Thursday, April 29, 2021

Disabilities and Divine Eyeglasses

Can a disabled person be a spiritual leader? The answer might seem simple, but it’s not. The reason why it is a challenging question is because of this week's Torah reading, something I first realized when I confronted it directly.

On the weekend of Parshat Emor, in 2009, my synagogue held a unique Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebration. The celebrants were a group of 6 adults, most in their forties and fifties, who had never had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. They were residents at the Miriam Home, a Montreal institution which provides services for intellectually disabled adults. These Bnei Mitzvah had turned 12 and 13 at a time when developmentally disabled children were hidden away, and because of that, they had been excluded from a ceremony that every Jewish child takes for granted.

On Thursday morning we held a rehearsal to acclimate the participants. As the press cameras rolled, I took out the Torah, and began to call up the men to practice their aliyot. As part of the rehearsal, I read the Torah between aliyot. And then, there it was, right in front of me: the section that declares that a baal mum, a blemished Kohen (priest), cannot serve in the Temple. A Kohen who has a broken hand or broken foot, who is a hunchback or a dwarf, who is blind, lame, or has scurvy, cannot serve before God in the Temple. I was shocked. How could we read this passage on the very week we were honoring the disabled? I thought of using the time-tested Rabbinic technique of ignoring uncomfortable topics, and in my sermon, talk about something else. But the more I thought about it, the more I recognized that this coincidence was not a coincidence, and that I was being called upon to deal directly with this issue.

That Shabbat morning I offered a response, which concluded that the reason why the baal mum is disqualified from serving in the Temple is because the community would be too superficial to accept them. The real blemish of the baal mum is in the hearts of the average man, and the physical blemish on the Kohen does not diminish him at all in the eyes of God. The Torah is holding a mirror to the community and its inability to look past appearances.

I knew this was a radical approach, but that morning, it was obvious to me that it was the correct one. But this idea is controversial. Three years later, this very same issue was the topic of serious debate in Israel. Rav Benny Lau wrote an article in which he concluded that the Torah’s reason for disqualifying the baal mum is because they were once considered undesirable; however, if the attitudes of the community changed, so would the Halakhah. This article drew a sharp response from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, who saw this argument as a deviation from standard Halakhic methodology.  Rav Lau responded, explaining that he was emphasizing that all too often, Halakhic stringency is applied to those with disabilities. In the end, both sides agreed about the importance of ethical sensitivity and respecting the integrity of the Halakhic system, and differed mostly on emphasis and nuance.

This debate was primarily about the Halakhic process, and how to apply it regarding those who are disabled. But what motivated me that Thursday morning was a different question: When a disabled person reads Parshat Emor, what is it saying to them?

The Zohar writes that the blemished Kohen is disqualified is because “holiness on high cannot dwell in a blemished place.” (The Magen Avraham explains that the Zohar’s view would bar a person with a physical blemish from serving as the chazan; however, he notes that the vast majority of Halakhic authorities disagree with the Zohar.) The Zohar’s perspective is both shocking and painful to those with disabilities. But a very different understanding of the Torah reading comes from the Rambam. In the Moreh Nevukhim (III:45), he writes:

“In order to raise the estimation of the Temple, those who ministered therein received great honour: and the priests and Levites were therefore distinguished from the rest. It was commanded that the priests should be clothed properly with beautiful and good garments, "holy garments for glory and for beauty" (Exod. xxviii. 2). A priest that had a blemish was not allowed to officiate; and not only those that had a blemish were excluded from the service, but also--according to the Talmudic interpretation of this precept--those that had an abnormal appearance; for the multitude does not estimate man by his true form but by the perfection of his bodily limbs and the beauty of his garments, and the temple was to be held in great reverence by all.”

The Rambam explains that the clothing and physical appearance of the Kohen were a question of aesthetics; they needed to dress well and look good to gain the respect of the multitude. The very use of the word “multitude” tells you everything you need to know about this passage; to the Rambam, the multitude are the uneducated masses who are unable to understand the deeper truths of the Torah. The Rambam is teaching us that a blemished Kohen is disqualified because the multitude won’t respect him. The disqualification of the blemished Kohen is a concession to the bitter reality that people judge others by their appearances.

