Shiva and Isolation In a World of Mourners (Part 1)

Until beating a hasty retreat while I could still find a flight back to Israel, I was sitting shiva[1] for my mother הכ”ם in Brooklyn. It was eerie. We have come to think of shiva as a way to aid the grieving of mourners though cathartic conversations about their loved one with friends who offer insight or support. A few intrepid friends came – including a number of important rabbonim whose presence embarrassed me. For the most part, it was emails and phone calls. The personal visits were a fraction of those who came fifteen years ago, when my father ע”ה was niftar. Everyone of those electronic communications was precious. But now, sitting in the isolation of a mandatory 14-day quarantine, I can now testify that they are not as effective as being surrounded by well-wishers.

Maybe more importantly, I had to think of what consoling a mourner meant in a world that was in a state of anticipatory mourning. I remembered one of the meaningful messages conveyed by one of my visitors fifteen years ago, Dr. Yoel Jakobovits. When his father, UK Chief Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits died, the timing was such that he was an onen for a relatively long time.[2] He found it jarring and strange that at the time we need the comfort of the practice of our mitzvos the most, they are taken from us. Why should this be? Why, when we need the connection with Him the most, are the familiar means to that connection denied us?

He asked Rav Shmuel Auerbach, zt”l, about this when the latter paid a shiva call. Rav Shmuel replied, “It is worthwhile to pry people away from מצות אנשים מלומדה / the practice of mitzvos by rote.”

A sobering thought. The Torah seizes an opportunity that does not come often, but is very effective. By denying us the safety and security of our mitzvos, we step back and appreciate them as never before. Unable to daven and learn, we long for the resumption of the opportunity to do so.

Is this not where we all find ourselves right now? How much we miss the ability to go to shul, or to learn with a chavrusa! We spend much time often complaining about the schools to which we send our children. As we try to supervise their home schooling and find it exhausting, do we not today have a higher regard for the classroom than we did a week ago? How much more do we value ordinary social interactions than we did a short while ago.

Others have also suggested that Covid-19 has forced a global reset on us.[3] I would try to distill it further. We have seen the institutions that we rely upon vanish before our eyes. That may have some positive value. Convenience and familiarity have allowed us to confuse those institutions with the values they were designed to support. We have confused the means with the ends. We have an opportunity to rethink and repurpose them.

  • We are having a hard time parting with our regular shuls. But we are learning that shuls are there to enhance the power of our davening. We will learn that their essence is the davening, not our attendance. Davening at home, alone, one by one, we will be lonely – and find companionship in a personal conversation with G-d, rather than a group happening. Because the stakes are so high and immediate, we are davening with more kavanah and intensity in private than we would ordinarily do in shul. Might that not be worth it?
  • Those of us who are (like me) agonizing over each missed Kaddish are being led to remember that it is no magic formula. Kaddish “works” by soliciting a proclamation of Hashem’s greatness from a larger public. While some in our community have perpetrated what may be the largest desecration of His Name in modern history, the rest of us can try to make this the finest hour of Torah Jews by reaching out and caring for the person on the block that you might not even know. Cannot that kiddush Hashem substitute for the more formulaic one of Kaddish? [See Nitai Gavriel, Aveilus, v.2 pg רפח (my trans.) “Kaddish is not a prayer whereby the son prays that Hashem should raise up his father from the lower Sheol. Rather, it is a merit and mitzvah for the deceased that his son sanctifies Hashem’s Name in public, and the congregation responds, “Amen. May His great Name be blessed…’”]
  • We have made learning synonymous with our chavrusas, or attending a particular shiur. We are finding out that you can learn anywhere, anytime.
  • We’ve confused schools with chinuch of our children. As invaluable as they are, we are experiencing the reality that chinuch is a personal responsibility of every parent, and – against our wills – we are discharging that responsibility. The home is becoming the center of Torah chinuch – as it should be.
  • We have substituted the routines of a hectic life-style for life itself. We now learn that there is life stripped of all those routines.

There is one more. The tenacity of many of us to hold on to treasured practices is admirable. It shows us (and proves to the world) that Jews do not view the mitzvos as an impossible burden to bear (as some of our competitors have claimed about Torah), but as a cherished opportunity. To be sure, some have gone too far, and endangered themselves and others. Part of the reason for that is a lethal fixity. They have learned that there is only one way to serve Hashem. Subconsciously they believe that any change, even if it does not involve violating halacha, must mean giving up one’s means of gaining eternal life.

