“Al naharot Bavel, sham yashavnu, gam bachinu, b’chochreynu et Tziyon.”
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and also wept, as we remembered Zion.”
– Book of Psalms, 137: 1
Sabbath’s arrival this week comes during a time of communal mourning, the “Nine Days of the Month of Av” on the Jewish calendar, leading up to Tisha B’Av – the 9th Day of Av, which will fall this Sunday. The three weeks of communal mourning culminating in this truly dark day in our people’s history begins with the fast of the 17th of Tammuz, but these final 9 days are the most intense period. Some Jews refrain from activities associated with joy: eating meat, drinking wine, even buying or wearing new clothes. But the pinnacle is Tisha B’Av, the day on which we all mourn as a people for various tragedies which befell us, but most especially, the destruction of our two great Temples in Jerusalem, first in 586 BCE by the Babylonians and then in 70 CE by the Romans. Millions were murdered or enslaved and a way of life eradicated. On this day, we all act like mourners: we sit on low stools or on the floor, we fast, we pray, we wear simple clothes (no leather, for example) and we mournfully chant Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, said to be an eye-witness account of the prophet Jeremiah of the destruction of the First Temple, a vivid picture of human suffering. But whether we are facing communal or personal grief, our tradition can be with us on the journey.
Our tradition does not shy away from grief – we acknowledge it as a terrible challenge, one in which we have role models to follow on this difficult path. Our Talmud contains the heartbreaking story of the humble Rabbi Meir, his wise wife Beruriah – and the circumstances of the death of their young twin sons, which has reverberated through the ages. During the time of a terrible plague, the young boys fell ill, but there was hope for a recovery. It was the end of the Sabbath when Rabbi Meir returned from the synagogue in Usha, and Beruriah quickly provided the items necessary for Havdalah, the prayer said to bid the holy day farewell. When that necessary task was complete, Beruriah began to tell her husband a parable: “A man came to see me some years ago. He left in my care for safekeeping two precious stones. Today, just before you returned, he came back for them. I do not want to part with them. Tell me, must I give them back to him?” It was in that moment that Rabbi Meir understood that his sons were gone. “The jewels,” she said, “are in that room.” Beruriah lovingly smoothed the path for his grief to begin.
The Jewish rituals around death and mourning are, in my mind, ingenious – and geared to care for the mourner, decreasing in their intensity and paving a path for re-emergence into life after loss. From the moment of loss, the community embraces the mourner and cares for their needs in an all-encompassing and beautiful way, including those related to preparing for the funeral. (A beautiful and important ritual here is providing shomrim – attendants, so the deceased is not left alone until burial, often very comforting to mourners.) Starting with Shiva, the 7 days of most intense mourning, the mourner often remains mostly at home and is not meant to make their own decisions, but to be cared for, provided food, and a minyan to say the Kaddish, the traditional mourner’s prayer. Mourners often say that the most comforting thing people say to them during this time is when they are asked to share memories of their loved one. “What was your mother really like?” “Tell me more about your husband.” We are often afraid to bring up the deceased, but on the contrary, sharing memories keeps them close.
At the end of the Shiva period, it is traditional for the community to escort the mourner on a walk around the block or neighborhood, symbolizing a return to the next phase of life. When I sat Shiva for my parents, I found this ritual, with 50 or so members of the community that morning after minyan following behind me and my family very powerful. Following Shiva, the mourner enters the period of Sheloshim – 30 days, with less restrictions, but the mourner is still not back in the “real world” completely. They may return to work, but usually avoid parties and other entertainment. Some mourners mark the end of the Sheloshim period with a special minyan or perhaps a public memorial. Following this period, for some mourners, especially those who have lost parents, there is the final period of mourning which includes the rest of the year or Shnat ha-Evel (The First Year) – or the next 11 months, during which Kaddish is said. Thus, with each stage, a gradual re-entry into life is facilitated with this thoughtful process. And finally, each year on the anniversary of the loss, the mourner observes Yartzeit for their loved one – a memorial candle is lit and Kaddish is recited. For if we remember them, the are never truly gone from our hearts.
It is important to acknowledge that there are all kinds of loss – both personal and communal – and it is vital to mark these losses in our lives, as we move forward to incorporate them into who we are. Suffering grief over a loved one is, of course, a primary loss. And anticipating the loss of a loved one is a terrible challenge, as well. But there are many types of losses in life to address: losses of physical ability, of a relationship, of a dream. But, sometimes, opportunities come from loss, even if we cannot see it at the time. When the Temple was destroyed in Jerusalem, a rabbinic tradition was born. We don’t choose tragedy, but we do choose how we respond to these moments in our lives.
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom – a Sabbath of peace – as we navigate this life,
Ruth Steinberg, LCSW
Director, Jewish Family Service
Photo caption: If you have ever visited the Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the last remaining ruin of the great Temple twice destroyed long ago, you will have been struck by the countless notes crammed between the crevices of those who come to bring prayers of grief, joy, and dreams to share in this holiest of places for our people.