the home of Benj’s mourners, I lamented the opportunities lost, including the chance to draw closer to Cousin Benj and his kids, to enjoy a family seder, and to create mew memories. At the shivah, just recalling the story of Benj and his seder had its effect on me, evident in a candid picture that was snapped while I told the tale. My eyes glistened from the tears that flowed, and, if my daughter Abby had not been there to brace me, I would have keeled over from the pain.
Photograph by Hershl Weberman, Dec 2012
Fortunately, there are ways to repair regret. We have a capacity, for example, to re-set our priorities. By this I mean we can think hard about the muffed chances and identify those elements that can be healed
In the case of the seder, over time, I’ve made some adjustments. As a family, we go out of our way to invite others to join us for this joyous custom. And I prepare for the seder--which I lead in my house--like no other religious ritual that I observe. One month in advance--the day after Purim--I start studying in order to turn the seder into a learning experience with lots of dialogue, drama, and dissent. Based on the feedback I''ve been getting – including comments from discriminating children – my approach seems to be working. By refusing to dummy down the seder, I’m trying to affirm the importance of the other participants and seeking to emulate the gesture that Cousin Benj extended to me, which I never reciprocated to him.
I can''t say with certainty that I''ve induced any intellectual orgasm among those who''ve attended my seders, but I know that every year during the frenzied build-up to Passover, I think about Cousin Benj and the understated inspiration that he provided for seders to come.