This is a gross error. Jews must be resilient and able to change. The error has ramifications in other areas as well. We believe that there is a “best” way to serve Hashem, and are profoundly disturbed when we cannot act the way we envision it. Why, we ask, could Hashem not have created us richer, smarter, or more talented? We would serve Him so much better if He had spared us that last illness, or bad investment, or obstreperous child!

The Slonimer Rebbe, zt”l, makes a theme of this. We cannot – we may not! – rue the situation we are in. Life is an avodah, and He asks each of us to respond to its needs. We cannot dictate what kind of avodah we wish to perform. The particular avodah may be difficult. It might depress us at times (not all of us are tzadikim who can transcend human reactions), till we remember His closeness and love. But He calls the shots. Not us. If we find ourselves forbidden to enter shuls and yeshivos, we cannot pound at Heaven’s gates angrily demanding to be let in. We must instead ask “What does He want us to do in this changed set of circumstances?”

May He point the way through this crisis, never before experienced on such a scale. And may we soon see His salvation.

[This is the first of several projected installments]

This may be the first that many of my friends are learning of my mother’s petirah on Shushan Purim. Los Angeles in particular, our home for almost 40 years, somehow did not find out.

My mother grew up as an only child in a quiet town in southwest Germany called Konstanz. It appears that her family came from the outlying villages around the larger town. There was not a great deal of Torah sophistication there, but people escaped Reform and remained loyal to Shabbos and kashrus. (As Professor Judy Bleich pointed out when she visited, even though an estimated 90% of German Jewry fell prey to Reform after the Emancipation, the more rural and simpler folks contributed much of the 10% that survived.) She lost her father (of course, a WWI veteran for Germany) to Addison’s at age six. She was seventeen when the knock came on the door in 1940 that she and her mother had ten minutes to take one bag each. She remembered to pack her siddur, which I now have.

It was a very early deportation – 36 hours on a train to Vichy France. My sister and I had a hard time trusting her memory about conditions there, but I’ve since learned that they were worse than she remembered. It was a concentration camp, not an extermination camp. The Nazis had not yet figured out what they were going to do with those Jews. Disease and death were rampant. But because the Final Solution was not yet in effect, she was able to leave after a year and a half, and get to the US by way of Marseille and Casablanca. Soon after, the gates closed, and prisoners were shipped to Auschwitz.

She saw her children, grandchildren, and 59 great-grandchildren become much frummer than what she saw in her childhood, but she grew into the role. In her later years, she became the advocate for the lonely and forlorn at the senior center at Young Israel of Queens Valley (which likely added years to her life), as well as Rabbi Steinberg’s Tehillim shiur.

In May, she would have turned 97. She will be missed by many, many people.

(Anyone wishing to honor her is requested to take a masechta of mishnayos for the shloshim, at Go to open siyumim, and find Trudy Adlerstein to sign up.)

  1. Shiva means seven – the specified seven days of mourning prescribed by halacha after the death of a close loved one.

  2. Onen refers to a mourner before burial has taken place. Halachically, the onen is exempt from (and in fact forbidden) the performance of all affirmative obligations. He/she does not pray, recite blessings before or after eating, don tefillin, study Torah, etc.

  3. See Akeidas Yitzchok, Behar, for a similar explanation of Shemitah (the seventh year) and even more so, Yovel (the Jubilee year).

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18 Responses

  1. Carol / Channah Shira Koenigsberg says:

    BDE! Sorry to see this sad news. Over the years I was fortunate to spend time regularly with Trudy when she visited LA and had some very interesting time with her as well as quite a few laughs. I will miss her. Wishing you and all of her loved ones peace and the fondest memories of her. Kol Tuv!

  2. joel rich says:

    bde.Each of us mourns and is comforted in our own unique way (Anna Karenina-“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ) Rav Soloveitchik saw aninut in a human way- key takeaway might be “Aninut represents the spontaneous human reaction to death. It is an outcry, a shout, or a howl of grisly horror and disgust. Man responds to his defeat at the hands of death with total resignation and with an all-consuming masochistic, self­-devastating black despair” but it’s worth reading the entire piece at:

    I’d say the same thing for lessons from the virus-Seems a lot of folks “know” why HKB”H runs the world the way he does (e.g. “why” there is a pandemic…..). I have no idea and just think about The Rav’s insight about not asking why (because that question is beyond human response) but rather asking what – what does HKB”H expect of me/us in this situation? I think there are as many answers to this question as there are people.