And this reality remains true to this day. Multiple studies have shown that voters are deeply influenced by how a politician looks, so much so, it can often decide the winner. And this superficiality has gotten worse since the advent of TV. As Neil Postman notes in Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, William Howard Taft would never get elected today because of his appearance. Physical appearance plays a larger role today than it did 200 years ago.

The section on the baal mum challenges us to recognize our own spiritual blindness, and how we subconsciously diminish those with physical and intellectual disabilities. Throughout history, multiple societies have stigmatized, mistreated and even murdered the disabled. Due to social pressure, people with intellectual disabilities were often hidden away, their very existence treated as a secret. Up to just a few years ago there was little possibility for an intellectually disabled child to have a large, well attended, public Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It was considered dramatic when Vice President Hubert Humphrey spoke about his granddaughter having Down syndrome in the 1960s, and many look back at that as a turning point in changing people’s attitudes. But change has come very slowly. For too long, people simply couldn’t see the person beyond the disability.

I learned that Thursday morning how to see things differently. Human vision is clouded by the superficial and the subjective. There is a powerful verse in the Book of Samuel that says that “Man sees only with his eyes, but God sees into the heart.” Humanity’s perspective is shallow, limited by what our eyes can see. We all need a pair of Divine eyeglasses.

On that Shabbat morning in 2009, we celebrated a remarkable Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Nearly 700 people crowded into the synagogue to be a part of this event.  In front of us were six people whose hearts were full of joy and pride. We clapped each time someone was called to the Torah, said a prayer, or read a speech. Time and again, these belated Bnei Mitzvah got a standing ovation. In their restrained demeanor and gentle words we could see the long road they had taken in search of dignity, and all the struggles they had faced. And most of all, their faces radiated love; you could immediately sense the connection between the participants and everyone in the room. Everyone in the synagogue cried, smiled, and then cried and smiled again. It was a transcendent moment.

One of the participants turned to me and said: “Thank you for making my dream come true.” But it was not only her dream; it was everyone’s dream. That morning, an entire synagogue was able to see past superficial disabilities and appreciate the gifts of love, friendship, and community. And for a few short moments, we were all wearing Divine eyeglasses.

This week, when I read the Parsha, I will put on my Divine eyeglasses. I will see everyone around me differently, and give them the love and respect they truly deserve.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Selfish Person's Guide to Love

Self-interest has a bad moral reputation; it seems so ugly when compared to love. Self-interest is egotistical and materialistic, while love is beautiful enough that one can imagine a world built on love alone; as the Beatles put it: “All you need is love.” This negative reputation is undeserved, because self-interest is absolutely critical. The Talmud tells of a time when the Rabbis captured the evil inclination and society immediately fell apart. Desire and self-interest make the world a better place.

Sometimes idealists ignore their own interests; that too is a mistake. I had a friend in Montreal who constantly would tell me that “You need to take care of your mother's son” (i.e., myself). It was his way of pointing out that if there is a moral obligation to help others, it should be accompanied by a moral obligation to help yourself. The ethics of self-interest is a significant issue in Halakhah, and the subject of the following passage in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 62a):

Two people were walking on a desolate path and they had only one jug of water; if both drink from the jug, both will die, but if only one of them drinks, he will survive long enough to reach a settled area. Ben Petora taught: It is preferable that both of them drink and die, and let neither one of them see the death of the other. This was the accepted opinion until Rabbi Akiva came and taught that the verse states: “And your brother shall live with you,” indicating that your life takes precedence over the life of the other.

Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petora debate whether you are allowed to put your life before the lives of others. This question has long interested philosophers. Rabbi Saul Lieberman notes that a similar moral dilemma is posed by Cicero. But this Talmudic passage came to the forefront in the last century in a debate regarding the role of love in Jewish thought.

