Shavuot is soon upon us. It begins on Tuesday evening, May 18, the sixth day of Sivan.
For German Jews, the Shabbat before Shavuot is called “The Black Shabbat.” On this day, there is a practice amongst German Jews to recite Av Harachamim (Merciful Father). This prayer was composed by the Jews of Ashkenaz in the wake of the first Crusade in 1096, which devastated the magisterial communities of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms.
In this prayer Jewish communities ask God to hold the nations of the world accountable for the violent shedding of Jewish blood. Among its closing lines is the verse: “For the One who pursues the reckoning of violently shed blood will remember them. He has not forgotten the tortured cry of the innocent.” This “Black Shabbat” always precedes Shavuot.
Shavuot is a remarkably festive holiday. It celebrates the day when a motley crew of former slaves—children of Abraham and Sarah—were formed into a nation when they accepted the Torah and entered into an eternal covenant and relationship with the One God. And yet, on the Shabbat before Shavuot, German Jews commemorate the decimation of their community on the third day of Sivan, and begin this season of joy with this expression of lament and of anger.
These two, lamentation and anger, go hand in hand.
The national mourner and the individual mourner share many things in common. They have both seen their ultimate aspirations shattered; their prayers have gone unanswered and denied; the One in whom they place eternal trust and love has been silent and seemingly inactive.
The individual mourner is a problem for him or herself, for his or her family, and for the Jewish community in which they live. Prior to the funeral, the individual mourner is exempted from fulfilling the positive Mitzvot (commandments). For example mourners are not obligated to pray or to recite the Sh’ma. This is not really an exemption; it is much more than that. At this moment prior to the funeral, the mourner is surely in despair; is surely in anger.
The mourner has lived chaos. For a Jew, the ultimate chaos is death itself. When death comes, the great drama of Jewish life ends. Each individual created in the image of God, with an element of the divine intellect in them, can no longer live a life dedicated to justice, righteousness, holiness, and purity. The rabbis, great doctors of the soul that they were, allow a Jew to give expression to this anger by not having to make faith affirmations in prayer.
The rabbis of the Talmud sequester the mourner in his or her home for seven days. They insist that the minyan (prayer quorum), a microcosm of the whole Jewish people, come to the home of the mourner, to let the mourner know that the community is in charge. The community is imposed upon the mourner. The whole Jewish people, represented by the minyan, by this miniature Jewish community, takes control of the mourner.
The mourner is a dangerous person. The mourner is not trusted. For the mourner, the most desperate of prayers have not been answered. It is possible that the mourner is afflicted with the narcissism of suffering.
We all know about narcissism. We imagine the narcissism of Narcissus, who is focused on his own handsome image. There is another kind of narcissism, in which the suffering person is immersed so deeply that they begin to think they’re the only ones suffering. They forget that there are others who have suffered. Therefore the classic refrain of consolation presented to the mourner is, “May God comfort you amongst all those who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.” It means that in your individual mourning, you are part of a larger national drama. The whole Jewish people are in mourning for the loss of Zion and Jerusalem. The whole Jewish people are waiting for the restoration of Jerusalem to its ancient glory.
This may be one of the purposes of the Kaddish prayer. This is surely, along with the Sh’ma, the best known of Jewish prayers. It has found its way into all kinds of artistic, poetic, and dramatic treatments. Even Hollywood producers know it. This prayer is always intoned with a dirge-like chant, yet the prayer has no sad word, no expression of pain or suffering in it. It is a joyful affirmation of the fundamental belief of the Jewish people. The opening line effectively says: “May the Name and the Presence in this world, of the great Name, of the One who has created everyone in His image be made greater and greater and greater.”
The task of the mourner is to gather together the shattered pieces of his or her life and to recreate him or herself.
The task of the mourner is to continue by returning to the source that makes us all one.
As I write these lines, I am sitting shiva for my late father, Rabbi Dr. Baruch A. Poupko, who left this life at the age of 93, after serving as rabbi for 62 years in Pittsburgh, Penn. He was brought to rest in the Judean foothills on the slopes that approach Jerusalem, on erev Shabbat where he was returned to the Land of Israel, out of which we were all birthed.
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is Judaic Scholar at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.