Grief in a Time of Joy
My mother was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia the day before Erev Rosh Hashanah last year. Through the Days of Awe we discussed her genetic profile, her symptoms, bone marrow transplants, and chemotherapy.
We approached Hanukkah unsure of what was working and what wasn’t.
She died on Purim.
Purim, the festive carnival holiday of costumes and fun. It is a bizarre day for someone attuned with the Jewish calendar to enter into aninut, the period of mourning before burial, during which all religious obligations are exempted in order to attend to the details of the burial, and to sink into the tears and the shock.
And then, time continued to move forward, as it tends to do, despite my own sense that it ought to have stopped. Passover and Shavuot, the holidays of freedom and revelation, came and went. Their larger themes washed up against the shores of my grief; I was aware of them, I’d studied them and taught them for years. But this time my own story, my story of loss and death, felt so much more real than the sacred story of the Jewish people, and so out of sync with it. Tisha Be’Av and the destruction of the Temple—the sacred center—made me feel like the Jewish calendar and I were on the same page again, as did the soul searching of Elul and the approach to the Days of Awe, through the “Who Will Live and Who Will Die” of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
But now we’ve arrived at Sukkot, called zeman simhatenu, the time of our joy, based on Deuteronomy 16:14-15:
You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities. You shall hold a festival for Adonai your God seven days, in the place that Adonai will choose; for Adonai your God will bless all your crops and all your undertakings, and you shall have nothing but joy.
And again, I find myself feeling out of sync with the Jewish calendar. Where can joy be found for those of us for whom it might feel distant? What is the joy for which we are searching?
One common historical explanation for the Biblical injunction to be joyous centers on the agricultural origins of the ancient three-holiday cycle: Passover marked the beginning of the new planting season, Shavuot the summer harvest, and Sukkot the fall harvest.
But in my mind I imagine earlier Sukkot festivals—the Sukkot festivals of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, with no crops to harvest, totally dependent on manna from heaven for food. There, our ancestors—former slaves—dwelt in booths as they underwent the trials and tribulations of the desert; the heat and the thirst, the snakes and the scorpions, the doubt and the desire to turn back to Egypt, the rebellions against Moses and his brother. This was a people that had suffered, that had seen suffering, and that would continue to see suffering until each of them died in the wilderness, allowing only their children to inherit the Land of which they dreamed. But they dwelled in sukkot too, just as their descendants would when joyfully performing the fall harvest, and just as I too attempt to do on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where there is no need for me to partake in the fall harvest, and where the logistics of urban life make building a sukkah slightly more difficult.
The joy of our ancestors in the desert was not an easy joy, a joy that appeared simply because there was a lack of sorrow. Their joy was the joy of former slaves and of future rebels, of people who knew that grief and loss are a part of life, just as delight and love are. Their joy came from the knowledge that no structure we can build in this world, physical or otherwise, can keep us from experiencing pain, and so we might as well build a structure that is open to the sky, whose walls are barely walls, and whose floor is the earth. As Rabbi Alan Lew writes:
“In the sukkah, a house that is open to the world, a house that freely acknowledges that it cannot be the basis of our security. . . [t]he illusion of protection falls away, and suddenly we are flush with our life, feeling our life, following our life, doing its dance, one step after another.” (This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared, p. 267).
The joy of Sukkot isn’t the joy that comes when our walls successfully manage to keep out the suffering of the world. The joy of Sukkot is the joy in knowing that, even when our walls fall down, we can still be in the presence of something transcendent and holy. In the words of the Ohev Yisrael, the Chassidic master and great-great-grandfather of Abraham Joshua Heschel:
Even though the Seed of Israel, while in Egyptian exile, suffered enormous subjugation—subjugation of the body with hard labor, with mortar and bricks, backbreaking work that shattered the body—despite this, when they were redeemed and went out from there, the essence of their joy did not come from the fact that they had left their difficult subjugation for freedom. Rather, the essence of their joy came from the fact that while they were in Egyptian exile, the holy Shekhinah [the presence of God] was with them. (Ohev Yisrael, Parashat Masei, p. 224)
I’m not sure I’ve reached the place of this joy yet, the joy that can sit with grief under the same canopy, open to the same sky. But Sukkot still holds out that possibility for me, inviting me as a guest into the sheltering presence of its sukkat shalom, its sukkah of peace.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Parashah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).