The following story is completely outlandish — and true.
A congregant lost his mother, and after the funeral he asked his rabbi whether he could hire someone to sit shiva for him. It was his busy season, the man explained, and he didn’t have time to take off work for seven days.
At first I didn’t believe the story, but after reading the remarkable new book by sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, “The Outsourced Self,” I changed my mind. “Mourners for rent” is an outgrowth of the new reality of “personal outsourcing” that is gaining greater popularity and acceptance.
Yes, people today are hard-pressed for time and are willing to pay for the privilege of having someone do things for them faster and better instead. I have no problem with people going to an accountant to file their taxes or to a manicurist to file their nails. Outsourcing these onerous tasks is a well-deserved benefit of being able to afford them.
But in addition to mourners for hire, the following intimate life services are now available: friends for rent, grandmas for rent, holiday gift buyers, photo album assemblers, gravesite tenders, potty trainers, nameologists, wantologists and so much more.
What’s a nameologist? That’s a specialist who will expertly guide you to the right name to give to your newborn child, saving you from the difficult task of choosing a beloved ancestor whose memory you want to perpetuate. And what’s a wantologist? That’s someone you can hire to help you figure out what you really want! (I’m not making this up.)
The common denominator in all of this outsourcing is the tragic loss of the emotional component that ought to be the key to our relationships. The gift I buy for a loved one because I chose it will express my feelings far better than what a “holiday gift buyer” would deem perfect because it’s in fashion. The photos I put together in my album may not be the ones chosen by the “professional photo album assembler,” but they will reflect the memories precious to me as I see them, not the ones I’m told to treasure by a stranger.
Jewish law long ago set the parameters for when it is permissible to delegate a task and when personal responsibility trumps this possibility. There is the role of a “shaliach” in Hebrew, a personal agent who acts on your behalf in certain situations. A writ of divorce, for example, may be sent from husband to wife by way of a messenger. The goal here is merely to have something delivered.
But when the great 18th-century Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, known by the name of his greatest work, Noda B’Yehudah, was asked why the talmudic principle of “the agent of a person is like himself” wouldn’t apply to delegating someone to perform a mitzvah on his behalf, he clarified the distinction by way of a simple concept: A responsibility predicated on personal and emotional involvement can never be passed over to another. The person must perform it himself.
No one can listen to the shofar for you. You would never personally experience its call to repentance. No one can sit in the sukkah in your stead. You would not feel the frailty of the walls you count on to protect you or your total dependence on the heavens beneath which you dwell.
So, too, the mourning process for our departed loved ones requires personal grieving. The tears must be our tears. They cannot be counterfeit products of purchase. Any mitzvah rooted in emotion demands that it not be delegated.
It’s a mistake to think that professionals who get paid will do everything better. Attaining the inspiration, elevation and refinement that comes through fulfilling mitzvahs can’t be done by proxy. There are no shortcuts to spiritual growth. We need to take the time and care to be personally engaged and perform these treasured tasks ourselves.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and the Rabbi Emeritus of Young Israel of Oceanside. This article first appeared at Aish.com.