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Gei Tzal Mavet: Emerging from Grief’s Shadow

Post #2 on a day that necessitates writing and reflection.

This post started in my head on Saturday night. I’ll write it when I get back home from NY, I thought. I don’t have time to get it all out right now, I thought.

This post will end very differently than it would have if I had written it on Saturday night. Or on Sunday. Or first thing Monday morning.



On Saturday night I was at the 4th Annual Jonah Macabee Concert. This is not a Hanukah concert. It’s a concert in memory of Jonah Macabee Dreskin, who was the son of Rabbi Billy & Cantor Ellen Dreskin. I didn’t know Jonah very well but  I love his parents dearly.

Jonah died four years ago. He died during the worst year of my life. During my own personal tragedy and loss. It was toward the end of that year though, and I had spent so much time and effort wrestling with theology and trying to find my way back from giving God the silent treatment. I was so tired at being angry at God by then. I had stopped questioning my own loss – having found no meaningful answers – and I had settled into a quiet resentment of God and of anyone who was happy or hopeful or in love (especially people who were in love). I was lost in a vortex of pain and misery but I had also figured out how to function on a day-to-day basis and to convince myself (and others) that I was (or was going to be) okay.

And then Jonah died and all the fragile coping mechanisms fell right apart. It was an epic fail.

I don’t remember who told me about Jonah or if I read about it or if someone called. I remember that the world turned red. That it was like all the alarms went off inside me as whatever was left of my heart broke apart. The cauldron of agony boiled over and what I remember – in technicolor clarity – is falling from the floor to my knees and wailing and railing  at God.

“Where are you?!?!” I screamed. “Where are you?!?!”


I will never forget the day Jonah died. I wasn’t able to be mad at my own grief anymore but boy was I furious for the tragedy that had befallen the Dreskin family! I might not have felt that I merited Divine protection from the randomness of inexplicable loss but surely the Dreskins – two of God’s servants – two of the nicest, best, most kind and loving people – two people who had inspired and taught and loved me and so many (so many!) others… surely something like this couldn’t – SHOULDN’T – happen to them!

Whatever sense of reason I had been able to cling to during that year, I lost on the day that Jonah died. For an hour, maybe two – there was no God; there was no reason; there was no redemption. There was only grief and questions and emptiness where there had once been faith and hope and love.

I don’t know how long I lay sobbing on the floor. I don’t know if God or any one else heard my rantings that day (although I suspect that both God and my roommate heard all too much). I don’t remember how I mustered the strength to get back up. To scrape myself and my faith up off the floor and keep going. I don’t remember, although I suspect a hot shower was involved. I must have managed it though because here I am.

Four years later.

This memory – like so many others from that year – left me for a while (a survival skill I’m sure) and found me again on Saturday night at the 4th Annual Jonah Macabee concert.

Four years? I thought. Really?

I can’t count backwards to my own loss. I track it by the simultaneous loss of Jonah. If Jonah’s been gone for 4 years than that’s how long it’s been for me too.

But there I was, sitting there, a fully functioning person (rabbi even!); successful and peaceful and happy and whole again (well…almost whole). Grief doesn’t dog my heels anymore.

I’ve stepped out of the shadow of grief. I realized. I no longer wander b’gei tzal mavet – in the  Valley of the Shadow of Death. I have emerged. 

And I look over at the Dreskins and I hope – I hope – that they are finding their way out too.

It’s a strange thing: no matter how many other people are wandering around in that dark and horrid valley at the same time as you, your grief blinds you to one another and you can’t take comfort in being in there together. Not really. Did they know I was in their with them – probably not. My loss – while profoundly devastating for me – was incomparable to the loss of a son and a brother. But I suspect it wouldn’t have mattered. I wasn’t comforted by knowing they were lost in that valley with me. If anything, it made The Valley all the more unbearable.

But The Valley is not endless. The Psalmist knew it when they wrote the Psalms thanking God for bringing them out of She’ol – The Pit. The Valley. Time heals (at least some of the pain) and your eyes adjust to the dark and the people who love you call to you and they throw you a rope and they pull you and your drag yourself and eventually – eventually – you’re out.

I’m out. I’m so so so glad to be out (although I know that the grief goes with you, stays with you, quietly, always). But I’m out. And at the 5th Annual Jonah Macabee Concert, The Valley will be even farther in my rear-view mirror. Thank God. Thank God.

But here’s the addendum – the part that wouldn’t have been if I had had time to write on Saturday night, or Sunday, or early Monday morning: There will always be something new to grieve. That’s life. So the 5th Annual Jonah Dreskin Concert will also coincide with the 1st year anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombings. The Valley is never so far away.

And it’s a different kind of walk we walk through The Valley, when we walk it as a community in mourning. We are far more aware of each other. We can feel each other. We can inspire each other. We can reach out to those who lost the most and hope that they can hear us in their darkness. I am out of The Valley and right back in again. But this time I am trying to light the way and lead others through. And maybe I wouldn’t know how to do that as well if I hadn’t had to survive The Valley four years ago.

Another silver lining that doesn’t justify the means.

And yet, here we are.

Baruch Dayan Emet. We grieve. We cry out. We praise.

We walk until we see the light ahead.



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