Am I really at the age when it’s “normal”—not that it ever feels normal—to have one’s parents pass away? Four of my friends, more or less my age, lost their fathers this year. It’s a lot, no? Or am I already at the age when this is expected?

I receive notice and I know I have to go, to make the call, the shivah call (shivah, which literally means “to sit,” is the seven-day period following the burial of a close relative, when one “sits” in mourning). I don’t want to go. If it’s a wedding, a bar mitzvah, a brit (circumcision), a kiddush reception for a baby girl, a happy occasion, count me in, I’m ready, I’m excited. But to go to a mourner’s home? It’s not easy. You can’t walk in, smile and say in a cheerful voice, “Mazel tov!”

Four of my friends lost their fathers this year

But I go, because I know, as King Solomon says, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for that is the end of every man, and the living shall lay it to his heart.”1 I go because that is where my presence is needed. That is where the challenge lies and the opportunity for growth presents itself. I walk into the room and see my friend sitting on a low stool, as is the custom for mourners during shivah. I take a slow, deep breath. I sit. I look into her eyes. I wait. At a mourner’s home, you don’t greet or engage the mourner in conversation, you follow her lead and let her engage you. If she wants to talk, you talk. If she wants to remain silent, you remain silent.

As I sit, with a tear in my eye, not knowing exactly how to act, what to say when she talks to me, what not to say . . . part of me asks, “What am I doing here?” When I see other people come to the mourner’s home, another part of me asks, “Am I really needed here?” Do I have any idea what she’s feeling? Do I have any idea what would comfort her?

After the week of shivah is over, I receive an email from my friend: “Dear Elana, thank you so much for coming to the shivah. You can’t imagine how much each and every person does by coming . . .”

My presence really makes such a difference?

I really make such a difference?

There was a great sage, Rabbi Akiva, who had 24,000 disciples. During the Omer period, which begins on the second night of Passover and concludes with Shavuot, we mourn the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students, who died during this period in a plague, because, as the Talmud informs us, "They did not conduct themselves with respect for each other."2 It’s hard to understand how such great men lacked respect for eachother. These men lived by their teacher’s principle, which was, “Love your fellow as you love yourself.” So how did they lack respect? One interpretation is that because they loved each other as themselves, each one felt compelled to convince the other that his interpretation or understanding was the one and only correct one. “I love you like I love myself, so you must therefore understand what I understand as I understand it . . .” Our sages teach us that G‑d judges everyone according to his spiritual level, and these righteous students should not have displayed even subtle forms of disrespect.

During this period of mourning, however, there is a day when the mourning ceases and we actually celebrate. The day is Lag BaOmer (the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer). On this day the plague ended and the dying ceased. Lag BaOmer also marks the anniversary of the passing of Rabbi Akiva's greatest disciple, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (who passed away many years later, unrelated to the plague).

Who was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai?

Who was Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai? What is his story?

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was sentenced to death by the Romans for teaching Torah. He escaped with his son, Rabbi Elazar, and hid in a cave for 12 years. For 12 years, Rabbi Shimon and his son studied the mystical secrets of the Torah. They ate from a carob tree and drank water from a spring. Twelve years of complete and total holy immersion. After 12 years, they came out of hiding upon hearing that the Roman ruler had died and their death sentence was therefore nullified. For 12 years, they had engaged only in spiritual learning. Therefore, when they saw men working in the fields, they couldn’t understand how the world could exist with people engaged in mundane, apparently non-holy matters. Everywhere they looked, their holy eyes would burn whatever they saw. A voice called out from the Heavens, “Go back to your cave! You will destroy my world!” They returned to the cave for another year. This time, when they came out, Rabbi Elazar continued to burn everything by his gaze, but Rabbi Shimon immediately resurrected what his son burned.

What changed?

Rabbi Shimon understood, upon seeing a man collecting myrtle branches for Shabbat, that everything in the world has a purpose. The mundane can be lifted up and made holy. He also understood that not only does everything have a purpose, but everyone has a distinct purpose, a distinct mission in life. Each person is here for a holy reason, and each person has to think, “Because of me and my mission, G‑d enables the whole world to stand!”

At this point, Rabbi Shimon reached a new level of loving his fellow as himself. Now he respected and loved each person’s distinct mission. Just like I have a specific tailor-made-by-my-Creator mission, so do you. I must embrace and understand that I’m here for a wonderful purpose, and so is each and every Jew. And with this understanding, the mourning stops and the celebration commences. With this, I understand the beauty in King Solomon’s words, which advise us to learn a life lesson and go to the house of a mourner. I understand the beauty of Jewish law, which teaches us that when you go to a mourner’s home, follow his lead. If he wants to talk, you can talk. If he wants to remain silent, remain silent. You’ll never know what the other person feels or thinks, but don’t think that for a moment that your presence isn’t important or needed!

As my friend shared with me, “You can’t imagine how much each and every person does by coming . . .” We can’t imagine what each and every person does just by being. We can’t imagine the destruction we can stop just by respecting, by knowing, “I have a sacred mission, and so do you.”