The Deep Well of Grief Teaches Us to love

Last week’s torah portion, Chayei Sarah told the story of Sarah’s death at age 127, her burial in the cave of Machpelah in Hebron, where many more ancestors would be buried. It tells of Abraham sending his servant Eliezer to find a wife for Isaac and meeting her, Rebekah, at the well, where she offers he and his camels water. Rebekah returns to Isaacs home in Canaan, she meets his family and is soon comforting him because of the loss of his mother, Sarah. Abraham marries again, to Hagar his after Sarah’s death. Hagar Abraham’s Egyptian handmaiden and Ismael her son are banished because of Sarah’s fear that Ismael will inherit what she wants her son Isaac to. When Abraham dies he is buried by his two eldest sons Ishmael and Isaac.

The stories in this portion are very much about love and death. About unions, births and intuition.

What does it mean to love? With every breath in and every exhalation we can understand that this breath may be the last. It is only one breath that keeps us from death. Take a deep breath in. Exhale. To feel the preciousness of this one breath is to know love. The Jewish mystical texts called the kabbalah teaches that we know God in moments but we can’t hold onto them. The moment is what builds our connection to the divine. I wonder how our experiences with loss and what we do with them can build these moments, or build on these moments. When I have encountered mortality, through the loss of loved ones, I’ve had these moments of feeling the interconnectedness of life. It’s through my grieving that I understand life continues and not always in our human experience of breathing.

It’s hard to let go and admit that for myself. I’ve held my breath my entire life, as if I’m trying to control my experience of being alive. Ultimately, we can’t control when we will die. Holding my breath doesn’t control anything, it just makes my body more tight. When I let go and breath, I have more opportunity to experience the breadth of my emotions, of being alive. I’m actually more supple, can respond with more flexibility. But death is daunting. Even our ancestors felt the enormity of loss. We are physical beings and when someone dies, we lose an experience of connection on the physical plane that is so important to our souls growth. We come here in physical form for a reason. One of those reasons is to experience loss and grapple with how to live in these earth body sacks with more grace and integrity. We can’t control who will live and who will die but we can control the actions that define our lives and align those actions with love.

When people are killed unnecessarily or die because of systemic oppression, I question who is this god who decides, who will live and who will die?

Judaism is a religion where we wrestle with understanding justice. The Akedah, the binding of Isaac Abraham and Sarah stepping into the ring when Abraham “hears” a voice from god telling him to kill his son, Isaac, to prove his allegiance to god. But when he goes to do it, something in him stops and he does not kill his own son. Here’s how I and some other feminists chose to remember this story: As Abraham was about to kill his own kid, he heard his wife Sarah who was over a hundred years old, wailing, begging him to stop.

I’m here because of my first ancestor, Sarah. She called out in her grief, with her breath, to save a life. Every year on the high holidays we blow the shofar, to awaken our souls to what we must be, who we must become. It’s Sarah, calling out to us, reminding us to call out, with our breath, to remember expressing our pain can save a life.

But where is Sarah’s voice in the story? Instead we hear about the angel that supposedly talked to Isaac, telling him to hold back from killing his son. I think Sarah was the angel. The disappearance of Sarah’s voice in the story is relevant, what gets left out of these stories are sparks of voices we now want to lift up.

The other part of this story is about Hagar and Ismael. Because Sarah is threatened by Ishmael’s life and the possibility of her son Isaac, not becoming the heir, she banishes Hagar and Ismael. Ismael goes on to be the first ancestor (or was it Hagar?) of Islam. We see in this story that pain and grief in one can cause pain and grief in another if our actions are not aligned with love. Humans are so complicated.

We also see in this story how deeply entwined we are as Jews with Muslims. We literally share the same ancestors. I was deeply moved this week to hear about a vigil in NYC Jews for Racial and Economic Justice did, for the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue, with Muslims surrounding them in a protective circle.

When I first heard of the attack at Tree of Life synagogue, I felt scared. My first thought went to Palestine. Dang, the Israeli right is somehow going to use this to justify more attacks on Gaza and Trump is going to make sure every friggin synagogue in the U.S. is protected by cops. Then, I thought of my friend, from my Hebrew priestess community who is a Jew of color living in Pittsburgh. Isn’t that her synagogue where she leads services? Is Keshira ok? I quickly went to our groups Facebook page and read, she was. Thank the goddess. It was not the synagogue she leads services, but the one she grew up in, was married in. And now, she was stepping up to the immediacy of the moment offering support, leadership and as she always does, love. The complexity of her identity as a Jew of color in this moment was not lost on me. I felt the depth of her courage.

Next, I told my mom what had happened. She immediately started crying and we embraced. She let go and said, “I can’t. I can’t deal with this right now.” What she was referring to was the enormity of grief she felt. Because it wasn’t just her grief, it was the grief of generations of Jews who had been killed by hate crimes. And no one person can hold the enormity of that grief.

