Between Grief and Comfort, Between Pain and Redemption: Navigating Liminal Space
(A D'var Torah for Minyan Tehillah ~ August 4, 2007 ~ 20 Av 5767)
In a recently released book, whose Title Shall Not Be Named, the author describes “mingled outpourings of jubilation and mourning, of grief and celebration.” This seems a strange paradox, this fluid movement between comfort and grief. Yet this is resonant with reality, and we experience it as human beings and as Jews in many different ways: through text, through the Jewish calendar, and through life cycle experiences.
This week’s Torah portion is “Eikev”, a strange word that is related to the term “heel” (and similar to the name Ya’akov, which is quite fitting for the context of occupying the space between grief and comfort. Ya’akov’s life played out quite vividly and explicitly within this space). Eikev here refers to a potential consequence – it will/may be, following on the condition that you obey God’s laws, that God will maintain His covenant with you and He will love and bless you. The promise of love and blessing is conditional upon following the path delineated by God.
In this parsha, we find Am Yisrael in a familiar place – liminal space. Moshe is addressing the people as they stand on the edge of the Jordan River, poised to enter the Land that has, for so long, been their goal and destination. For nearly 40 years, in fact, the Children of Yisrael have experienced the transition from a generation of slaves to a generation of free people, from the generation that had to die in the desert to a generation that is, finally, inching toward redemption. To reach this point, they had to suffer the loss of nearly the entire generation who came before them. And, now, Moshe reminds b’nei Yisrael of kol ha-derekh – the entire path they have taken. He needs to recount the pain, and the grief, and the comfort – all that has occurred during the journey – in order for b’nei Yisrael to stand ready to enter the Land and move toward redemption.
The Jewish calendar, and our place within it, mirrors this progression from loss and pain and suffering toward comfort and a striving for redemption. A month ago, we began the “three weeks” with the 17th of Tammuz, and we concluded that period of mourning with Tisha b’Av. Through that process, we descended deeper and deeper into pain and grief, to the point that we sat on the floor and cried out “Eicha” – How does Yerushalayim now sit desolate and alone, when it was so full of people? “Eicha” – How could we have sinned so greatly to deserve such horrible punishment? “Eicha” – How have we become so separated from our better selves, and from the Omnipresent One?
It is only after we reach this nadir that we begin the journey toward comfort. And I think that it’s fitting that we do not just read “Nachamu, nachamu” and get comforted all at once, in a neat little package. Our ritual reflects our reality, and so we have seven Shabbatot of consolation – a kind of “sefirat ha-omer” toward comfort.
Now, we are in the second week – Parshat Eikev. We will continue through the beginning of the month of Elul, when the wail of the shofar begins to call out to us, pleading with us to return to who we are, to who we might become. And then we will experience Rosh Hashanah’s taste of the sweetness of return, a reminder of our potential for shleimut (wholeness). And then we reach Yom Kippur, the day when we do – or can, at least – experience a moment of wholeness, enacting teshuvah here – now – as the gates stand open.
All of this is on my mind this week and on this Shabbat because I feel, intensely, this liminal moment. The Shabbat of Parshat Eikev falls this year on the 20th of Av in the Hebrew Calendar, August 4th in the secular calendar. 5 years ago, on July 31, 2002 – the 22nd of Av that year – a bomb planted by Hamas terrorists ripped through Café Sinatra at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, killing my girlfriend, Marla Bennett; our classmate from Pardes, Ben Blutstein; and 7 others; and injuring dozens of others, including our friend, Jamie Harris-Gershon.
Before the bombing happened, I had felt that I had reached a wonderful point in my life, as though I really was standing on the edge of the Jordan, peering across to the Promised Land. But on that terrible day, I felt the ground beneath my feet disappear and I tumbled into a world of pain and loss and grief of a magnitude that I had never imagined, let alone experienced.
I have spent much of the past five years on a journey from pain and grief toward comfort and a striving toward redemption. I have come to understand that, for many of us – perhaps for all of us, on some level – this is what life’s journey is about. We may not experience complete comfort, and we may only sense a taste of redemption (though the Red Sox are doing quite well this year). Most of the time, we are living in-between.
I live in-between, and I know that while my heart still holds the pain and will always have a small empty place marking an irretrievable loss, I also know that my heart has widened and grown to encompass more caring, more feeling, more love. It has grown to hold the pain of others, not just my own.
Last Tuesday, the 5th anniversary of the bombing, I spent part of the day in the company of a little 8-month-old named Zohar. In her light, and joy, I also sensed and experienced nechama – comfort – when I didn’t even realize I was looking for it.
On Monday evening, here, we’ll mark the Yahrzeit for Marla and Ben with a minyan, with kaddish, with singing, and with a l’chaim.
And, in between, in this liminal moment, we have Shabbat, the day when we taste what it means to have menucha (rest – but also a feeling of ease) and when we yearn for a time when it will always be Shabbat. And this is a special Shabbat, as we sit here in the presence of a kalah, Shifra Valvo, who tomorrow will join her chatan, Rabbi Avi Poupko, under the chuppah. And it will be, in that moment, when the paradox of “mingled outpourings of jubilation and mourning, of grief and celebration” is made manifest, in the sound of a glass shattered to remind us always that the world is not yet redeemed, and in the sound of singing voices and shouts of joy and shrieks of delight as we celebrate the journey, no matter how difficulty, toward redemption.
I thought of the chuppah, and the meaning it represents and the potential it embodies, when I looked at this week’s Haftarah, the second Haftarah of consolation that comes from the Book of Yishiyahu. In Isaiah 51, at the end of the Haftarah, we look all the way back through the pain and difficult journeys in the Bible to our starting point as a people in covenant with our Creator, and then we look all the way forward toward the redemption we are striving to reach. I’ll conclude by sharing those words:
Listen to me, you who pursue justice, you who seek God.
Look to the rock you were hewn from, to the quarry you were dug from.
Look back to Avraham your father, and to Sarah who brought you forth.
For he was only one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.
For God has comforted Zion,
Comforted all her ruins;
He has made her wilderness like Eden,
Her desert like the Garden of the Lord.
Gladness and joy shall abide there
Thanksgiving, and the sound of music.
Sasson v’simcha yimtza bah, todah v’kol zimra.
Gladness and joy shall abide there.
Thanksgiving, and the sound of music.
May it be so, for us all.
Mazal tov, and Shabbat shalom.