This blog is supposed to be about "Living a joyful Jewish life and bringing joy to synagogues and the Jewish community." But life is not always joyful. Judaism also has to speak to us in moments of sadness, bereavement and despair if it is going to be a source of meaning in our lives. God has to be able to speak to us in times of grief as well as times of celebration.
In retrospect, I wish that I had tried to say less. God can speak to us when we are in such pain, but listening can be very difficult. That was something I needed to recognize in the young couple in front of me, and it was something I needed to recognize in myself. I now wish that, instead of offering so many words, I had had the wisdom to listen more to them and to my own feelings of powerlessness. The pain of the situation made me deaf to both.
There is a Chasidic teaching about the way that pain deafens us in this week's Torah portion (Va'eira). It comes from an apparent contradiction in the text.
When God instructed Moses what to say to the Israelites, God told him, "They will listen to your voice…" (Exodus 3:18; the preposition "to," as we shall see, is important). However, when Moses actually does speak to them, the text says, "Moses spoke thus to the Israelites, but they did not heed Moses because of their crushed spirits and harsh labor" (Exodus 6:9).
Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk once asked Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Worka, "How do we reconcile these two Scriptures? Heaven forbid that the words of the Holy One of Blessing were not fulfilled!" Is it possible, he wondered, that God was wrong about the Israelites paying attention to Moses?
Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Worka's answer turns on a small detail of the Hebrew. He explains, "God said to Moses, precisely, 'They will listen to your voice.' It is not, however, written, 'They will listen in your voice.'" He points out that when Moses later wants to makes sure the Israelites pay attention to him, he says, "And now, if you will listen in my voice…" (Exodus 19:5).
The distinction, says Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Worka, is critical. He says that when God told Moses that the Israelites would "listen to his voice," it meant only that they would hear the sound of his voice, not the content of his words. Why didn't they hear what Moses was saying? “Because of their crushed spirits and harsh labor.” Their spiritual pain prevented them from taking in the full depth of Moses’ words. (Itturei Torah, Vol. 3, p. 55).
This is an experience that we all have known from childhood. When we are distraught, angered or in distress, we seldom hear clearly what is being said to us. Words that are meant to calm, soothe or comfort us do not come through. The words might even be misunderstood as challenging, judgmental or condescending.
There is a corresponding teaching in Pirke Avot that tells us, "Do not attempt to appease a person when he is angry, to comfort a person when his dead lies before him, or to question a person when he utters a vow" (M. Avot 4:23). There is a time when we should acknowledge the limitations of words and to understand that even beautiful words will not be truly heard.
That is not an indictment against the person who cannot hear. It is not a spiritual failing. It is part of how we experience life with all of its ups and downs.
There is a cycle of "a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance" (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Wisdom comes from recognizing each time and its appropriate boundaries. Wisdom is seeing that there is no joy that will drive away all sorrow, and there is no loss that will drive away all hope. Torah teaches that slaves may arise to see God's presence and hear God's voice on a mountain top. A bride who has lost her father may later find joy and fulfillment in marriage, children and family. Life goes on.
When I say—as I often do on this blog—that the challenge for our era of Judaism is to rediscover joy, I am not preaching a Judaism that is all happiness, all the time. That would be a Judaism no deeper than the light pablum of a television sitcom. Rather, I want to nurture a Judaism that speaks to us—and listens to us—through all the difficult passages of our lives and helps us return to joy.
Joy is not the precondition of Jewish living. Life takes us through dark moments that must be acknowledged. But finding joy and returning to it is part of the life of Torah.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Not Turning Away from Grief