In 1910, Ahad Ha'am wrote an essay attacking the views of Claude Montefiore on love. Montefiore was a great-nephew of Moses Montefiore, and a renowned Jewish leader and scholar. Montefiore had just completed a commentary to the Gospels, in which he argued that the New Testament at times better expressed the essence of Judaism than the Talmud. Montefiore focused on the Christian ideal of love as one that kept to the “prophetic temperament.” Ahad Ha'am responded by attacking the very idea that love should be a society’s fundamental value; instead, he argues that justice is a more appropriate moral foundation. He points to this Talmudic passage in Bava Metzia, which instructs the person with the jug to drink the water, even though his companion will die. Ahad Ha’am explains Rabbi Akiva’s ruling as an imperative for people to take care of themselves first before caring for others. Ethics must be objective, and take into account what is good for everyone in equal measure. This, he explains, is why you are meant to love your neighbor as yourself. Even our love for others must not undermine our love for ourselves, and this love must ensure that both parties are treated with respect. (Ahad Ha’am adds that this is true of nations as well; to pursue peace should not require you to renounce your own existence.) Ahad Ha’am asserts that it is unethical to sacrifice yourself for others.

Ahad Ha’am’s view is both right and wrong at the same time. Yes, you can’t expect self-sacrifice from everyone. But one is permitted to be a hero. Rav Avraham Isaac Kook argues that even Rabbi Akiva would allow the owner of the jug to offer the water to their friend, so that the friend will live instead of them. Rabbi Akiva simply says: Don’t split the water and die together. The ruling is pragmatic, demanding that at least one person use this water to live. But, of course, a hero may choose to give his life to save the lives of others. Rav Kook’s view is more than an academic ruling; in the course of history, many a hero has chosen to sacrifice their own life for the sake of others.

Ahad Ha’am’s mistake is in failing to recognize that there are two levels of ethics. There is one of justice, which is based on the understanding that “What’s mine is mine and what's yours is yours” (Avot 5:10). Without this reasonable foundation, society would disintegrate. But there is a higher level of ethical standards, that of the “chasid,” the pious individuals, who will offer unreciprocated kindness and go beyond the letter of the law. They are the heroes who will hand the other person the last bottle of water, and jump on a grenade to protect their fellow soldiers.

Most of us are not at the level of the “chasid,” and struggle with love. We struggle precisely because of what Rabbi Akiva taught; we cannot expect an ordinary person to sacrifice themselves for others. God created humanity with an inborn self-interest, which is critical to ensure that we take care of ourselves. But at the same time, this self-interest makes it difficult to put others first. 

But what if our egos could teach us how to love? This is not as absurd as it sounds. Rav Shimon Shkop, in the introduction to his Sha’arei Yosher, discusses our problem: We have a God-given instinct for self-love, and at the same time are commanded to love others. How can we reconcile these diametrically opposed demands? His solution is brilliant. He says that the commandment to love others is a command to redefine who we are. He writes that: The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people... And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love ... all of creation.

This is how a selfish person can learn how to love; by seeing themselves as interconnected with everyone around them. For many of us, we experience this feeling with family. Rav Shimon Shkop reminds us that we can take this idea further, and embrace an even larger definition of what “I” means; we can learn to identify ourselves completely with the Jewish people, all of humanity, and even all living beings. This oceanic feeling that we are a part of a larger whole allows us to redefine ourselves, and redefine our self-interest.

Rav Aryeh Levin was known as the Tzadik of Jerusalem because of his exceptional compassion. There's an oft repeated anecdote about the day he took his wife to the doctor. When they entered into the doctor’s office, Rav Aryeh blurted out, “My wife's foot is hurting us.” Rav Aryeh’s total identification with his wife is inspiring, and to this day this anecdote is used by marriage instructors in Israeli yeshivot as the paradigm of what a good marriage is all about. But Rav Aryeh’s example goes beyond marriage, and is the perfect illustration of what love ought to be. Love is not about sacrificing yourself; it is about embracing others as a part of your own identity. Then, when you embrace others, offering devotion isn’t a sacrifice.

