Joy and Grief

In multiple instances, our tradition encourages us to experience multiple emotions at the same time rather than replacing one with another or viewing them in opposition to each other. As we move beyond the 30-day period of mourning, shloshim, for the massacres of October 7th, we search for ways to create space for emotions beyond grief and anger. To be sure, both of those feelings still reside within many of us – and are likely to long after the war between Hamas and Israel is done. But this week, and this week’s Torah portion, encourage us to broaden the spectrum of recurrent emotions.

Parshat Chayeh Sarah (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18) begins with the death of our matriarch Sarah and the grief of her family. Abraham “bewailed” her. Some commentators suggest that complicated circumstances kept him from grieving as much as he otherwise would. Irrespective, we see Abraham move quickly from grief to action, sublimating his emotions through deeds or perhaps feeling an urgency to show his wife one final act of love.

Yet the focus of the narrative is not on Sarah’s death but rather of the path that Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael take back to life – and towards the future. From burial to betrothal, it emphasizes the extent to which life must go on, and grief must not be the sole emotion.

In a particularly moving, complicated vignette, we read of Isaac encountering Rebecca for the first time. Neither knew the person to whom they would be betrothed. Both seem overwhelmed by emotion – perhaps surprised that love or lust could break through Isaac’s grief and Rebecca’s anxieties about leaving her family.

We read in Genesis 24: 63-67:

And Isaac went out walking in the field toward evening, and, looking up, he saw camels approaching.

Raising her eyes, Rebekah saw Isaac. She alighted from the camel

And said to the servant, “Who is that man walking in the field toward us?” And the servant said, “That is my master.” So she took her veil and covered herself.

The servant told Isaac all the things that he had done.

Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death.

The renowned commentator Rashi makes much of Rebekah covering herself with a veil, suggesting that it was similar to “burying” herself insofar as she occluded herself from view. Yet this death could be reversed with love. Isaac goes into the tent he still identifies with his mother but finds life renewed and the possibility of new love, even after such a profound loss.

In contrast to other descriptions of intimacy, the Torah specifies that Isaac “loved” Rebecca. While Isaac did not stop grieving for his mother, he “found comfort” after her death – thereby adding to the breadth of his emotional experiences.

Insofar as grief and pain reduce our ability to feel a fuller spectrum of emotions, healing can come as we stretch the breadth of our feelings and allow ourselves into joyful experiences anew.

I have seen this repeatedly at Jewish weddings over the past month. Each one acknowledged the pain and complexity of the present time for Jews everywhere – and then allowed in Joy as a response to Jewish grief or even an act of defiance against those who which is to feel only pain. While asking joy of those in grief places an unfair burden upon the bereaved, seeking joy as those who feel grief-stricken is not only an appropriate Jewish response to these dark times but an enduring tradition that gives us permission to feel both sadness and joy at the same time.

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