Monday, June 18, 2012

UN-Original Words of Comfort

Presently I am researching a class that I will be giving on Tisha B'Av on the topic of personal vs. national loss. A kind reader of the blog, with this knowledge, sent to me the following text from Baruch Feldstern (on the faculty of Machon Pardes).  I wanted to share this powerful piece in part because I think it identifies the modern's struggle with ritualized prayer.  Let me know your thoughts:

Last September, a friend sent me an e-mail to say that she was sitting in the congregation of her new synagogue on Rosh Hashana when the rabbi illustrated a point in his sermon with "a story that I heard from my teacher, BaruchFeldstern," some thirty years ago. I am not sure where he went from there, but already there are two important messages here for those of you entering the field of education: you never know who among your students is paying attention; and neither you nor they can be sure which casual remark that may or may not resonate at the moment, may become relevant and significant at the right time and place many years later.

But I want to focus on the story itself that this rabbi remembered. It concerned an occasion that had an impact on me - both at the time and in retrospect.

I was at a shiva where the bereaved was one of my teachers, and nearly the whole Jewish Theological Seminary faculty was present, including the esteemed Abraham Joshua Heschel. For those who have not read any of his works, let me explain that the most prosaic of Heschel's paragraphs blossoms with poetry; the spiritual strength of his Hasidic origins lifts the heaviest of his ideas to heavenly spheres. When Heschel was about to leave the shiva, he approached the mourner and I thought to myself - now Heschel, who is so articulate and profound and full of pathos, will surely say something original and deeply meaningful. When he stood face to face with the bereaved and merely recited the customary (Ashkenazi) expression, HaMakom yenahem otkha b'tokh sh'ar aveilei Tziyon Viy'rushalayim - May the Ever-present comfort you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem - I was deeply disappointed. What a let-down; what a lost opportunity.

Later, after more reflection, it seemed to me that it had actually been an illustration of the genius of Jewish tradition. Often, no words are adequate - even for a Heschel - to alleviate the mourner's grief, and the traditionally sanctioned formulation reduces the distress of the comforter's departure. Like so much ritual, often denigrated as mindless rote (Heschel himself warned of the dangers of what he called "religious behaviorism"), such traditions enable us to deal with tension-fraught occasions where our own instincts, imagination and creativity leave us speechless and helpless. In a sense, the formulaic words of the consolation blessing are like a hug in words; but whereas a hug, beyond saying, "I care," is infinitely open to interpretation, the prescribed formula ensures that the brief exchange will express not only the comforter's feelings but also the tradition's interpretation of the occasion to mourner, comforter and observer alike. In this case the message includes affirmations that (1) comfort comes from God, (2) as profound as the grief in this room is, we are still part of a larger community, (3) which has its own tragedies, and (4) among them is the national tragedy of destruction and displacement. As a result of this one-line farewell, whenever a Jew exited a house of mourning during the past 2000 years, s/he was prompted to express the national dimension of our mourning: Jerusalem is in ruins and we are in exile.

This evocation of the tragedy of the entire people was intended in no way to deny the real suffering of the bereaved. Rather, it aimed, on one level, to prompt mourners to contextualize their own loss, to remind them that they were not alone and that, just as the Jewish people had found a way to continue living despite catastrophic loss, so will they.

At the same time, it reminded all who counted themselves as members of the Jewish people that one component of the destiny to which they aspired was the restoration of national existence, a sentiment that found expression not only in a house of mourning but on every joyous occasion and, in fact, repeatedly in the daily liturgy. These prayers continue to give voice to an age-old longing for a home, proclaiming the Jews' own "right of return."

Your discussion about the defined structure of the discourse, with all the traditional layers of meaning from individual grief to the historical destruction and displacement resonates very deeply with me. The prescribed forms and stages of mourning/grieving are profound and comforting. They help define the very essence of what being Jewish means to me. Even when we are beyond words, there are words to sustain us, as part of a wider community.

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