No man is an island, and the welfare of others is my welfare, as well. With this realization, even the most self-interested of people can learn how to love.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

What Gossip Destroys


Gossip is wrong. We shouldn’t reveal embarrassing secrets about others, and we certainly shouldn’t repeat slanders that will hurt their reputation. The Torah prohibits lashon hara, “negative speech,” including gossip and slander. In the past century, thanks to the publication of Sefer Chofetz Chaim by Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, the laws of lashon hara are very much a part of the ethics curriculum in Jewish schools.

It is easy to see the laws of lashon harah as a form of domestic ethics, a way to make sure that friends don’t hurt friends. But Maimonides offers a revolutionary insight into lashon hara. He sees within gossip and slander a malignant perspective on life, one which is corrosive to the speaker’s character and detrimental to society.

Maimonides himself was the subject of many personal attacks in his lifetime. Several of his letters offer glimpses to how he responded to these controversies. In a letter to Yaphet, the judge of Acre, Maimonides writes that through the years, informers plotted against his life. In another series of letters to his student Joseph ben Judah in Bagdad, Maimonides instructs his student on how to respond to a local controversy about his recently published Mishneh Torah. The Gaon of Babylonia, Samuel ben Eli, had disparaged Maimonides and the Mishneh Torah; he and his son-in-law Zechariah had issued a series of criticisms, and claimed that they could have written a much better book than Mishneh Torah in a very short period of time. As Maimonides notes in his letters to Joseph, the Babylonian leadership was threatened by his stature. Samuel ben Eli still clung to the dream that the Gaon of Babylonia would be the Rabbinic leader of the entire Jewish world; the presence of other great rabbis like Maimonides was a threat to his dream. Samuel and his cohort had ample motivation to belittle Maimonides and his works. But Maimonides explains that he himself is not concerned by these attacks, that he remains silent in response, and when he meets his attackers, he speaks to them politely. Maimonides advises Joseph to be “among the insulted and not among the insulting,” and to hold his tongue. 

These letters remind us that Maimonides was not just a brilliant author; he was also a communal leader. He lived his life in the public eye, and despite - or perhaps because of - his extraordinary brilliance, he attracted more than his fair share of controversy throughout his life. It is for this reason that what Maimonides has to say about slander, rumors, and disparagement is very significant.

Lashon hara is a topic in this week's Torah reading. The Torah describes the regulations surrounding the afflictions of tzaraat, skin lesions that have a similarity to leprosy. Included in the regulations is that the person afflicted with tzaraat is sent to live far away from the camp or city. Later in the Bible, there is a strong hint that these afflictions are a punishment for speaking lashon hara. Miriam speaks ill about her brother Moshe, and is immediately punished with tzaraat. This connection is further developed by the Talmud, Midrash and a legion of later commentaries. At first glance, the connection between tzaraat and lashon hara is obvious. Speaking gossip creates ill will between people, and exiling the one who speaks lashon hara protects the community from a divisive personality who slanders others.

It is fascinating that Maimonides took a very different approach to tzaraat. In the Mishneh Torah, at the end of the laws of leprosy, he offers a lengthy explanation of the prohibition against gossip. (This is one of the longest non-halakhic digressions in the entire Mishneh Torah.) Maimonides explains that lashon hara is not always about spite or animosity; even Miriam, who loved her brother dearly, spoke lashon hara about Moshe. Rather, lashon hara reflects an attitude of disrespect; they are the words of the cynical, people who lose sight of the true value of everything. Maimonides explains this has far reaching implications, and lashon hara can lead to a loss of faith in both God and humanity. He writes: In this vein, Psalms states: "They set their mouths against Heaven and their tongues strut on earth." What caused them to "set their mouths against Heaven?" Their tongues, which previously were given free rein on earth. This is the speech of the wicked that is caused by loitering on the street corners, frequenting the assemblies of commoners, and spending time at the parties of drunkards. Slander and gossip reflect a mindset of irony and sarcasm, a mindset that flourishes in the boozy gatherings of callous and uncaring fools. To Maimonides, the great evil of lashon hara is that it degrades the intellect and undermines values. Lashon hara begins with ones’ neighbors but then proceeds to the mockery of everything, insulting and undermining even that which is holy and wholesome.

