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joy and grief

Updated: Mar 17

Earlier this week I was in Philadelphia with 450 Reform rabbinic colleagues at the Central Conference of American Rabbis convention. This gathering felt like a first in certain ways- last year, it was in Israel making it a bigger reach for many rabbis to attend, and the years before that Covid had diminished attendance or forced it to be entirely online. And of course, a major first: this past week's gathering was the first after October 7. 

There was a certain joy and relief in being together with colleagues, who also had to make terrible phone calls that morning and write heart wrenching emails over the course of that first weekend and plan vigils and counsel family members who had loved ones who were killed or taken hostage.  There's a certain fellowship in that kind of experience, and being together had an almost euphoric veil to it when we realized that we were amongst people who just kind of got it. 

And then, on Monday morning, we gather together for shacharit, a beautiful, full musical service led by our colleagues, and as I'm sitting there, I realize it's Rosh Chodesh Adar Bet. The start of a new month; the second of our two months of Adar in this leap year and the one that will bring with it Purim. 

And now that Adar is here, we are confronted with that tagline, that teaching, that intention for this month: Mi Shenichnas Adar Marbin b’simcha. “One who enters into Adar will increase in happiness”. 

Feels like a tall order to fill when our people are grieving.

It bears asking: how do we increase our joy, when we are surrounded by grief? 

Grief and joy are realities of life— and as individuals, we know all too well that they can show up at the same time. I know many of us have stories to share of navigating terrible loss, while experiencing a simcha. Our tradition knows this reality too— offering guardrails and spiritual protections for mourners, lest they be expected to be joyful. A beautiful example of this is in the custom that mourners should not enter the sanctuary until after Kabbalat Shabbat, allowing them to refrain from singing the joyful psalms that welcome the Sabbath bride. 

But time elapses; shiva ends, sheloshim is over, and then, we are meant to navigate life with all of its attendant emotions, including joy. 

Time moves forward, and our grief is meant to as well. 

All week I've been anticipating today's date on the calendar. Today marks the 18th anniversary of the day that Zach Insler died. March 15 is emblazoned on my mind: the day that my friend Rachel called me and told me there was nothing they could do to save her brother.  The day I had to call my little brother and tell him there was nothing they could do to save his best friend. Zach and Rachel, Andrew and I had all grown up together. Rachel and I had both found our way back to New York a few years after college graduation, and the boys, as we called them, four years younger than us, were off to college. Zach was insanely funny, and bright, and played the saxophone in a ska band that he called Premarital Sax. But, after high school, Zach’s path had been paved with unexpected challenges in the way of opioid use disorder. By their senior year, he had been ready to make a fresh start, getting well and moving to Boston with friends. Addiction is a venomous beast, and Zach died months before his 21st birthday. He left behind a family and a circle of young friends, stunned to imagine a world without their son, brother and friend, whom they called “the redheaded weasel”. 

And I tell this story tonight not only to say how much I loved Zach and how shocking it feels to me to imagine that it's been 18 years (Chai–a whole life!) that he's been gone but because over the course of these years, watching as my friend, Rachel, and her parents put their lives together in a new way, I am grateful for the lessons around grief that I learned by being close to them. In particular,  I am reminded of something that Rachel once said to me about grief.  

“Grief is like cheese, it never really goes bad. It just changes in character”  

It never really goes bad, or goes away— grief, is with you in some ways, always. But, it does change character. Month by month and year by year, holiday by holiday, wedding by wedding, new jobs and new starts after new jobs and new starts— our personal griefs change character. 

And it is that very idea that came to my mind this past week, as I watched my Israeli colleagues lead us in Hallel— those verses of praise from Psalms that we sing on Rosh Chodesh. A cold and broken Hallelujah, indeed— but a hallelujah nonetheless.

We are living through a moment of communal grief right now, that is sharpened and deepened by the individual stories of loss and suffering. For 160 days, we have lived suspended in a moment of grief that is both communal and individual, that is “ours” and also “not ours”.  At our CCAR convention, Rabbi Judith Schindler used the metaphor of an earthquake to describe how the events of October 7th and all that has followed has been felt in the Jewish world; Israel, and Israelis are at the epicenter, while here in the diaspora, we feel the aftershocks, and the tremors. 

