Friday, July 30, 2004

The Art of Mourning

Tragedies don’t have silver linings; they are black holes of sadness filled with pure pain. There is nothing good about death and destruction. Considering this, it would make sense for us to push tragedies out of our minds. So why do Jews focus on catastrophes?

Indeed, year after year, we have days of mourning for the various traumas of our history: exile, the destruction of the Temples, internecine strife and the Holocaust. Even on the holidays, we say Yizkor, a memorial prayer for family members who have died. We continually pick away at old wounds, repeatedly reviewing and remembering our saddest moments.

Why not forget? Some selective amnesia could make our lives, and our history, a lot more palatable. We could “move on”, and stop paying attention to dead relatives. We could consider the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and all the exiles and expulsions to be the irrelevant past, events that could only interest professional historians. And in so doing, the uncomfortable burden of Jewish history would finally be lifted off our shoulders. Perhaps we might even be happier.

Yet we make a point of revisiting our national and personal traumas. We do so because mourning is not merely a form of suffering; it can be a supremely creative act as well. There is a Jewish art of mourning. This remarkable art is actually a form of alchemy; it allows us to take the emptiness of suffering and transform it into redemption.

How does this happen? Well, first of all, we have to realize that discomfort is not such a bad thing. Who will change the world? The complacent, happy with their suburban homes and pensions? Serious change always begins with righteous anger. We revisit these dark moments to remind us that complacency in the presence of evil is the same as complicity to evil.

Even sadness can spur a positive response. Excess sadness can be extremely dangerous, and lead to debilitating depression. Yet the art of mourning can find a positive use for sadness as well. This is best expressed by the verse “and you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The newly freed slave may not become a master; he must become an abolitionist. The Torah is teaching us that the response to tragedy may not be depression or cynicism or hatred; the only correct response is compassion. Rather than feeding an endless cycle of violence, the suffering stranger is commanded to transform his anguish into love.

Tragedy and suffering in and of themselves are empty, meaningless events. But it is still possible to offer a meaningful response to suffering. The art of mourning is to use tragic memories as a roadmap for fixing the world. And in this way, the art of mourning becomes the first step on the road to redemption.

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