Maimonides offers a very different understanding of the prohibition against lashon hara. In his view, the true harm caused by lashon hara comes from negativity and cynicism. It destroys our virtues by mocking nearly anything and forgetting the value of everything. (It should be noted that this cynicism is very different than criticism. It is not interested in evaluation, just denigration.)

We live in a dark age of lashon hara, facilitated in large part by the internet and social media. The first time I got attacked on the internet was back in 2001. I had written an article that was later posted to a Jewish law website. It was an in-depth, nuanced exploration of Rabbinic sources on the controversial issue of rabbis writing letters to parole boards on behalf of convicted criminals. It quickly received a scathing comment. This comment really bothered me; its language was nasty, its tone dismissive, and it questioned my character. From the looks of it, it was pretty clear the commenter hadn't read the article, just the headline. Over the years, I have come to realize that such comments are pretty ordinary, and that thoughtless, nasty, and harsh criticism is very much a part of internet culture. There is an entire vocabulary for the online bullying that takes place in social media, such as dunking and trolls. Respectable people get on Twitter and lose their minds; they engage in virulent attacks against strangers with whom they have political disagreements. An ugly subculture of people who look to embarrass and mock others has flourished; remarkably, many of those people are quite nice in person. Reasoned debate and civil discourse have been replaced by 140 character insults.

It is this type of criticism to which Maimonides is referring when he speaks about the ills of lashon hara. This type of negative speech is much more than a social ill. It actually is an intellectual pollutant, a noisy screech that prevents the small, still voice of goodness from being heard. Maimonides reminds us that a society built on gratuitous abuse will spiritually collapse. That's something to think about next time you read a snarky remark on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Alcohol, Intoxication, and Inspiration

Rabbi Eliyahu Guttmacher (1796-1874) was the Tsadik of Gr├Ątz, a brilliant Talmudic scholar and mystic to whom thousands of Jews flocked for blessings and advice. A collection of kvitlach addressed to him are found in the archives of the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research. (Kvitlach are notes addressed to rabbis, with requests that the rabbi pray on behalf of the person or offer them a blessing.) Glenn Dynner, in his book Yankel's Tavern: Jews, Liquor, and Life in the Kingdom of Poland, cites several of these notes that relate to drinking problems that were destroying families. One note, from Solomon ben Reizel, includes the admission that he "drinks a lot of liquor to the point it makes him drunk, and because of this he has no domestic tranquility." He asked for a prayer that God "have mercy on him and guard him so that he doesn't drink anymore."  Another, from Isaac Eizik ben Rachel, describes how he "drinks more liquor than he needs, and so he beats his children, so he asks for a cure for this" from Rabbi Guttmacher. Problem drinking was not restricted to scattered individuals; a popular Mussar work from the late 1600s, Kav Hayashar, condemns those who drink early in the morning and show up to synagogue drunk.

At the same time, drinking was far less prevalent in the Polish Jewish community than in the surrounding population. Dynner quotes non-Jewish observers from 19th century Poland who write that “a Jewish drunk is hard to find” and that the “Jew is always sober.” This pattern continued on to the United States, where several studies from the 50s through 80s showed that Jews continued to have lower rates of alcoholism. There may be a genetic component to this, with the possibility that some Jews have an inborn aversion to drinking too much. However, this past advantage should not make us complacent; substance abuse and alcohol abuse is on the rise in the United States, and there is no reason to think that it is not on the rise in the Jewish community, as well. And more significantly, the myth that Jews don’t get drunk makes recovery far more difficult for Jewish alcoholics, who are afraid to reveal their condition because it makes them feel like they have failed the community.

Discussions about Judaism and drinking often focus on theories about why Jews drink less. Some argue that perhaps Jews learn to drink in moderation through the Shabbat Kiddush, which offers a ritual framework for the use of alcohol. (And Judaism, from the Bible onward, sees drinking in moderation as both respectable and enjoyable.). Another theory is that Jews see drinking as a defining difference between themselves and their non-Jewish neighbors. But there is really no evidence to back either view, and it is hard to know if any of these theories are valid. But one must look beyond sociology, and ask a different question: What is the Torah’s view of intoxication?