    • dr. bill says:

      Joel Rich, The Rav ztl likely meant “what” as opposed to “why” separately for both Adam I AND Adam II. He would be outraged by those ignoring medical/governmental advice, but would also demand that we examine what we might learn from the event and its consequences as a part of a covenantal community. Those latter responses are not as free-wheeling as your comment might imply. Recognizing our vulnerability, appreciating relationships of many types, reinforcing the need to keep things in perspective, etc. are my Adam II “what” takeaways. Generic learn more, daven harder, etc. appear to me to miss the point that a response to a unique event demands.

  3. Raymond says:

    My take on why this Chinese virus thing is happening is that both here in America as well as in Israel (and undoubtedly elsewhere in the world as well) that there was too much fighting, too much animosity between its respective peoples, both on the political level and otherwise, and so G-d had finally had enough of it, and visited a plague on all of us that has given us no choice but to unite and fight this battle together, in solidarity. Plus, even a skeptic like me, could not help but notice that the force which all of us are being forced to fight, is completely invisible to the naked eye. That is a fly in the ointment of those who are skeptical of G-‘s Existence, since one of their claims has been to mock those of us whose center of existence is our Invisible G-d. In short, G-d is, so to speak, tired of our world ignoring Him, tired of His children fighting with one another, and so He is reminding us of His Existence in quite a devastating way in order to wake us up and to at least try to treat each other with more respect and cordiality.

    Okay, so now that I presumably know the cosmic reason why this plague has come upon us, I publicly plead with G-d to please have mercy on us fallible, imperfect beings and put a stop to it. We get Your point, so please restore life to its normal functioning.

    Concerning the passing away of Rabbi Adlerstein’s mother, I think I may have met her many years ago, but in any case, although she lived until an advanced age, really any time that either of one’s parents leave this Earth, it is way too soon. I was decades into my adulthood when my parents died, and although they lived until pretty close to what the average lifespan is, it was simply too soon for me. As far as I am concerned, both of them died far too young, never having a chance to grow old, although I will admit that contradicts what might show up on paper. For me, the loss of my parents has been absolutely devastating, something I may never recover from, and I would imagine that I am not the only one who has had such a reaction to the loss of my parents, and so in my own small way I would like to offer Rabbi Adlerstein my consolations. Sorry for your loss.

    • dr. bill says:

      The “what we might learn” you describe includes all of God’s creations, Jew and Gentile, friend and foe. I also think there is a lesson about the limits of daas toreh that this situation clarified as well. We are blessed by living in a tight and unified community, which often expands as we travel. That blessing needs to be appreciated but its downside must also be considered.

      My grandnephew’s wedding will proceed (without an aufruf or shevah berachot) with a minyan where I and my wife and the chossen’s grandparents will be absent making each subsequent Simcha we attend together all the more appreciated.

  4. Steve Brizel says:

    HaMakom Yenachem Eschem Bshaar Avslei Tzion Vyerushalayim

    Perhaps one take away from this international nightmare is that we should never take the opportunity to daven Btzibur or learn for granted BH we can use technology to aid in learning in mass numbers but when fights a war it is very difficult to fight with your hands tied behind your back

  5. Steve Brizel says:

    FWIW RHS ( and R M willig) (who along with R Asher Weiss and R D Cohen ) about Tefilah BYachidus closing down shuls and yeshivos and not allowing any kinds of tefillahvBtzibur in homes or elsewhere and answering Halachic inquiries that we can only imagine in a science fiction novel suggest grated that we add Avinu Malkeinu and Pitum HaKetores to our tefilos and and providing Halachic guidance on a wide variety of issues which you can accesss at Torahweb and Tradition and elsewhere IMO BH we are blessed with such great Talmidei Chachamim who are there physically intellectually and emotionally with all of us in the trenches

    • rkz says:

      AFAIK RAW closed down his shul in Sharey Tzedek, but his other shul is open (and it operates according to the official instructions of the Min. of Health, i.e. 10-15 people in a minyan, seated at least 2 meters apart etc.)

