While we may despair of the institutions that have arisen around these traditions and customs, and while the meaning of these traditions and customs may seem buried beneath the weight of time and history, there are moments in the rhythm of life where nothing but ritual, nothing but tradition and custom and community can soothe the soul in just the way it needs.
The Jewish custom of Shiva around death offers so much comfort. Shiva is designed to acknowledge the special time that loss creates, and give it form and structure so that we know how to help and comfort when there is so little comfort to offer. It is designed to soothe the grieving and to give those who are desperate to help a way to do so.
It is designed to remind each of us that we don't, in fact, come into this world alone, and we don't leave alone either. Part of the custom is that the body of the deceased is never left alone, but instead it is prayed over and watched over, and it is a sacred obligation to bury our dead with dignity and care. And to allow the grieving to be alone with their loss, and then to be comforted in their loss.
And there is a time limit on the grieving. 7 days, and then 30 days, and then 11 months maximum, and that's only for certain situations. But not longer than that, because life is full of sorrow, but it is also full of joy, and we are not designed to stay in sorrow and miss the joy. In fact, joy takes precedence over sorrow, because there will always be sorrow, but we must be sure to celebrate joy when it appears.
There is so much wisdom in these traditions, so much comfort and care woven into them. Because when death occurs, there is a physiological reality, a shock to the mind, body and spirit, that requires ritual, a choreography of how we behave with each other, when we otherwise have no idea what to do.
The choreography can feel a little foreign if you're not used to it, but even if it feels a little foreign, it's still comforting, and it puts you square in the middle of all of humanity who has also suffered devastating loss, and gone through the same grief, and needed the same comfort. It's a blessing to have someone explain what we do and how we do it and why we do it, when NOTHING is making sense otherwise.
One of the greatest kinds of isolation in our very modern and fast-paced world is that we have to make our own meaning. We have the freedom to do so, but we are not all equally good at creating customs and rituals and traditions that contain the depth of meaning we need when we need it most. It's a lot to ask of ourselves, to find common meaning and connection, and to have to figure out how to do this at the time of our greatest need.
I am happy to rest on the sands of time for the tried-and-true in my moment of need. I am happy to have a community around me that moves to the rhythm of life, not just the pace of life, that understands that we need to mark time and transition and find significance in doing so. It's one of the human essentials, to mark the passage of time, the rhythms of life, the moments of meaning, and give them their proper due.