THE DAY THE ANGEL OF DEATH SAT SHIVA
Shiva is a challenging theme to a Jewish humorist. What’s funny about death? Well, our ancient sages, the Pharisees, strongly believed in an afterlife; so death was only a portal into a golden world of no income tax, no calories, free groceries, and constant flattery by one’s children.
The Shiva tradition, then, is a joyful glow around that portal, some would say.
Judaism is such a practical religion, like bread and salt at the supper table. If one word must describe our lengthy scroll of do’s and don’ts, that word might be “practical”. Every custom, every mitzvah has a calculated impact on our lives; either health, protection, separation, spiritual improvement. Even our love life is not excepted from the mitzvah list. There’s always a here and now impact.
Take the Shiva. We sit for seven days - bereaved family and friends. We hold the three daily services and recite the Kadish; that strange, 2,000 year old Aramaic prayer where, in the face of the great Quietus, we praise G-d and ignore what may be his final benediction, death.
At the Shiva house, one is not supposed to approach a mourner - not even to mumble condolences. Among the Shiva traditions, this one is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Ideally, say our sages, the mourner must first approach the visitor signifying her willingness to communicate. Some mourners need the warmth of friends to remind them of the joys of this world in order to distract their vision from the unknown dark new home of the loved one: to this land of love and ambition and apple pie, where the Angel of Death is only an erratic visitor, not a ruler.
Most of our sages believe that the true essence of the ceremony is to force the mourner to recognize his obligations to life. L’Chaym. That’s the banner of Judaism. So, we bring food and companionship to remind the bereaved that it is unseemly for the lady who lost her mother to lock herself in her room and sob her day away. Especially unseemly if the house is full of visitors who came especially to draw her back into the land of the living. And in the living room with standing room only - what do the guests talk about? Not entirely about the deceased. They talk about the Indianapolis Colts; their non reciprocating kids, their job, the Dow Jones, and supper. In short - right or wrong - they talk about life.
They tell a story about a Shiva and the Angel of Death - the Moloch Hamoves as my grandfather called him. The dark angel was curious as to whether those below were properly honoring his favorite happening - Death. Were they following the tradition of the seven-day mourning period? Was anybody gauche enough to tell jokes, make football bets, or swap recipes at a Shiva house?
He whisked himself down to earth to 2127 Morning Glory Circle from whence he had just plucked a Jewish octogenarian who, until the Moloch Hamoves caught up with him, lived with his daughter and her husband. The Dark Angel appeared in his victim’s favorite pillowy recliner dressed impeccably in a three-piece, stylishly brown suit with a chartreuse and light brown tie to match. He got up only to pillage the delicacies spread on the dining room table. Then again, he took over the recliner which strangely nobody even approached. Carefully, like a scientist in his lab, he scanned the room.
“Who’s that?” asked the bereaved daughter. “Is that your cousin from Detroit?” “I thought he was YOUR cousin,” said her husband. Upon deciding that the guest who had taken over the deceased’s reclining throne was a total stranger, they confronted him. “Were you a friend of my father’s?” asked Mrs. Green.
“You might say that,” lightly replied the well dressed stranger as he reached in his pocket to present his business card.
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This confrontation took place as the Kadish resounded in the dining room. Its chant, praising the power of He who gifted us with life, filled the house. “Praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, and honored, adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One.” The contrast was too much for the bereaved daughter.
“The nerve of you,” hissed Mrs. Green. She and Mr. Green acted as though they had rehearsed the scene. Indignantly, one on each side,they grabbed the suave visitor. Then, as the mourners stared in disbelief, Mr. Green pulled him by his green tie while Marilyn Green, behind the intruder, pushed with both hands. They hustled him into the hall coat closet and locked the door. “The Moloch Hamoves,” she explained to the house full of guests. “Let him go back where he came from, he knows the way.”
But evidently, it took a couple of hours to extract himself from the Green’s coat closet because for two hours on the 19th of August, 2013 - between 2:30 and 4:30 - not one person in the entire world departed.