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.

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For the Honey & the Bee-Sting

One winter day in Plattsburgh, NY, as I was driving and listening to an audio-book, a line of text caught my attention.

The book was called “The Dove Keepers” by Alice Hoffman. It’s a fictional account of a group of women who survive the Roman sack of Jerusalem, and come to live with the rebels on the mountain called Masada.

The line that caught my attention was this: “our lives our shaped by our sorrows.” 

At first, I found myself agreeing. I could look back at my own life and easily trace how it has been affected by various losses, broken hearts and disappointments. Even though I believe that suffering can often (but not always) have value, and that the heard-knocks in life make us stronger, I couldn’t help thinking back on the different low points in my personal history and seeing the shape that my life has taken accordingly.

I found myself nodding my head along as I thought it over.

Our lives are shaped by our sorrows.

But over the next few days I found myself mulling over it. Even though I had agreed with it initially, something was gnawing at me. I felt like I was missing something. When I sat down to read through the portion of the week, B’shalach, which is also this week’s parasha, I began to see things differently.

It is within Parashat B’shalach that the Israelites are finally set free.

Pharaoh let’s them go, then chases them down. The sea parts. God ‘s mighty hand is stretched out. The Israelites cross to freedom. They praise God. They experience the miracles of water coming from rocks and of manna falling from the sky.

It is a high point in our history.

Actually, it is THE high point in our history.

In Plattsburgh, one of my rabbinic responsibilities was to teach the Introduction to Judaism course at the college. Since there’s a lot of Judaism to fit into just one semester, only one class was able to be devoted to Jewish history. It’s a lot to fit into three hours, so we only focused on the most important moments; the moments that have shaped the beliefs and practices of the Jewish people.

Often, when we study Judaism’s history, it can seem like the defining for our people was the destruction of the Second Temple. After all, that event transitioned us from a sacrificial cult –tied to one special location – to a religion of prayer and mitzvot, that can be adhered to in any place, at any time.

If we determine that the destruction of the Temple was the defining moment in Jewish History, we can agree that “our lives are shaped by our sorrows.”

After all, much of Rabbinic Judaism centers around mourning the Temple and preparing for a time when it can be rebuilt. But Parashat B’shalach reminds us that there’s more to it.

When I teach the important moments in Jewish history – at SUNY Plattsburgh or anywhere else – I don’t start with the destruction of the Second Temple. I start with The Exodus.

In the textbook I used with my college students, our textbook referred to the episode of the Exodus as “the Redemptive Event of the Jewish People”. I asked my students what they thought that meant. At first, they didn’t answer, unsure of how to define a redemptive event.

So I asked them: What was the Redemptive Event in the history of African Americans? 

“The Emancipation Proclamation!” one student called out. “The Civil Rights Movement!” another ventured. 

Correct.

And just as those moments forever changed the history of African Americans, so too did the Exodus forever alter the Children of Israel. 

Even though much of Jewish tradition is shaped by our sorrows, much of it is also shaped by our triumphs. Chanukah, which we celebrated a few months ago, and Purim, which is a few months ahead, are both celebratory in nature, as is Passover.

So it’s not all bad.

Our religion is not only shaped by our sorrows. And if Judaism isn’t just shaped by its sorrows, then it stands to reason our lives aren’t either.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the power in the message of how our religion is structured.

I thought about how Orthodox Judaism, which so often dwells on the sorrows of our people, is one of the smallest Jewish denominations, even though they have many more children than liberal and secular Jews. 

I also thought about how Passover is the one holiday that secular and disaffiliated Jews are most likely to celebrate. The message of freedom and hope is so much stronger – so much more attractive – than the message of grief and mourning.

Our lives can’t just be shaped by our sorrows, any more than our religion could.

If Judaism was only a sad, dark religion, it would not have survived until today…But at the same time, it also would not have survived just based on its celebrations.

I once had a conversation with a non-practicing Jew who told me that even though he felt strongly that religion was the cause of many problems in the world, he couldn’t completely eschew his Jewish identity.

 “I don’t really understand why,” he said, “but I always come back to the idea that so many people died for the sake of their Judaism. There must be something important about it. Who am I to renounce what so many of my ancestors died for?”

In our parsha, God brings the Israelites into freedom, only to begin immediately pelting them with hardship. At first, there is no food or water. Then they are attacked by Amalekites. “Why would God bring us into the desert to die?” They ask Moses.  

Moses doesn’t answer them, but the history of the Jewish people speaks for itself: Our suffering makes the miracles all the more profound. Our suffering makes our victories – few and far between though they may be – all the more sweet.

Judaism is shaped by our sorrows and our blessings. So too, our lives.  

May each of us this week, recognize the joys and pains that shape our lives, and may we be wise enough to thank God for them both.

Kein Yehi Ratzon.