On Holding Loss and Finding Hope

“Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem” by Francesco Hayez (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

The past few weeks have been difficult here at JCRC, as they have been for almost everyone. We said goodbye to cherished colleagues who were laid off as we suspended various programs because of economic pressures. As we gathered together as a smaller group for the first time this week, many of us were navigating new responsibilities and feeling the absence of coworkers while still holding great passion for our work and our hope for the future of our organization.

As we continue to make sense of the turmoil and disruption, both close to home and as a society, I find myself – as I often do – turning to Jewish heritage and tradition to help find meaning in the world around me.

Yesterday many of us observed the fast of the 17th day of the Jewish month of Tammuz, the beginning of three weeks of ritual mourning. These weeks follow a trajectory that begins with this anniversary of the Babylonian breach of the gates of ancient Jerusalem, and carries us until the anniversary of the burning of Solomon’s temple and the start of the first exile. That date is marked - along with a great many other Jewish tragedies, including the destruction of the second temple by the Romans (and with it the beginning of our long diaspora) and the expulsion from Spain in 1492 - by a fast on the 9th of Av, observed this year on July 30th.

I’m always struck by the liturgy of this period. The words of Psalm 137, By the Rivers of Babylon, and the funereal music by which they are sung at our tables, are embedded in my heart. They express the profound mourning of our people’s loss, expressed in a moment of transition:

There we sat,
Sat and wept,
As we thought of Zion…

How can we sing a song of our God on alien soil?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand wither…

Still, as we read the Book of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av, we find, even in the words of sorrow, that there are messages of hope and of the possibility of renewal. Even the fast itself is considered a Moed, a festival. For though it is a day of profound sadness, it is also a day of promise for a joyful future, as the prophet Zechariah assures the people it “shall become occasion for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.” (Zech. 8:19)

These texts, our tradition, hold a triptych of emotions that feel so right for this current moment in our world: We hold the sorrow of profound loss, we sit in the anxieties and fears of a time of transition, and still we find a way to express our hope for the future. Sorrow, anxiety and hope are three disparate emotions; but we do not compartmentalize them to experience them on separate occasions.  Instead, we will sit with them all at once, because each is a piece of our current reality.

We need to grieve (and I am so grateful to Hebrew College and the other partners who organized a meaningful communal grieving ritual yesterday for those who we have lost to this pandemic). We need to name the anxiety and fear that comes with transition, and; we need to lift up hope – hope for what is possible, hope for a brighter future, hope for what we will build together in the years to come. And we need to do all of these things at the same time.

I invite you to share your losses, your fears, and your hopes as we continue to build a future for our community and our collective world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Jeremy