by Avis Dimond Miller
From Moment, October 1997
Reprinted With Permission
It’s been said that 90 percent of life is just showing up.
A news article in the Washington Post told about how a wealthy person in Japan, afraid of the embarrassment of a small turnout, can rent a cast of hundreds from an agency to show up at funerals and weddings. One bride paid $10,000 for 40 fake friends and family. To maintain their cover, all had been briefed on her family history, hobbies, and work; some even delivered speeches about her at the wedding reception.
To assure a well-attended funeral, Japanese families frequently place orders for “mourners” to knock on the door for the neighbors to see. The better actors even manage tears. Afterward, if the grave site is too far away, relatives can pay agency employees to visit it and keep it tidy, heading off gossip about an inattentive family.
But in the Jewish world, while numbers are often noticed and remarked upon, what is more important is not how many show up, but who shows up. We need to show up because those we care about need to feel surrounded by love. Showing up is the personal gift only we can give. Illnesses, funerals, and shiva calls can’t be scheduled in advance. They are often inconvenient.
The famous psychiatrist, Frieda Fromm Reichman, who worked with severely psychotic patients, tells of visiting the same patient every day. He lay there, staring at the ceiling, never speaking. After months of talking to the patient, holding his hand, giving him a taste of food, Dr. Reichman started to leave the room, thinking to herself: “I’ve failed. I’m no good.” Suddenly, she heard a weak voice say, “Please stay.” She turned, and when their eyes met, each saw tears.
Never underestimate the importance of even a single visit. One elderly patient saved every calling card left by members of the synagogue’s bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) committee. When he died, the cards were found in an envelope labeled “most treasured possessions.”
No matter how often I make hospital visits or shiva calls, I always pause with trepidation at the threshold of the hospital room or house of mourning. It is never routine, never easy. I always feel anxious about saying or doing the wrong thing and inadvertently causing more pain.
But wondering about the proper words to say should not keep us from showing up. In fact, it is customary in a Jewish house of mourning to say nothing at all until the mourner speaks to us. These first words are a gauge of the mourner’s state of mind, a hint of how we should respond. The fact that we come to console is more important than the particular words of support or comfort or healing.
As our showing up is appreciated, so absence is keenly felt. The following appeared in the Racine Journal Times:
“It was grandfather’s birthday. He was 79. He got up early, shaved, showered, combed his hair, and put on his Sunday best so he would look nice when they came.
“He skipped his daily walk to the café‚ where he had coffee with his cronies. He wanted to be home when they came.
“He put his porch chair on the sidewalk so he could get a better view of the street when they came to help celebrate his birthday.
“At noon he got tired but decided to forgo his nap so he could be there when they came. Most of the rest of the afternoon he spent near the telephone so he could answer it when they called.
“He has five married children, 13 grandchildren, and three great grandchildren. One son and daughter live within ten miles of his place. They hadn’t visited him for a long time. But today was his birthday and they were sure to come.
“At supper time he left the cake untouched so they could cut it and have dessert with him.
“After supper he sat on the porch, waiting.
“At 8:30 he went to his room to prepare for bed. Before retiring, he left a note on the door, which read, “Be sure to wake me up when you come.
“It was grandfather’s birthday. He was 79.” — Author Unknown.
Showing up at times of joy is frequently at least as difficult as showing up at times of trouble. And not showing up for joyous occasions causes more rifts in families than just about anything else.
Present at every simcha are what are called in Yiddish hinterfusslich (little hind feet), the emotional undercurrents beneath the surface at ostensibly happy occasions. How hard it is to attend the bar mitzvah of a friend’s child when the child is brilliant and musically talented, and your own child struggles to learn. How hard it is for a childless couple facing infertility to show up at the brit of a friend’s child.
The more we show up for others, the more they will be there for us. Said a cousin: “Of course I am coming to your father’s funeral. Don’t you remember how your dad came down to Washington when my father died?”
Long ago, during the early days of the State of Israel, when American Jews were just beginning to think of Hebrew as a spoken language, we used a little word every day in my Hebrew school class. When our teacher would call our names, we would answer, “ Hineni,” I am here.
This word, I now know, is also the name of the solemn prayer chanted by the chazzan in the musaf, or additional, service of Rosh Hashanah when the cantor asks to be worthy as the voice for the congregation’s prayers. It is also the word that turns up at a crucial place in the Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the story of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1–19). When God calls to Abraham, to tell him to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice atop Mt. Moriah, Abraham answers, “ Hineni.”
Midrash tells us that God shows up in times of joy and in times of trouble — at weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, funerals, and the bedside of the sick.
Yet even though God shows up, God also calls upon each of us to do what God cannot do alone, to be with each other at important times in our lives. For we human beings are God’s language, and it is only we who can say, “ Hineni.”
Avis Dimond Miller is Associate Rabbi as Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. This article is adapted from a sermon she gave on Rosh Hashanah 5757.