I have a joke with a friend of mine where we make light of difficult and, light things by saying: it’s not that deep. Hey, I’m going to be late for lunch. No worries, it’s not that deep. Um, so, ends up rabbinical Judaism kind of erased all of women and gender non conforming people out of our history. Eh, sarcastically, it’s not that deep.

Ends up it is that deep. Patriarchy is deep. White supremacy, is that deep.

The terror we feel in our cells as Jews because of this hate crime is real, today. It also stimulates an epigenetic memory of pogroms, holocaust and a milenia of being blamed, othered, stigmatized and violently acted upon, because of our religion. Because this is the truth of our history, it’s been passed down, through our cells and we understand these things viscerally. The recent attacks at Tree of Life Synagogue bring to life for many of us who are Ashkenazi Jews, a modern day terror. It reminds us that white supremacy is real and alive for those of us who have spent our lives with the privilege of being seen as white. After World War II Jews came back from fighting the nazi’s and not only did the western world beg our forgiveness (I realize this is a simplification) by helping to colonize Palestine (to their benefit) but also by granting us in the census, white status. We have since had our history remembered through the mass media and our culture largely recognizes and feels an empathic solidarity with it.

What I see in the world is Black, Brown and Indigenous people haven’t had that experience. they don’t have the widespread empathy Ashkenazi Jews have. They have been in constant danger since the inception of the United States. They have never had the reprieve of whiteness that Ashkenazi Jews have received. Nor the widespread cultural understanding of their pain. And now in this moment, that cultural understanding does not protect us, as we understand in the sinew of our bones that we may be white, but we are still Jews. We now have a recent experience of the deadliness of white supremacy. We can know something of the immediate feelings of terror our black friends have when they hear a cop has murdered another black person. With this recent tragedy we get to understand in our bones that white supremacy won’t let any of us who aren’t cis white able bodied Christians forget who we are and we can commit again to the struggle to end it, for all people. Because white supremacy wants to invisibilize trans people, take healthcare away from many of us, most directly affecting and potentially killing people with disabilities. It wants to deny climate chaos and global warming brought on by human self centeredness. It doesn’t see that poisoning our waters will kill all living beings.

We must weave this terror we feel into the struggle for justice for all people, remember that similar hate crimes happened very recently. As my friend kohenet Orev Katz reminded me, this happened at the Québec City Islamic Cultural Centre Mosque shooting - January 29th, 2017, 6 people killed, 19 injured, and of course the tragic Charleston Church shooting - June 17, 2015 9 people killed, 3 injured. Even the day before the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, a white supremacist attempted to enter a black church, wasn’t able to and instead killed two black people in a nearby Kroger’s parking lot. We will pay reverence for all these people when we say the kaddish.

Despite it’s anti-semitism, our administration still aligns itself with Israel. Many choose to see that as proof that they are not anti-semitic. But as Jews, we know, Israel is not Judaism. I feel Palestinian liberation must be woven into the fight against white supremacy as much as Indigenous solidarity work here on Turtle Island.

The murders at Tree of Life synagogue wreck us with grief. We may not know anyone who was killed but the grief is ours because we feel it. We are animals. Our grief is animalistic. We need to hold and be held. We need to love and be loved. We need to cry and shake and wail because we are animals, earth bodies moving in time with all the other celestial beings.

Grief teaches us to love. Grief teaches us the ethics of being alive if we choose to head it’s call. First we grieve, then we act. Sometimes, when fascism is nipping at our heels, we grieve while we act. Our action, done with love is what transforms our grief, it changes our cells. It saves lives. We need your one act of reaching out for help, reaching out to someone you know, or don’t know. We need your vulnerability of feeling, of questioning, of saying, I don’t know what to do, help me understand what to do. We need you loving and supporting those who are most affected by systemic oppression. Your one act of feeling is what we need. We need your grief.

White supremacy does not control us but there are many white supremacist in political power right now that are deeply motivated by greed and it deeply affects our lives.

Because this is deep, we need a deep well of support to make it through. We need community and we need those who tell the truth and don’t hide from the depth.

When we experience the infinite, when we know god in one breath, this knowing begins to define our lives. It may not be god in a traditional sense, whatever that even means. It might not be some grandiose thing. Simple magic happens in the moments, a hand reached out, a hand received. It might be in the moment when we call a friend in need, it might be when we mend a broken relationship, it might be when we say that thing we’re terrified to say, interrupting the status quo, when we rewrite the dominant history to include all the stories. let our hearts change through the grief we feel, listen to someone who experiences different systemic oppression than we do. We can’t control white supremacy but we can decide to align our actions with the struggle to end it. So take a deep breath in. Exhale. This is an act of love.