A time to grieve

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying,
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for slaying and a time for healing,
A time for tearing down and a time for building up;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing,
A time for wailing and a time for dancing…
A time for loving and a time for hating;
A time for war and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-4; 8)

Many Jewish leaders and academics have called the past few decades of Jewish life a “Modern Jewish Renaissance.” Jewish institutions thrived. At least in America, antisemitism was at an all-time low. Jews held prestigious positions in governments and institutions. Israel, the “Startup Nation,” had a vibrant economy and the terrorism that disrupted life in the late 1990s and early 2000s had subsided. While Kohelet, the Book of Ecclesiastes, notes that there are good times and difficult times, hardship seemed to be behind us; a history to study and not our lived experience.

Our situation as a Jewish people has radically changed over the past six months. These are not easy times to be Jewish – in America, in Israel and around the world.

This is not the first time our people have suffered hardship. We can look to the wisdom of those who came before us to help navigate the hardship we are living through. Our Rabbinic sages who led the Jewish community after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem used the calendar as a tool to reframe Jewish life without a central gathering place and system of sacrifices that the Torah described. These Jewish leaders chose to focus on collective Jewish memory as opposed to collective Jewish offerings. For example, the Torah simply describes the upcoming holiday of Shavuot as an agricultural holiday, while our sages link Shavuot to the historical event of revelation at Sinai. After the destruction of the Temple, our sages not only created space in our Hebrew calendar to mark celebratory events in our history, they made space for us to mourn difficult times, too.

Perhaps with the exception of the modern holiday of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), in past years, I tended to highlight the celebratory days in our Jewish calendar and downplay dates dedicated to remembering hard times and events. During these tough days we find ourselves in as a Jewish people, I am inclined to lean into the dates on our Jewish calendar that are reserved for us to recognize loss and take time to grieve.

While the hardship of being Jewish is a new experience for many of us, our sages remind us that suffering has been a large part of our people’s three-thousand year history. If you add together the days the rabbis mark for celebration and the days they mark for collective mourning, the calendar is weighted toward the latter. We observe this in the spring holiday cycle we are in the midst of right now. The days dedicated to celebrating our Exodus from Egypt and the giving of Torah at Sinai are bookends to the forty-nine-day period of the counting of the Omer. While the Torah simply explains the Omer as an agricultural count, our rabbinic sages, in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, suggest that these seven weeks should be ritualized by mourning practices similar to those instructed after the loss of a close relative.

There is much for us to grieve as a Jewish people right now.

The Hamas terrorist attacks on October 7 were the worst attack on Jews since the Shoah. War is being waged against Israel on multiple fronts. Antisemitism in America and around the world is rampant. The war between Hamas and Israel has caused division in our Jewish communities and families. As we hold onto our people’s pain, our hearts are heavy responding to the extreme loss of life and humanitarian crisis for Palestinians in Gaza, too.

While it is my typical nature to focus on the positive, this spring I feel compelled to embrace the wisdom of our sages and take time to mark loss and grieve as a community. As I lead you in counting the Omer at Shabbat services this month, in addition to the traditional blessing and count, I will pause and share a reflection on collective grief. The past few years, I have highlighted the celebration of Lag BaOmer in our Temple Beth Or calendar. This year, I will highlight the modern Jewish observances of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and Yom HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day for soldiers and victims of terror). I hope you will join me for a special Shabbat service on Saturday, May 11, where we will honor Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron with special poetry, music and our El Malei Rachamim memorial prayer.

“There is a season set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

We pray for times of peace and tranquility, but must take time to recognize the loss we have experienced as a Jewish community. Looking at the many terrifying times our Jewish people have faced throughout our three millennia history offers comfort to us too. We are reminded that while we have faced horror, we have remained resilient as a people.

Rabbi Rachel Kort (she/her)