6 Elul: Know & Console

Studying about the 6th day of Elul in 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays by Simon Jacobson, I am struck, once again, at the brilliance of the structure of Jewish time.

Jacobson reminds me that this first week of Elul is the fourth week in the Seven Weeks of Consolation that began after Tisha B’Av. Jacobson teaches the midrashic explanation of the progression of these seven weeks as a dialogue between us and God.

Week One: God sends the prophets to console the people after the destruction of the temple. (“‘Be conforted, be comforted, my people,’ says your God” – Isaiah 40:1)

Week Two: The people ask why God is sending comfort through the prophets instead of comforting them directly. (“And Zion said: God has forsaken me; my God has forgotten me” – Isaiah 49:14)

Week Three: The prophets tell God that the people are not comforted. (“O afflicted, storm-tossed, unconsoled one…” – Isaiah 54:11)

Week Four: (this first week of Elul) God begins comforting the people directly. (“It is I, I am The One Who comforts you…” – Isaiah 51:12)

Week Five: God’s consolation intensifies (“Sing out, O barren one, who has not given birth, break out into glad song and be jubilant…” – Isaiah 54:1)

Week Six: God’s consolation becomes more powerful and profound. (“Arise! Shine! For your light has arrived and the glory of God has shined upon you.” – Isaiah 60:1)

Week Seven: The people rejoice in God’s consolation (“I will rejoice intensely with God, my soul shall exult with my God…” – Isaiah 61:10)

Jacobson teaches that the reason God does not console the people from the beginning is to remind us that we have the power to console one another. “One vulnerable person can console another,” Jacobson writes, “It is a great gift that one person can give to antoher.”

And once we are consoled, we are then ready for the renewal and rebirth that comes with the New Year.

Jewish time, the wisdom of the rabbis in structuring it in such a way and framed by such texts – it is nothing short of brilliant.

Most people are not easily comforted. Most painful situations are ones that require comfort over time. Someone who tells you they’re sorry for what you’re going through but does not check in to see how you are doing a week or a month later has probably failed to comfort you. I know that I have a hard time accepting comfort and that I am not always as generous as I could be in seeking out opportunities to offer comfort to others. It is on my list of things to work on in the coming year.

At the same time, I am immensely grateful for those who know how to comfort me, those who remember to check in on me, and those who allow me to comfort them in their times of suffering. Jacobson is so right, it is a gift we give each other. I will endeavor to remember that. I will continue to teach it in his name.

Pulling ourselves out of grief takes time. The period of mourning that preceded Tisha B’Av, where we allow ourselves to descend into sorrow – that’s only a few weeks. It takes longer to come through to the other side; to comfort and be comforted. Seven weeks, with the hope of renewal at the end of it – a light shining, beckoning us to work through the pain and believe in our ability to work for a better next time around.

I’ll be honest. Today I had a hard time feeling optimistic about the future. Luckily, it’s only Week Four. I have a few more weeks to get my head in the game; to find strength in the comfort of friends, family and community, and to find strength in my ability to comfort others in turn.

It is Week Four.
Jacobson says that I can expect God to begin comforting me directly.
It is Shabbat.
If I can open myself to experiencing God’s comfort, what better day to start?

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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.