Shiva Stranger: A lesson in showing up

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In Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s profound exploration of spirituality (Studies in Spirituality, p. 205-206), he reflects, “It took me two years to recover from the death of my father, of blessed memory. To this day, almost twenty years later, I am not sure why. He did not die suddenly or young. He was well into his eighties. In his last years he had to undergo five operations, each of which sapped his strength a little more. Besides which, as a rabbi, I had to officiate at funerals and comfort the bereaved. I knew what grief looked like…Yet knowing these things did not help. We are not always masters of our emotions… I felt an existential black hole, an emptiness at the core of my being. It deadened my sensations, leaving me unable to sleep or focus, as if life was happening at a great distance, and as if I was a spectator watching a film out of focus with the sound turned off. The mood eventually passed, but while it lasted I made some of the worst mistakes of my life.”

Recently, as I sat Shiva (the initial seven-day period of mourning in Jewish tradition) for my mother and continue in Shloshim (the thirty days of mourning process), these words resonate deeply. While I aspire for a swifter recovery than Rabbi Sacks endured, I also yearn for the timely lifting of the “fog of pain,” as a friend aptly described it. Amidst this journey through the haze, one of my participants in a leadership program I run pointed out how impressed they were that I was able to continue producing for the program and how difficult it must be. Yes it has been difficult, but is also reflective of a profound moment I had during Shiva and the importance of showing up even when it is challenging.

Shiva unfolded as an overwhelming experience, where the house was filled with visitors all day expressing condolences. It is a time that compels you to confront loss while being embraced by those who care. Reflecting on Shiva, I discerned four categories of visitors, each revealing a unique dimension of empathy; the fourth changing a long held perspective.

The first category comprised of close family and friends, a comforting presence that came from near and far. The second included friends with whom my family share closeness but wouldn’t typically ask for nor give a ride to the airport. The third involved community members familiar with my family, though not regularly socially connected. However, the fourth category left an indelible impression — those who came despite having no acquaintance with my family.

Throughout the seven days, there were a handful that fit this fourth category. They came in, sat down and at first there was awkward staring. Upon asking them how they knew my mother, they politely said they didn’t but read the announcement in one the various community bulletins it was in and wanted to be Menachem Avel (comfort the mourner). For many, the idea of attending a Shiva for someone you don’t know is daunting. I know it would be for me. Yet, the act of attending solely for the sake of the Mitzvah, an act of kindness, and a sense of connection to the general Jewish community was, to me, remarkably beautiful.

There’s a leadership maxim that “90% of success is showing up.” often credited to comedian and actor Woody Allen. While I’ve harbored reservations over the years about the simplicity of this sentiment as leadership is so much more, my perspective shifted during Shiva. The fourth category of visitors embodied the essence of this saying. They did nothing but be present in a challenging space and time, offering potential comfort without expecting anything in return.

Leadership demands multifaceted skills, but the simplicity of showing up during adversity can tip the scales between progress and regression for an organization. I also regret not knowing the complete Woody quote which I discovered in my research. I believe it speaks to the power of showing up in ways the incomplete quote does not. “If 90% of success in life is showing up, the other 10% depends on what you’re showing up for.”

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Eliezer Jones

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