One of the attractions of drinking and drug use is the search for an alternate reality. The Midrash Tanchuma tells a story about a Torah scholar who is trying to convince his alcoholic father to change his ways. One day, the son sees a man drunk in the gutter; the Torah scholar hurries home to bring his father to witness the drunk’s humiliation, hoping it will change his father’s behavior. What is the father’s reaction? He asks the drunken man where he bought his wine! The son asks his father how he can continue to drink, when it is so obviously bad for him. And the father responds: “My son, in my life there is no greater pleasure, no greater Garden of Eden than this (drinking).” Intoxication offers the possibility of quick high, one that feels like ascending to heaven.

It is easy to confuse spirits with the spiritual. The very terminology of drinking overlaps with the religious, and drugs and alcohol are seen as a way to become “high.” In some religious cultures, like the Cult of Dionysus, intoxication becomes a spiritual experience.  And in ancient Hindu scripture, Soma, a mind-altering plant, is used to attain spiritual greatness.

In our Torah reading, a very different view of intoxication is offered. On the final day of the dedication ceremony for the new Sanctuary, Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, enter the Sanctuary and are struck dead. Their deaths are a mystery and it is unclear why they were struck dead.  The Midrash cites the opinion of Rabbi Yishmael, who notes that immediately after their deaths, the Torah commands “drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die.” Rabbi Yishmael infers from this juxtaposition that Nadav and Avihu were drunk when they entered the Sanctuary, which is why they were struck dead.

This view is shocking.  Samuel David Luzzatto writes, “It is impossible to believe that Nadav and Avihu drank wine on the morning of that awesome day.” But there may be another interpretation of Rabbi Yishmael’s view. He could be saying that Aharon’s sons drank wine for ritual purposes. In Ancient Egypt, during the 2nd millennium BCE, there was a “Tekh Festival” or “Feast of Drunkenness,” whose ritual is described by one Egyptologist as this: "It seems that in the Hall of Drunkenness, worshippers got drunk, slept, and then were woken by drummers to commune with the goddess Mut.” Sacred drinking existed in ancient Egypt; perhaps the sons of Aharon found that to be appealing, as well. Intoxication, with its ability to alter one’s mind, can be misunderstood as a pathway to the spiritual.

Rabbi Yishmael’s interpretation offers us a powerful lesson: Inspiration is never found through intoxication. We do not find a higher purpose by trying to escape reality, and drinking wine is not the road to spirituality. (It should be noted that although wine is used for Kiddush, it can be replaced with challah or grape juice. We use wine in Kiddush due to its social significance, because it is a beverage that is appropriate to offer to an honored guest.) The Talmud extends this lesson and forbids one to pray after drinking just a few ounces of wine. Intoxication is a false form of inspiration.

Peak performance in Judaism needs no enhancement; on the contrary, when you alter reality, you lose the clarity of mind needed to find true inspiration. As painful as life may be at times, salvation is not found in an alternative reality.  And even when carrying a difficult emotional load, inspiration can be found by turning back to life.

When I have given sermons on drinking in the past, people would approach me afterwards and say: “My name is xx xx, and I’m an alcoholic.” These people inspire me; they have taken the long road to recovery, despite the pain and difficulty involved. Recovery is about recognizing that life is more satisfying than any drug, and a sense of purpose is more meaningful than any pleasure. And that is the lesson of this passage in the Torah.   

Happiness is not found in a wine bottle or a pill container; true inspiration can only come from within.  This lesson is fundamental to recovery, but it is a valuable lesson for anyone seeking a meaningful life.

Thursday, April 01, 2021

Should We Celebrate When the Pandemic is Over?

Should we celebrate when the pandemic is over? As the vaccinations ramp up, there is finally a sense of optimism. After over a year of anxiety and isolation, we can reasonably predict the end of this pandemic and expect life to return to normal. But is it appropriate to celebrate our triumph over the coronavirus?

