Balancing Grief and Gratitude

Sent to my congregation, Hill Havurah, on April 24th, 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic:

I’ve been noticing a pattern in conversations lately, and I wonder if you’ve noticed it, too. So many people I speak with, regardless of what they’re going through—the illness or loss of a loved one, loss of work and income, stir-craziness, a missed milestone, a cancelled trip, missing loved ones, and more—folks say a variation on the same thing: “I shouldn’t complain. We have it so good compared to some folks.” I’ve been impressed with the extent to which folks have been able to summon that level of perspective—and I’m also a little bit worried about what happens when we’re going through trauma (and I think we are, to varying degrees) without feeling able to talk openly about it and grieve what we’ve lost.

Many of you are familiar with the teaching of Reb Simcha Bunem of Pshischa, that a person should carry one slip of paper in each pocket. On one paper should be written, “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27), and on the other should be written, “The world was created for me” (Talmud Sanhedrin 37b). When we’re feeling too full of ourselves, Reb Simcha taught, we should look at the first slip of paper. When we’re feeling too insecure, we should look at the second. We naturally oscillate between the two extremes, and this spiritual practice can help us find a balance.

I’d like to make an argument for a similar practice during this time, but around a balance between feelings of gratitude and plenty (“I’m blessed. I shouldn’t complain. There are other folks in way worse shape right now”) and feelings of grief and disappointment (“This is a mess. I feel awful. I am so let down”). To that end, I offer two new texts to keep as real or metaphorical slips of paper in our pockets right now:

From “Modim Anakhnu Lakh” in the Amidah:

עַל נִסֶּיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יום עִמָּנוּ.

Your miracles are with us every day.

From Eicha (Lamentations) 1:16:

עַל־אֵ֣לֶּה ׀ אֲנִ֣י בוֹכִיָּ֗ה עֵינִ֤י.

For these, my eyes cry.

Yes, we experience miracles every day. And yes, we have reasons to cry. Both are true. This week, during the Omer, the 49 days between Pesakh and Shavuot, we’re focusing on Tiferet and Rakhamim—the balance and beauty of compassion. My hope for each one of us this Shabbat is that we find some space for balance between grief and gratitude; awareness of our abundance and also our anger. When we need to grieve our losses and honor our fear and sadness, let’s give ourselves the space to pull out the text from Eicha. When we’re able to remember our many blessings, let’s allow ourselves to pull out the words from Modim Anakhnu Lakh. Each one of us has ample opportunities for both.

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