Friday, August 12, 2022

Consolation, Not Closure


Der Neunte Ab. Maurycy TREBACZ (Warsaw 1861- 1941 Łódź Ghetto).
 “Closure” has become part of our everyday vocabulary. While the word has its origins in psychology, today it refers to the popular notion that there are rituals and practices that can rid one of grief. What exactly one must do to achieve closure is unclear, but closure is purported to banish the anguish of profound loss and allow one to start over again.
Certainly, there are times when we truly need to let go of the past. After ending a relationship or leaving a job, one needs a fresh start. Whatever helps with accomplishing that is certainly useful.
But closure is now considered to be the ultimate goal of mourners as well. Those who have lost beloved relatives are counseled to quickly get over their misery, whether they like it or not. That’s why I dislike the word “closure”; it is often applied in ways that are self-centered and superficial. Closure comforts the mourner by forgetting the one who is being mourned.
Closure's popularity has a lot to do with our therapeutic culture, which focuses more on comfort than meaning. Even Jewish mourning rituals are judged by their effectiveness in achieving closure (i.e., shiva is good because it helps with closure, but 12 months of abstaining from celebrations gets in the way of “moving on”).
Champions of closure view grief the same way a child looks at a rainy day: an obstacle to fun that is best removed as soon as possible. I’ve seen good-intentioned people advise grieving families right after the funeral that “they have to move on.” Those who are more psychologically adept will talk about the need to work through the five stages of grief to achieve closure, as if you need to get your psychic passport stamped five times before getting released from grief. 
The grief-stricken cannot help but remember; for them memory is a compulsion, the central thread in a recurring loop of bereavement. But as the tragedy ages, memory becomes a choice and forgetfulness a possibility. The Talmud remarks that one begins to forget the deceased after 12 months; the mind begins to erase the past to make room for the future. In many ways, closure happens on its own.
Yet there are many Jewish rituals that specifically counter closure. Kaddish, Yizkor, and Yahrzeit are customs meant to reawaken our memories of the deceased. It is not uncommon during Yizkor to see people weeping for parents who had passed away decades earlier. Rav Akiva Eiger suggests that the very purpose of placing a tombstone is to arrest the instinctive process of forgetfulness, which stands as a memorial to the deceased. We always remember, and never move on.

But it is through memory that consolation arrives. At the shiva, visitors sit with the mourners and share memories of the deceased; and when it all ends, they stand up and say, “May the Lord console you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.” How does consolation suddenly appear amidst the gloom of a shiva house? By allowing the mourner to continue their connection with the deceased. Mourning is not just an inconvenient emotion; it’s our way of continuing to love, even if the only way we can love is with a broken heart. That love is what offers us consolation.

Rav Zadok of Lublin and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch both note that the Hebrew word for consolation, “nechama,” can also mean regret. And they explain that the similarity between regret and consolation is that both involve reconsideration of what has occurred. For mourners, the realization that someone is gone, but not forgotten, is profoundly comforting. Even after death their legacy lives on. And at every shiva house, at every yartzeit, we reconnect to those we love, and we are consoled.

Seven months after my mother’s death, my niece gave birth to a baby girl; the baby was to be named on Shabbat morning. That Saturday night, we got a call informing us of the baby’s name. As expected, the baby was named after my mother. I sat down in a corner and cried, overwhelmed by the twin realizations that my mother was both gone, but not forgotten. I cried for my loss, yet at the same time, took enormous pride in the legacy my mother had left us.
It was a moment of grief and consolation. And I am not alone in this emotion; at baby namings and brises, look at the faces of the grandparents, who are crying. These are tears of joy and grief, the tears of true consolation.
This search for consolation is part of the Jewish calendar. We spent the three weeks leading up to Tisha B'Av reenacting the tragedy of the destruction, and then, for the following seven weeks, we read haftarot of consolation.

We spend more time emphasizing consolation than grief because consolation is a far more challenging task. It is easy to seek closure and leave the past behind. But to carry grief with you and simultaneously have hope and optimism is a far more difficult task.

Yet this is what the Jewish people have done for two millennia. We made sure never to forget; we continued to mourn the churban, the destruction, as if it just happened. We consoled ourselves with memories of Israel and Jerusalem, and dreams of a future redemption.

After 1900 years of exile, we did return home. Israel honors the legacy of two millennia of Jews who kept the memory of their homeland alive. And for the Jewish people, it gives us consolation that their dreams have finally been achieved.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin tells the following story about an acquaintance, Rav Schwartz, who was a Holocaust survivor who had lost his first wife and children during the war. After the war, he remarried and had two sons; and in 1964, the family made aliyah and moved to Israel. Tragically, the first son was killed in the Six Day War. And toward the end of the Yom Kippur War, their second son, their only remaining son, was killed in action as well. Rabbi Riskin was in Israel, and describes the shiva visit:
The Schwartzes lived at 8 Shimoni Street in a small apartment, and there must have been close to a hundred people who had come to try to console them. The Rav and Rebbetzin, who looked much, much older than I remembered them, were sitting on cushions on the floor. Everyone else was standing. The room was heavy with the press of the people and with an ominous and shrieking silence, a silence that seemed to scream out to the very heavens.
The Rav and his wife were sitting and not speaking, so no one was speaking. I stood in the back of the room for about twenty minutes. I didn’t even know if Rav Schwartz remembered me at all. … I began to leave, and, as I did so, I walked past Rav and Rebbetzin Schwartz, saying what one always says when one leaves a house of mourning: “HaMakom yenachem etchem betoch she’ar avelei Tziyon vee’rushalayim. May the Almighty console you among the rest of the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”
Rav Schwartz looked up at me. “Rav Riskin, yes?” “Yes,” I replied. “Rav Riskin,” he said, “why is the subject of the prayer that you express to a mourner, ‘HaMakom’? ‘HaMakom’ means place. Yes, in this context it’s a synonym for God because the whole world is God’s place. But wouldn’t it have made more sense for consolers to say ‘HaShem yenachem etchem, ‘May the God of compassion console you,’ or ‘May Elokim, the God of creation console you.’ Why use ‘HaMakom,’ the place?
“I’ll tell you why,” he continued, “I understand it now for the first time. When my family was destroyed in the Holocaust, there was no comforting me; it was so senseless, so absurd. But now that I have lost my only remaining sons and have no chance for other children, I am sad, sad beyond even the ability to speak, but I am comforted nevertheless. At least this time my sons died so that the Jewish people could live. They died in defense of Israel. They died in defense of Yerushalayim. They died in defense of the Jewish future. ‘HaMakom,’ the place: Jerusalem, Israel, the Jewish State. HaMakom menachem oti, the place comforts me among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Every time we walk in Israel, we don’t walk alone; there are myriad souls accompanying us: those who prayed for this land, those who dreamed of this land, those who fought for this land stand alongside us every step of the way. The great consolation of Jewish history is that the State of Israel is their eternal legacy. And it is this makom, this place, that truly honors their memories, and they continue to live on in the hearts of those who love Zion and Jerusalem.

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