Rabbi Reflection: Balancing Our Joy in Renewal with Our Awareness of Loss

"At the moment of awareness of loss, God is asked to remember the relationship, the connection with others."

By Rabbi Seth Wax 

The Zohar, the classic work of Jewish mysticism, introduces its readers to a dazzling array of dynamics that unfold within God. Qualities of love and compassion, of judgment and punishment, of creation and transformation, of beginnings and endings – all appear and interact in a variety of ways. While these qualities also appear in the biblical text and in the Talmud, in the Zohar they are presented in such a way that they invite us to participate in these dynamics and discover how they emerge within our own lives, as well.

We learn throughout the narrative of the Zohar that each night, God enters the heavenly Garden of Eden in order to delight in the souls of the righteous as they all create new words of Torah. It’s a striking image: nighttime is a time of creativity and generation, and the products of that unfolding are words and ideas of insight and holiness. God enjoys it when the righteous in this heavenly realm create words of Torah, and it is that production that brings life to all the worlds.

In one section of the Zohar (3:303a), however, something surprising happens. In the midst of this celebration and creation of new words of Torah, a voice awakens from the middle of the heavens and calls out in a loud voice, saying, “Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall; how they cried, ‘Strip her, strip her to her very foundations!’” (Psalms 137:7). This voice calls out a verse from the Psalms, a prayer of those who were exiled from Jerusalem when it was sacked by the Babylonians. And that voice calls out with a message of destruction for God to listen and pay attention to in the midst of heavenly joy.

Mixing our experiences of joy with a reminder of pain is a common practice in Jewish life. We conclude the wedding ceremony with the breaking of a glass and a reminder about the destruction of Jerusalem. In the middle of the summer, a time of leisure and joy, Jewish tradition offers the holiday of Tisha B’Av (observed this year on July 18), a time to mourn the losses of our people over the course of our history. At the most joyous moments of our lives, Judaism invites us to temper that joy with awareness of the brokenness in our world.

This reflection feels particularly apt at this moment in time. After more than a year of loss, fear, and uncertainty, our country and our region are moving out of the acute phases of the pandemic. In the Berkshires, more of us are enjoying all that our region has to offer in music, dance, and theater. And yet, we know that our joy is not complete. New variants of the virus are spreading, threatening our hard-earned accomplishments. Disasters, natural and human-created, still wreak havoc and create heartbreak. Even as we rediscover joy and celebration, our world is still broken.

Which is why I think this passage from the Zohar is especially helpful for us. Just as God is reminded of the reality of brokenness in the midst of the joy, something subtle yet remarkable takes place. For as soon as the voice of brokenness appears, another voice emerges in the heavenly realm. It, too, offers a verse from the Bible, as it calls out, “God remembers the covenant, the promise given for a thousand generations, made with Abraham” (Psalms 105:8-9). At the moment of awareness of loss, God is asked to remember the relationship, the connection with others. In particular, God here remembers Abraham. For the Zohar, Abraham represents love, connection, and service. Abraham is the figure who cares for all beings, running out to offer them what they need. So when a voice calls out, God is reminded of God's capacity for love and connection. And this, the Zohar tells us, brings about great comfort for God.

For that is, in many ways our task. As we emerge from the holiday of Tisha B’Av, we are called on to offer nechama, comfort, to those who still suffer. When we feel ourselves to be in a place of joy and celebration, the way we respond to brokenness is by connecting with our capacity to love and connect. To do whatever it is we can to be present to the suffering in the world and bring love to it. By doing so, we can extend our capacity for joy into a transformation of the world.

Rabbi Seth Wax is the Jewish chaplain at Williams College.