The Plurality of Mourning

by Lauren Tuchman, SVARA Fellow

A person points a SVARA-branded pen at a line of Talmud.

Nachamu Nachamu ami, “comfort, comfort my people,”— the opening words of the Haftorah from the book of Isaiah, which we will read this Shabbat, ring particularly poignant this year. What does it mean for us to move from a period of mourning, fasting, and solemnity into a prolonged period of communal consolation?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the profound wisdom of our Jewish calendrical cycle. We are not a linear people—our years are cyclical and, as we move through the cycle, our tradition asks us to embody the specific mood or energy of each moment, year after year, even as we ourselves are in a constant state of flux. For many years, when the Three Weeks came around, I wondered how I would find meaning in this time. Connecting viscerally to the Chorban—destruction of the 2 Temples—was not something to which I had an immediate or easy access point. I did always believe deeply in the utility and importance of collective mourning, but on some level it felt hollow. That is, until this year.

As these long pandemic months continue, as the losses—tangible and ambiguous alike—continue to pile up, as many of us feel weighed down by past and present grieving, it feels like our holy tradition is calling out to us, crying alongside us. As we emerge from the 9 days into Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of comfort, we are being reminded, even if just in a whisper, that we can move on. It will take seven weeks of comforting haftorot to make up for the three haftorot of rebuke, but we will be able to rebuild and enter a new year.

In Masechet Taanit 29B-30B, there is an extended discussion about how one ought to prepare for and observe Tisha b’Av. Numerous Tannaitic opinions are recorded pertaining to many aspects of the day itself and the days which precede and follow. The text asks: Should the mourning of the 9 days actually last for all of Av or just during the week in which Tisha b’Av falls? If Tisha b’Av falls on a Sunday, is there even a week of mourning before? When can a person do their laundry? What if they only have one garment and Tisha b’Av falls on Friday—can they wash their garment for the honor of Shabbat? And what about Torah study? Are you allowed to learn Torah? Maybe you can only learn the sections you’re familiar with. How ought we commemorate this time?

I am profoundly moved by the way in which the rabbis engage in this back-and-forth. After the Chorban, the Talmudic project began in earnest in Yavneh because the rabbis understood that we were living in a radically altered world and wanted desperately for our traditions to survive. We are heirs to their ingenuity. As I learned this sugya, I kept coming back to the way in which the rabbis were working out for themselves and future generations just how we would commemorate Tisha b’Av specifically and the Chorban broadly. Writing hundreds of years after that trauma, there was no consensus. To me, this lack of consensus points to the very human reality that the way we grieve and mourn is radically individual. Some of us need those safe containers to hold the pain. Our tradition masterfully created a staged process for mourning the deaths of dear ones for that reason. We move from Shiva to Shloshim to observing the yartzeit annually because we know that even as time progresses, we need a ritualized way to return to the loss and re-emerge into the world again and again, year after year.

Just as our rabbis were not of one mind about how to commemorate the loss of the Temples in Yerushalayim—just how much mourning and for how long is too much?—I know I am wrestling with a plurality of thoughts and feelings about my own grieving during this time. For those of us in an American cultural context, ours is a culture which is better at bottling up emotion and staying as far from death and pain as possible. Where’s the space for the rawness, the realness, the ambiguity of the losses some of us experienced and the real tangibility of others? May the wisdom of our rabbis and our calendar provide us with some solace and grounding in this moment of radical crash. May the fluidity with which the rabbis have an honest back-and-forth about how to commemorate this time provide us with fodder for how we mark our own time of trial and calamity.

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