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Concrete Ambiguity in Jewish Time

08/04/2020 03:59:56 PM


There’s a particular perspective that I have heard over the years from folks who are new to Judaism, or who have joined the Jewish people. It comes from their observations of, or experiences with, Jewish rituals around mourning and grief.

Universally, the perspective is one of appreciation – for the concrete rituals; for the communal as well as personal elements; for addressing specific time frames, such as those between the immediate moments before death, following death, before burial, following burial and through the first year.

So here we are in an extended, open-ended epoch of grieving. Whether or not any one of us in our community have been touched directly by the loss of a loved one to COVID-19, we are all personally, deeply affected. No one is not experiencing loss.

In an interview with podcast host Krista Tippett, family therapist Pauline Boss considers what it means to go through loss when there is no closure, or end point. She calls this “ambiguous loss.” They go on to discuss the waves of emotion that arise in these times:

            Tippett: I want to just ask you, really specifically. I find — and again, I don’t want to universalize my experience, but I hear other people talking this way — that I have good days and bad days. And I have days that start good, and then I just fall into these holes of just feeling so disoriented and despairing. I think one way for me to analyze those times, also, is just the feeling of so much — like I have nothing to hold onto, which is an experience of loss, even if it’s really ordinary things. How might I counsel myself in those waves?

Boss: To be transparent, I would say I have exactly the same waves. [laughs] And what I was telling myself, the other day, is:  I’m grieving. You don’t think you’re grieving. In my case, fortunately, someone in my family did have COVID, but no one died. So it must be awful for those families where someone died, and perhaps they couldn’t be with them, or they couldn’t have the rituals that they usually have, to comfort them afterwards. But the rest of us — because this has gone on so long, I think there are days when you should just let yourself feel sad. And be easy on yourself on those days.

They go on to discuss coping mechanisms and comfort measures, some as simple as having your hot drink in the best china cup. They consider how to normalize grief, and then make their way to discussing rituals:

Tippett: What is the most skillful, reality-based way of being helpful to others right now?

Boss: It’s hard to say, because one is constricted. But I’m not a Luddite. I’ve learned to use technology pretty well. And I find that that’s a saving grace at this period of time, the internet, the Zooms, the FaceTimes. If it weren’t for that, I don’t know — it would be much worse, I think. So that’s one thing: stay in touch with friends, with family, in the ways that you can. Have your rituals. Rituals are very important, by the way. I have gone to a funeral-memorial service on Zoom, and it was extremely moving. And there are weddings that are being done in different ways, and graduations. We have to have our rituals, and we have to help each other do that, because without the rituals, we’re going to lose meaning in the events of our lives, the good ones and the bad ones.

This insight is consonant with the observation about Jewish life cycle practices, and also pertain to the Jewish year cycle. Following Tisha B’av, the great historical date of mourning our people’s cumulative, historical losses, the Jewish calendar enters the Seven Weeks of Consolation. These 49 days are nestled between the 9th of Av and Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, and the tradition offers some concrete markers to lead us out of the depths of sadness.

For each shabbat there is a prophetic text of comfort. Indeed, the first of the seven is called Shabbat Nahamu – the Sabbath of Consolation. In this devar torah on Shabbat Nahamu, Reconstructionist Rabbi Richard Hirsh highlights the possibilities for new beginning embedded in the 7 weeks:

Tisha B’Av represents those moments when terrible experiences have severed us from God and from other people; when the breach seems so wide that we cannot imagine a time when it will be healed. We feel alone, despondent, rejected.

It is as just such moments that we most need to turn to our religious sources for hope; even if we cannot accept the words in their literal sense, the symbolic message is sustaining: “Nahamu, nahamnu ami – give comfort to My people!”

Personally and collectively, in secular practices and sacred rituals, we make concrete the feelings that arise even in midst of instability and uncertainty. We can find, through ritual and study, through baking and yes, through Zoom, the comfort we need and deserve in these times.

Rabbi Liz

Mon, March 1 2021 17 Adar 5781