What do we do when our Jewish practices are painful, when instead of anticipation and joy one is filled with hesitancy and dread?
My father passed away unexpectedly on December 31st, 2016, the second night of The holiday which celebrates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem following its conquest by the Syrians in 165 BCE. The holiday is celebrated by lighting candles in a hanukiyah oon each of eight nights. Other customs include the eating of fried foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiot (jelly donuts), playing dreidl (a gambling game with a spinning top), and, in present day America, gift giving.. Since his passing I have lit the entire hanukkiah, tasted the new fruits and bounty in the Tu B’Shevat Lit. Order. The festive meal conducted on Passover night, in a specific order with specific rituals to symbolize aspects of the Exodus from Egypt. It is conducted following the haggadah, a book for this purpose. The mystics of Sefat also created a seder for Tu B'shvat, the new year of the trees., tried to experience the joy of Lit. "Lots." A carnival holiday celebrated on the 14th of the Jewish month of Adar, commemorating the Jewish victory over the Persians as told in the Book of Esther. Purim is celebrated by reading the megilla (Book of Esther), exchanging gifts, giving money to the poor, and holding a festive meal. At the megilla reading, merrymakers are dressed in costumes, people drink, and noisemakers (graggers) are sounded whenever the villain Haman's name is mentioned., and just recently retold the story of our peoples’ exodus from slavery during Passover is a major Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jewish people's liberation from slavery and Exodus from Egypt. Its Hebrew name is Pesakh. Its name derives from the tenth plague, in which God "passed over" the homes of the Jewish firstborn, slaying only the Egyptian firstborn. Passover is celebrated for a week, and many diaspora Jews celebrate for eight days. The holiday begins at home at a seder meal and ritual the first (and sometimes second) night. Jews tell the story of the Exodus using a text called the haggadah, and eat specific food (matzah, maror, haroset, etc).. But all these holidays have been tinged with the color of sadness. As I float through the Jewish calendar a part of me cannot fully engage with the natural rhythm of my people because every holiday I realize again and again that this is the first without my father.
Now with the counting of the From the second day of Passover until Shavuot, Jews count seven weeks – seven times seven days – to commemorate the period between the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. When the Temple stood, a certain measure (omer) of barley was offered on the altar each day; today, we merely count out the days. I am reminded daily, as I take up my Lit. Order of prayers. The prayer book. to say the A blessing, that another day passes without my father here. This is a natural thought as one grieves following a loved one’s passing, but to have an obligation to count each passing day is a painful practice. What do we do when our Jewish practices are painful, when instead of anticipation and joy one is filled with hesitancy and dread?
Life, unfortunately, is filled with grief, challenge, depression, and other struggles. At every Jewish holiday there is someone around us dealing with the loss of a loved one, the loss of a beloved pet, depression, a recent diagnosis of cancer, or many of life’s challenges and dark experiences. In Judaism there is tremendous pressure to be fully present in our Jewish ritual moments and practices, but how do we do this when we are in the dark moments of life or we just don’t have the capability to fully engage or be joyful about the Jewish holiday/practice?
I decided to turn this period of counting the Omer into a ritual practice that is connected to my grief. We can and should encourage one another to participate in Jewish life from the authentic space we occupy at that moment, even if it is a space of darkness. Every night I sit with the attributes of the day, viewing them through the lens of the grief process. I am kind to myself; I don’t expect it to be a long and tedious exercise but merely a time for quiet and reflection, a time for sitting with the pain and the grief and seeking growth and inspiration in the daily attributes.
Some examples of the ways in which I have processed grief through the Omer counting practice are shared below. This lens can be applied throughout the Omer to the different attributes of each day. If you, too, have found challenges to the Omer practice due to grief or other difficulties, I’d love for you to share what you’ve learned in comments below.
Day 1: Lit. Kindness It is said in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that the world stands on three things: Torah (learning), Avodah (worship), and Gemilut Hasidim (acts of kindness). sh’be’Hesed
One must begin from a place of lovingkindness when feeling grief, and when the lovingkindness becomes thin, one must focus on compounding lovingkindness upon loving kindness. (This is the only foundation to healing.)
Day 2: Gevurah sh’be’Hesed
Gevurah can be translated as discipline. One definitely has to have discipline to practice loving kindness towards oneself and this discipline is especially hard while grieving. It is so simple and natural to want to give up oneself to the grieving process, to just stop moving forward but is that practicing loving kindness to oneself? It is also easy, while grieving, to scrutinize last moments with our loved ones: I didn’t spend enough time, I didn’t call enough, I didn’t leave saying I love you. Practicing the discipline of loving kindness is to allow that judgement to float away, to practice saying I did the best I could and I lived loving them through my actions every day.
Day 5: Hod sh’be’Hesed
Hod is sometimes defined as sincerity. Therefore I must be sincere when I say I’m not sure this ritual is one of true loving kindness. I think about my father and the hole in my heart daily but to have 5 minutes of space to really think about it, spiritually, feels really hard. (In this moment sincere loving kindness can only be expressed to myself by acknowledging this is hard, I’m not sure if this is a healing process, and sincerely with every atom of loving kindness in my body, I miss my father.) There is a void. Acknowledging the truth of the situation and my true feelings feels the best way to exhibit sincere loving kindness to the grieving process. This is real, I was totally unprepared, and it hurts.