Feeling Joy at a Time of Bereavement

The rabbis have ascribed to Sukkot, and by extension Shemini Atzeret, as ,החג THE HOLIDAY. We are told ושמחת בחגך והיית אך שמח, “you shall rejoice in your festival and only experience joy.” What a beautiful concept-if only we were able to fully regulate our emotions. We long for the time of the messianic age when we will know no sorrow or pain. However, what happens when we don’t feel joy on Sukkot?

I’ll never forget when a final year rabbinical student, Rafi Lehmann z”l passed away just before Sukkot after a long battle in the hospital. After attending his funeral in Boston, my first thought was how will his parents, his fiancée and his brother observe Sukkot? How could it be זמן שמחתינו, the holiday of our joy, after such a tragic loss-a person who had his entire life ahead of him and who always found the joy in daily living? I don’t know how they did it. All I know is that one of the purposes of our Yamim Tovim is to come together as a congregational family, being present for one another in the moment, comforting those who have lost, helping to restore a sense of balance to those whose world has been ripped out from under them. This year we had two deaths of parents of congregants: one right before Sukkot, the other during Hol HaMoed. After burial one is supposed to return to the joy of the festival and only after Simhat Torah does s/he observe a full shiva. How can one emotionally do this?

There is a tale of a woman whose husband tragically passed away. Despondent, she visited her rabbi and said, “I can no longer bear the burden of my grief. The pain is too much for me. What prayers, what rituals, what cure do you have to banish the sadness from my heart?” The rabbi thought and thought, and finally, he spoke, “Bring me a challah from a home that has never known suffering. We will use it to drive the sorrow out of your life.”

The woman set out immediately to search for this magical challah that would rid her of her sadness. She came to a beautiful mansion and thought to herself, “Surely, the people who live in such a place have never known troubles. This must be where the precious challah can be found.” Steeling her nerves, she knocked on the door and, when it opened, she saw a well-dressed couple who appeared not to have a care in the world. She introduced herself and said, “I am looking for a home that has never known suffering. Is this such a place?” The demeanor of the couple suddenly changed. Their faces fell, as they answered, “We are sorry. You have come to the wrong house, for we have known the worst kind of tragedy possible. Our daughter died when she was very young, and our hearts are still torn from her loss.” Shocked, the woman started to leave, but then thought, “Who is better able to help these people than I, who has had misfortune of my own?”

She asked for permission to enter their home to talk, and they gladly welcomed her. They put out refreshments, some wine, fruits, cheeses, and, a freshly baked, golden challah. And as they sat and ate together, sharing of the challah, they also shared their feelings. They spoke of their sadness and their struggles, but also the many fond memories they had of their loved ones and the joys they shared together. They spent hours together, talking and reminiscing, until it was time to say goodbye. As the woman was leaving, the couple invited her back whenever she desired to talk. And as she walked home, she resolved to seek out those, who, like herself, were bent with sorrow, so they could share each other’s burdens. And ultimately, she became so involved in ministering to other people’s grief, she forgot about her search for a magical challah, never realizing that her quest had already, in fact, begun to drive the sorrow out of her life.

This woman eventually recognized that the presence of family and friends and acting in a way that produces a positive difference are what provides healing for suffering. There is no magic cure for our sadness, but being present with our family and our congregation definitely can help alleviate feelings of loneliness and grief.

A couple years ago I saw a movie called Happy. The director, Roko Belic, went around the world trying to determine what makes people happy, along with research from scientists. The film was originally inspired by a 2005 New York Times article “A New Measure of Well-Being from a Happy Little Kingdom” by Andrew C. Revkin in which the United States was ranked 23rd on a list of the happiest nations in the world. With much poorer countries like Iceland and Puerto Rico easily surpassing the U.S. What I found fascinating is that one part of Japan, the island of Okinawa, had a high happy rating as opposed to another part, Tokyo on the mainland. In fact, the Japanese have a word “Karoushi” for people dying from overwork. The point of Happy is that one needs to find a balance: work of whatever type, whether a vocation or raising a family, is valuable because it gives one meaning and something larger than oneself. On the other hand, if one does not take time for him/herself, putting all his/her energy into work, that can become an overwhelming burden and extremely dissatisfying. Rather, one needs to find a balance between serving others and serving oneself-meeting your own needs and the needs of one’s family and community.

Our tradition is very sensitive to one’s emotional needs.  The purpose of shiva is to spend time in one’s home, letting one’s emotions come pouring out. That is why it is halacha not to speak in a shiva home unless spoken to and not to address the mourner but let him/her address you if s/he pleases.[1] We are there to enable the mourner to share stories of his/her beloved, to enable his/her memory to live on. Next comes Sheloshim where one goes back to work and gradually reenters society. However, s/he does not go to joyous occasions so that s/he does not need to “put on a face” of rejoicing at a time of vulnerability and sadness. It’s too early to do so. We recognize that one cannot find joy at a time of bereavement but at the same time we remind him/her that s/he is not alone. That is the purpose of Yizkor-to come together as a community and join together in our communal losses, recognizing that there are others supporting us in our time of need. That’s also a purpose of minyan, to be present for those who are suffering and in pain.

As we prepare for another Yizkor service, we join together as a congregational family to remember those no longer physically in our midst. We recall their accomplishments and we honor their memories. We also turn to G-d, our Rock, our source of stability, who enables us to keep our departed ever present in our minds. Let us also look around for those who are in need of a reassuring hug, a pat on the back, a listening ear or a tissue. May we never feel alone while at the Jericho Jewish Center and may we recognize that while we might not have felt the joy of this holiday due to a loss that we are here together as part of this community.

We continue with Yizkor on Page 509.

[1] Maimonides Laws of Mourners 14:7


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