Day 4: The Upside of Sorrow (Tammuz 21)

Morris Adler writes, in A Modern Treasury of Jewish Thought (ed. Sidney Greenberg):

Our sorrow can bring understanding as well as pain, breadth as well as the contradiction that comes with pain. Out of love and sorrow can come a compassion that endures. The needs of others hitherto unnoticed, the anxieties of neighbors never before realized, now come into the ken of our experience, for our sorrow has opened our life to the needs of others. A bereavement that brings us into the lives of our fellowmen writes a fitting epilogue to a love that had taught us kindliness, and forbearance and had given us so much joy.

Sorrow can enlarge the domain in our life, so that we may now understand the trivialty of the things many pursue. We havve had in our hands a noble and refined measure for judging the events and objects we daily see. What is important is not luxury but love; not wealth but wisdom; not gold but goodness . . .

Our sorrow may so clear our vision . . . [and] out of that vision will come a sense of obligation. A duty, solemn, sacred and significant, rests upon us. To spread the love we have known to others. To share the joy which has been ours. To ease the pains which man’s thoughtlessness or malice inflicts. We have a task to perform. There is work to be done and in work there is consolation.

Out of love may come sorrow. But out of sorrow can come light for others who dwell in darkness. And out of the light we bring to others will come light for ourselves – the light of solice, of strength, of transfiguring and consecrating purpose.

Sorrow is not always keenly felt. Sometimes it simply lies beneath the surface while we go about our daily lives. We can feel it, beneath, if we reach for it, but it is not crippling. We can get up in the morning and almost forget that it’s there. Almost.

Living with grief this way, for three weeks, for a month, for a year, for years… no one would say it was preferable. No one would wish it upon themselves. But there are upsides to sorrow – the ones Adler describes and more. I know the pain in my own life has made me better able to bear witness to the pain of others. I know grief has made me more empathetic.

There are clouds. There are silver-linings.

Some days we can’t see beyond the clouds.

Other days, the silver-linings shine bright.

Day 2: Resignation

Greif is (often but not always) preceded by either shock, or resignation.

When it’s a new grief, a new loss, shock is what paves the way – surprise over losing something precious. Then the implications of the loss begin to set in (and thus the grief).

But when we are mourning something anew, mourning it again, or mourning something similar to what we’ve mourned before, resignation is what announces that grief is on the way. A melancholy sets in. Oh this. Yes. I know this. I know what’s coming and it’s not going to be fun.

We feel a space open up inside us where once something else was. And at first, it’s just an awareness of the emptyness. Oh yes. I no longer have what I once had. I will soon feel something more sharp than emptiness. All the feels are heading my way.

We brace ourselves; resign ourselves; take a deep breath and sink a little deeper down.

Sometimes, if it’s not a new loss or a tragic loss, we can push through the resignation – maybe even delay the sharper sting of grief for a while. But on the 18th of Tammuz, day 2 of our 3 weeks of obligatory mourning, the resignation is as inevitable as the rest of it. Oh yes. These three weeks have begun. And they won’t be the best three weeks. They will be hard and sad and dark weeks. And then they will be over.

Deep breath. Another step down on the intentional spiral toward Sheol. We are not there yet. Not quite in the depths of The Pit. But we sense it on the horrizon. We feel its chill, its darkness, creeping towards us. And we hunch ourselves against the despair we know is soon to envelope us, and sigh. It’s coming. Soon it will be here. The titlewave of grief. And we will ride it and survive it as we have always done.

I feel the heaviness descending.

I can only pray that, like wightlifting, these burdens will bring me a renewed spiritual strength. As I take another step down.

The Intentional Downward Spiral

This weekend, America celebrates. And with good reason.

But tonight, I was reminded that in another calendar – OUR calendar – the Hebrew calendar – tomorrow night begins a day of fasting. Sunday is the 17th of Tammuz. Tzom Tammuz, or the Fast of Tammuz, recalls the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem before the 2nd Temple was destroyed. But more than that, Tzom Tammuz marks the beginning of an intentional period of collective and communal grieving. Between now and the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av), for three weeks, the Jewish people spiral downward into grief – on purpose! Though the world is sunny and bright around us, our liturgy and Haftarah portions and fasts and rituals take us deeper into darkness and despair; into Sheol, The Pit. And only as the 9th of Av comes to an end, do we begin to climb back out again.

For someone like me, who has struggled against grief and despair for much of her life (with a disproportionate amount in particular these last 7 years), this idea of an intentional descent into Sheol is both horrifying and facinating. Instead of fighting grief and fighting to overcome grief, we embrace it; we choose it; we immerse in it – knowing that it will not be unending; knowing that at the end of three weeks there will be respite and light and release.

For those of us who know grief well, we know that you never really get to choose when it rears its ugly head, or when it might leave again. Grief is not timebound. It comes when it comes and it leaves when it leaves and you are not in control. And yet, Jewish tradition responds to mourning with timebound structures. You have 7 days to fall apart, and then 30 days to ease back into the world, and then a year to live with one foot in the world of mourning and one foot in whatever else life brings your way. And then an annual day to mark the grief, and remember, before moving on again.

And those of us who know grief, know it’s not that simple. Grief doesn’t follow the Jewish calendar. It doesn’t dissipate just because your 7 or 30 or 365 days are up. And yet, Jewish tradition tells us we have to move forward; choose life; find a way.

Except for these three weeks, from the 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av, where we choose grief; choose dispear; choose to spiral intentionally down into Sheol together. And this too, is Judaism structuring our grief – saying yes, the loss of The Temple, or the horrors that our people have endured throughout history – we could mourn them for eternity; we could lose ourselves in the grief of it all. But we won’t. We don’t get to. We get three weeks a year to fall apart and tear our clothes and sit in sackcloth and ashes, and then we have to pull ourselves back together, and pull ourselves out of The Pit. Slowly. Slowly. With comforting liturgy and Haftarot to accompany us along the way as we reeeeeach toward a new year, toward new life.

I’m a fighter. When grief pops up, I want to fight back. Even when it gets the best of me and I’m weeping, weeping in the shower or in the car or in bed, there is always a point where I take a breath and choose to fight and start to dry my tears. I reach for healing Psalms. I call a friend, or my mom. I turn on loud music and force myself to dance. But this period in the Jewish calendar forces me to wonder: what would it look like to embrace grief; to welcome it, for a set amount of time? To allow the Jewish calendar to carve out three weeks where we can weep, unabashedly, about whatever heartbreaks have befallen us along with our people. What if, for three weeks, we just let it all come; let it all come out; let ourselves take up residence in Sheol and just be. For a while. Be with our grief. Accept it. What would that look like?

I think I’m going to try it this year. I’d like to find out.

Not that you’ll find me tearing my clothes. You may not even notice it. Or perhaps you’ll find me a little quieter than usual, a little subdued. Then again, it could be that I will seem more peaceful, more resolved. I’m not sure, I’ve never quite allowed grief to take up residence before and have free reign. But I’m giving it a three-week sublet. We’ll see how it goes.

Three weeks to not appologize for grief. To not hide from it or hide it from view. Three weeks to hold it and know, that all throughout the Jewish world, we are grieving together. Three weeks to not be alone in our grief.

Tomorrow night I will go and watch the night sky light up in celebration. I will marvel with childlike glee at the fireworks, and, I will also start to take steps downward; to let myself sink; to permit a little more despair to take up residence.

It is a little frightening and yet, it is almost a relief.

So I’m giving it a three-week sublet, and we’ll see how it goes.