      • And I will point out that there were two directives that appeared this morning from gov’t circles here. One laid down new, stricter isolation standards for everyone, with stiff fines for anyone found more than a few meters from their home who is not shopping for food. The other was from the Chief Rabbinate, asking for a half-day fast on Wednesday, Mar. 25. Included are instructions to shuls as to how to arrange their tefilos from before mincha through maariv. Clearly, they expect people to be in shuls, side rooms and courtyards, spaced two meters from each other, as specified in their letter.

  6. Reuven Ungar says:

    Rav Adlerstein may Hashem bring you much Nechama. Excellent points, soul food for thought- and action.

  7. benshaul says:

    I am saddened to hear of your loss. May the Almighty comfort you among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

  8. Shades of Gray says:

    May you have much nechama, and may the chesed of your mother be a zechus for all in the present time.

    “We have substituted the routines of a hectic life-style for life itself…”

     Rav Chaim Shmulevitz (5731, 3) gave a talk titled “Osher Hachaim”, in which he says that being alive is the greatest present and kindness that Hashem could ever give a person regardless of life’s difficulties. He supports this from Rashi in Kiddushin(80b) :

    למה יתאונן אדם חי למה יתרעם אדם על הקורות הבאות עליו אחר כל החסד שאני עושה עמו שנתתי לו חיים  

    “the rest of us can try to make this the finest hour of Torah Jews by reaching out and caring for the person on the block that you might not even know.”

    “Finest hour” is an allusion to  Churchill’s   speech during WWII .  Another famous  line of his from that period was “never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”, referring to the ongoing efforts of the Royal Air Force crews who were at the time fighting the Battle of Britain.

    One can currently   see similar  altruism, as R. Jonathan Sacks said last week in a BBC interview ,relating his new book on Morality to the current situation(transcript on his website), “supermarkets are gearing up to provide basic supplies. Young people are preparing to deliver medicines to people in need. It’s a little like the wartime spirit. And we’ll see more and more of this as time goes on. We are going to see a renewal of the “we” of the country.”

    According to  an article by Michelle Halle, LCSW posted last week on the Lakewood Scoop, the above items(focus on altruism that surrounds us, attitude of gratitude, spread kindness) can, in fact, reduce anxiety. See article(“CoronaCare: 10 Self-care and Mental Health Tips for the Coronavirus Outbreak | Michelle Halle, LCSW”).

  9. David says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,

    I am certain that this is scant nechama, but our hearts and minds are with you in your loss. I had no idea until this article appeared and since we do not know each other personally, I would not have been a shiva attendee either.
    However, I read all your writings with great pleasure and I’m certain that your mother must have been a very special person to have merited such an eloquent spokesperson for Torah and Orthodoxy as a son.
    When I read her story – however brief – it gives me tremendous chizuk to continue. If she was able to produce such wonderful fruit, how much more can we accomplish under less trying circumstances.
    Hamokom Yenachem Eschem B’Soch Shaar Aveilei Tzion V’Yerushalayim.

    • Thank you! That you are able to take chizuk from her story is a great nechama to me, trapped where I cannot even get out to say kaddish

      • david says:

        I really do and I would greatly appreciate if you would take some time to write at greater length her story. There is so much that we can take from their examples and apply to our circumstances which are markedly easier.
        When I tell my children of the incredible sacrifices made by my grandmother to keep Shabbos, it has a greater effect than many mussar seforim in it’s own way.
        Even if it’s not scintillating reading, she deserves to have her story shared and you’d be surprised at how little the grandchildren even appreciate it. We assume that they know these things because they’re so native to us, but they’re not and the next generation has no way to relate to it unless you tke the time to write it down for them (and us.)

  10. Bob Miller says:

    A friend of ours recently lost his father Z”L, and the 2 levayas in the US, the kevura in Israel, the friend’s return home, and his sons’ later return to Israel came just before strong emergency measures were begun in Israel and the US.

    Now he can’t say Kaddish, but has an informal non-minyan davening together remotely since our shul services were suspended. I can’t imagine how hard it was for you to navigate through recent days under much more difficult conditions.

    HaMakom yenachem es’chem b’soch she’ar aveilei Tzion v’Yerushalayim.
    May we all be zoche to join you soon in Israel for the Geula Sheleima.

  11. Shmuel Burstein says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,

    Very saddened to hear you lost your dear mother.

    Baruch Dayan HaEmmes. May you receive נחמה in the fullness of time.

    Chodesh Tov and Kol Tuv

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