[guestpost]My friend, Margaret Feinberg, is a well known writer who treasures and draws from her Jewish background. She’s been through a tough few years battling cancer and shares what she’s learned about the co-mingling of joy and grief in her new book and Bible study, Fight Back With Joy: Celebrate More. Regret Less. Stare Down Your Greatest Fears. She has found the particular Jewish practices of mourning both powerful and, paradoxically, life-affirming. I think you’ll agree You can learn more at www.margaretfeinberg.com. Follow her on Twitter @mafeinberg.[/guestpost]

While itching under my arm, I felt a lump. I thought it was my imagination at first. It turned out to be my worst night.

Tests soon revealed I had breast cancer.

Not all breast cancer is the same. In fact, every breast cancer different. Some require a lumpectomy and/or radiation. Others are more severe. My course of treatment involved more than a year of chemotherapy, radiation, and many surgeries.

The gruesome details still bring me to tears.

My life hasn’t turned out like I expected. Maybe yours hasn’t either.

Maybe you believed “I do” meant forever. Until life took an unsuspecting turn.

You picked out the name for the baby who never took its first breath.

Perhaps there’s an empty seat, an empty bedroom, an empty bed of the one who is never coming back.

The futures feel flimsy. Our wills wobbly. The grief overwhelming.

Sometimes the future can look bleak, even completely black in the wake of the pain, the loss, all that’s been stripped away.

Such moments beckon us to learn to grieve and mourn. Yet modern Christianity combined with contemporary culture leave scarce room for the processes that will bring us the most hope, healing, and restoration. 

One of the places I’ve found comfort and the courage to mourn and mourn well is through studying the Jewish rites surrounding mourning. The protocol behind the Jewish practices is meant to help those who mourn find meaning.

The Torah teaches Jews to bury their dead quickly. This is based on the command to not “let the body remain all night” (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Following the funeral, mourners enter into a practice known as “sitting shivah” or “sitting seven,” as an intensive weeklong mourning period following the death of an immediate relative. The time is marked by austerity.

Mourners do not bathe or shower. Men do not shave. Women do not wear makeup. Nothing freshly laundered may be worn. Married couples refrain from sex. Mourners sit low to the ground. One doesn’t leave the house except for Sabbath services. Studying the Torah is considered too great a pleasure for this time. The only texts permitted are Job, Lamentations, portions of Jeremiah, and the Rabbinic laws of mourning.

All the mirrors in the house must be covered to honor the dignity of the deceased since beauty and ornamentation are considered an insult to a decomposing body.

The practice also gives permission to mourners to look and feel miserable; greet guests with puffy eyes and messy hair. Society heralds vanity as a way of a life, but covering the household mirrors grounds mourners in the truth that appearance is irrelevant, time isn’t to be wasted, and now is the chance to get priorities straight.

A closer look at the laws of shivah reveal the command for the mourners to behave as if they’re dead. With every distraction removed, the mourners must face the loss for seven whole days. They must endure exhaustion, boredom, and a barrage of emotions. Shivah provides no exits for denial or shrugging off the loss.

Sitting shivah reminded me of the great importance of mourning. Grieving wasn’t something to be shoved away or avoided but sought out and embraced for the healing it brings.

Sitting shivah creates space for quiet to process our losses with God.

For me, pockets of mourning appeared in the most unexpected places. I wept in the movie theater during a matinee. One evening the dam of tears broke as the sun cast its final vibrant shadows over the mountains. Tears flowed during times of study and reflection, on the hour-plus long daily hikes, in the darkness the bedroom.

Many mornings Leif and I sat nestled on the couch beside each other exchanging the gravest conversations any couple can ever have. We often ended by weeping in each other’s arms.

Rather than sprinting from mourning, the practice of sitting shivah invited me to allow the tears to wash away the pain. To invite God bring about the healing that can only come through grieving.

What do you most need to grieve?

What are the losses in your own life that you’ve never given yourself permission to mourn?

What can you do today to mourn well and grant yourself the time, space, silence, and permission to let the tears fall? 

It may sound counterintuitive, but through mourning we expand our bandwidth for joy—and learn to fight back with joy.


Rabbi Evan

I show the way Jewish wisdom make our lives richer and happier. In particular, I help Jews appreciate their heritage and Christians uncover the Jewish roots of their faith. Get my FREE Jewish holidays cheat sheet by clicking here.

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