Dear Cyber Rav,
I lead shivah minyanim. It gives me great satisfaction to come into a person’s home and lead the prayers. Prayers always strike me as a natural component in the granting of comfort to mourners. But I wonder if that comfort factor is always present. Recently, having led services in a home where the deceased died tragically, some of the words of the prayers, which ought to have brought comfort, failed. To speak of a God who is compassionate, or who protects us, or saves us, or shields us, in the presence of a family mourning the loss of someone who was neither protected nor saved, almost seems cruel. I left that shivah home feeling down in the dumps.
I do believe in God and God’s compassion, but maybe we should skip some of these prayers when in the presence of a family gathered due to a tragedy. Do you think I’m right?
Dear Sometimes Speechless,
What a great mitzvah you fulfill in bringing words of prayer to a bereaved family. We need more people like you and more people to take prayer as seriously as you do. I don’t want you to be down in the dumps. Here’s why—
The prayers we recite each day are designed, in part, to express our love and devotion to a God who is good and who is compassionate. As you indicate, sometimes people may be angered by such words if they have just experienced a tragedy. On the other hand, some people may take great comfort in them. We’re never really sure how people are going to react, nor should we make any assumptions about how they will react (or in your case, have reacted). What we do know is tradition often acts as a heavy anchor in a tempestuous sea. My advice: don’t skip a single prayer.
Afterwards, people might question the meaning of the prayer as it relates to their own lives—e.g., God is compassionate: where was His compassion last week? God protects us—He didn’t protect X the other day. And those questions, very difficult questions to answer, are nonetheless opportunities to bring comfort, through reflection, listening, and allowing mourners to speak from their hearts.
And if you yourself begin to question the prayer and the meanings they convey, think of it in this way—
What happens in this world, or nature itself, is not identical to the will of God; that equation is simple-minded. After all, people often violate the will of God, as when they drink and drive or let their anger or jealousy get the best of them. Such irresponsibility can lead to tragedy, but the tragedy is a result not of God’s will, but as the violation of God’s will. Again, some people think that disease or sickness is in someway God’s will. These natural phenomena may be God’s handiwork, and perhaps even serve some useful purpose to which we are unaware, but they are predictable and mechanical which would not conform to any conception we would regard as God’s will. If anything, God’s will teaches us to resist the kind of natural behaviors that animals indulge in and to battle disease and sickness. The weak deserve our compassion, the ill deserve our attention, and the impoverished deserve our charity. We don’t accept what is as God’s will. Quite the opposite, we strive to be compassionate, to find ways to battle disease, to promote safety on the roads and workplaces, precisely because God wants us to bring godliness to a world where godliness is not naturally present. And so—
Don’t skip those prayers. They may be hard to recite in the short term, but in the long term, they give us a road map to follow, especially through our darkest journeys and stormy lives.
Rabbi Rafi Rank
The Cyber Rav