During the week, I recite the Morning Prayer at a small Chassidic shul near where I live. The rabbi has entrusted me and a few others with the key to the building. Often I am the first to arrive and will begin setting chairs out, putting prayer books back on the shelves, and straightening things up. One recent morning, I arrived at the shul and found a good friend already there, placing chairs at the tables where we sit during prayer.
When he saw me, he wished me a good morning and asked me how I was doing. The latter is a striking question in Hebrew. Literally, in English, it would be “What is your peace?” The Hebrew word used is a form of “shalom” and is a question about your completeness, your wholeness. It is not referring, as the word regularly does in English, simply to an absence of war or conflict.
A common way of answering the question in Hebrew is to say the equivalent in English of “Fine. Thank you. How about you?” But among religious people, although not among them exclusively, one will hear the answer “Baruch HaShem”—blessed be the name, “the name” referring to God. So I asked him how he was doing, what was his peace. He replied, “Baruch HaShem.” But something in the sound of his reply made me feel that he was not whole; that his peace was not complete. I switched to English—his English is much better than my Hebrew—and I asked him if he was all right, was he ill, perhaps, or was something bothering him.
He told me that the wife of his nephew had died the day before in childbirth. She was twenty-four years old; it was her third child. There had been no complications in her pregnancy. Her death was unexpected. The child she gave birth to, a boy, survived. At this point, we embraced. My friend went on to tell me that he waited at the hospital for the woman’s parents to arrive. When they did, one of the first questions they asked him was what they were supposed to do. It sounds odd to put it like this, but what they were asking was a ritual question. It was not uncaring, but instead reflected the great love they had for their daughter and their desire to perform their duty to her.
As in other religions, Judaism has customs that surround death—a sequence of steps designed to support mourners in the strange, painful situation in which they find themselves. At this point, my friend had difficulty continuing. The previous year he had lost a son, a young adult, and had gone through what the man and woman who had just lost their daughter were now beginning to experience.
We finished preparing the room, then put on our prayer-shawls and tefillin. We were still the only two present. My friend is the man who typically leads our small congregation in prayer. When ready, he walked to the amud and began reciting the service. Other men started to dribble in. Chassidim are not always punctual about prayer times. At my seat, I struggled to focus on the words I was saying. My thoughts were on the suffering of my friend and that of the parents of the woman who had died. But as I heard him recite the prayers, the same ones we say every day, I could hear the strength in his voice, and the palpable effect that the comfort of our daily routine was having on both of us. At the end of the service, he joined the other men, as is his custom, at the table for daily Torah study.
When I got home, I shared the morning’s news with my wife. She was patient and gentle in listening. Afterward, while I was preparing my breakfast, she reminded me that we were attending a wedding out of town in the evening, the marriage of the son of a good friend from the States. The young couple met in Israel and will be living here. The father had served as the equivalent of the best man at my wedding. I remembered my wedding, and felt happy, looked forward to seeing him.
You have turned my mourning into dancingPsalm 30, Verse 12
One of the psalms we recite in the morning is Psalm 30. Two lines from the Psalm played in my head all day long. One is, “when one retires at night weeping, joy will come in the morning.” The other is, “You have turned my mourning into dancing.” At the wedding, as I danced with the groom’s father, sweat pouring off both of us, I remembered my morning.
May your week be filled with peace!
Text ©2019 Gershon Ben-Avraham.