Our grief in this moment is made more painful by knowing that the trauma is not yet over; the kidnapped remain in captivity. The war has not achieved its stated goals; and the death and deprivation is staggering. Our grief is elongated and incomplete. 

Mi shenichnas Adar, marbin b’Simcha

Today is the 5th of Adar. 

How might we marbin b’Simcha? How might we begin to increase our joy? 

Perhaps the spiritual challenge is to recognize our starting place— the context in which we enter into this particular Adar. We are not the first Jewish community in the history of the world to enter into Adar during turbulent and heartbreaking times. 

The teaching “Mi shenichnas Adar, marbin b’Simcha”  is the final line of a longer mishnah that teaches: 

Rav Yehuda, son of Rav Shmuel bar Sheilat, said in the name of Rav: Just as when the month of Av begins, one decreases rejoicing, so too when the month of Adar begins, one increases rejoicing.”

In other words, there are times of the year, and times in our life when our joy may naturally falter; when times of simcha feel diminished. So too are there times when our joy may naturally be elevated. This month of Adar coincides with the turning of the year toward more sunlight- to warmer days and later sunsets, which for so many of us brings an elevated sense of hope. 

But more than that, perhaps in recognizing that this Adar has arrived during a time of communal grief and mourning, we can understand that "increasing" in joy doesn't mean - one must be ecstatic all the time, i.e. BE HAPPY ITS ADAR, but rather, that we are to cultivate small joys, scooting towards happiness incrementally, even during difficult times. The evening walk with a friend, the first ice cream on a warm day, the task accomplished, the birthday celebrated, the hamantashen that doesn’t lose it’s triangular shape when you bake it in the oven (come on. Small joys!). 

The concept of joy is refracted through so many different words in Hebrew— Simcha is happiness more generally, and is often used to refer to a celebration.  There’s Orah - which really is about light - but can refer to joy and happiness too - this sense that feeling joy brings you light and perhaps lightness!  There’s also Rina - which means a refreshing happiness. Alongside Rina, and mentioned in the sheva brachot are Gila - which is an exuberant outburst of joy, like the happiness of discovery… and there is Ditza - sublime joy… as well as Sasson which is a sudden unexpected happiness… All of which lead us to Osher  - a deeper, longer lasting happiness… and perhaps the one I like most - Chedva - which is about the happiness of togetherness.  

Estelle Frankel writes in her book “Sacred Therapy” about Chedva that it shares the same root with the the Hebrew word for oneness—echad. She teaches that 

“We experience joy when we feel a sense of oneness and connectedness. This is the central aim of all Jewish spiritual healing—to restore a sense of unity, joy, and connectedness in a world in which brokenness seems inevitable”

Unity. Joy. Connectedness— in a world that feels so very broken. 

An ancient prescription for our own modern condition, perhaps. 

Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory wrote: 

When we speak of joy here, we are not speaking of fun. Joy is a deep release of the soul, and it includes death and pain. Joy is any feeling fully felt, any experience we give our whole being to. We are conditioned to choose pleasure and to reject pain, but the truth is, any moment of our life fully inhabited, any feeling fully felt, any immersion in the full depth of life, can be the source of deep joy.

Perhaps this year, this Adar can be a part of our own grief process— never going away, but changing in character.  Inching our way toward joy, allowing ourselves to hold it all firmly with two hands: the broken and the whole.

I conclude with these prayerful words for this month, written by our colleague Rabbi Oded Mazor of Kehillat Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem: 

May it be Your will that we merit to increase the joy in this month; the joy of being together, the joy of giving, the joy of gratitude for the goodness that is revealed in the world. 

May it be Your will that we are able to understand the different manifestations of sorrow, brokenness, grief, worry, disappointment– to acknowledge them, to listen to them, to embrace them. 

May it be Your will that we are able to hold together the diverse needs within one community; to cry and to laugh, to mourn and to dance, to celebrate as always and to sit alone in silence. 

May it be Your will that already in this month, we witness a real “V’Nahafoch Hu”, turning reality in a new direction; not of killing, fighting and destruction, but of salvation, demanding goodness, words of peace and truth. 


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