The coronavirus has caused exceptional suffering. There have been millions of deaths worldwide, and many more have been impacted by the psychological and financial effects of the pandemic. However, the impact of the pandemic has been uneven. The metaphor used, that we are all in the same storm but not in the same boat, is very accurate. Some have suffered greatly, and others have actually had a very good year. But that makes the moral foundation of this question even more profound: Is it appropriate for anyone to rejoice while so many people are still heartbroken?

Halakhah makes a sharp separation between mourning and celebration. The Bible tells us that “there is a time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for wailing and a time for dancing”- and Halakhah codifies this into practice. When a holiday arrives, we cancel the 7-day mourning period of shiva. When a burial occurs during a holiday, the shiva is deferred until after the conclusion of the holiday. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains that these two emotions of joy and mourning are in direct contradiction with each other; for this reason, Halakhah separates mourning from joy and gives each their own stage.  Ideally, we should experience joy and mourning separately, each in their proper time.

But we cannot always disentangle the moments of joy and grief. A child who loses a parent and inherits an estate makes two blessings, one to reflect their heartbreaking loss, and the other thanking God for their good fortune. On the holidays, we recite the Yizkor prayer, which remembers family and friends who have passed away. Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein asks the obvious question: How is it permissible to say Yizkor on the holidays, which are meant to be joyous? The answer, he says, lies in a deeper understanding of human emotions. There is permission given for mourners to cry on the holidays if it will give them comfort. It is unreasonable to expect a person to seal off their grief, even on a day of joy, and the tears of a mourner can bring them a sense of relief. For this reason, Yizkor has a role to play during the holiday, even though reciting this prayer will bring us to tears. 

Joy and sadness are frequently intertwined. The abundance of joy at a Pesach Seder will never fill the empty chair of a beloved grandparent. The abundance of grief at a shiva will never erase joyous memories. When the family brings out old photo albums, there is a mixture of laughter and tears, as joy and grief sit side by side. And this is true of life in general; to live an authentic life is to carry sorrows and joys together, with both sharing space within the same heart.

Yizkor is always filled with mixed emotions, a painful pause embedded in a day of celebration. Right now, those mixed emotions are more jarring than usual. It is Pesach, the festival of redemption, and this year, it is truly filled with hope for a better future. Seats in the synagogue are filling up, and people are happy to return now that they have been vaccinated. But there are some seats that will remain empty, and we have good friends who will never return. So, during Yizkor we will be remembering all of those who will never come back to our synagogue. And then we will have to return to our celebration. This is an emotional roller coaster.

Throughout its history, Israel has always had to navigate this clash of emotions. On June 7, 1967, the Israeli army captured the Temple Mount, returning Jewish sovereignty to the holiest place in Judaism for the first time in nearly 1900 years. The paratroopers joyously shouted recited the shehecheyanu prayer, and Rabbi Shlomo Goren sounded the shofar; audio of both are replayed in Israeli media every year. But when you listen to the full recording of that you hear something else: Rabbi Goren reciting a memorial prayer for the soldiers who had fallen in battle. And as he does so, you can hear the sound of weeping in the background, the victorious paratroopers crying for their fallen brethren. Even the greatest of miracles arrives with tears and heartbreak.

For this reason, Israel has placed its Memorial Day, Yom HaZikaron, on the day before its Independence Day, Yom HaAtzmaut. Without the courage, bravery and sacrifice of its soldiers, Israel would not exist. At the same time, the greatest way of honoring the legacy of those who have fallen is by building a vibrant country, one worth celebrating. Putting a day of mourning right before a day of rejoicing certainly brings out mixed emotions. That is as it should be, because carrying both of those emotions is our responsibility.

The Israeli paradigm is an appropriate one for the end of this pandemic. Life includes both the honey and the sting, the bitter and the sweet; we must embrace them both, because we cannot edit reality. Israel recognizes both, and even puts them together. And so it should be for us as we celebrate our triumph over the coronavirus.

Yes, we will celebrate when the pandemic is over, but we will not forget the pain, suffering and loss. Every holiday will have its Yizkor. Every Seder will have its empty seat. When we celebrate the reopening, we will remember those we have lost as well. The celebration would be incomplete without it.