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Jewish learning Torah for Sadness: The Myth of Certainty

By Rabbi Shani Rosenbaum '21

Yesterday I had what’s become a regularly-scheduled video chat with my three-year old niece in Seattle. Usually, our conversations are light and somewhat rushed, typical of an especially energetic toddler. But yesterday, in the middle of a discussion about sushi, my niece suddenly became pensive, recounting to me a moment (in the long-ago days when she physically attended preschool) when she tried to hug a friend, but the friend—who was apparently not so interested in a hug right then—tried to bite her in return.

“Did it make you sad?” I asked her.

She nodded solemnly, gazing out the window next to her.

Heartbroken, I couldn’t help myself. “What makes you happy?” I asked.

My niece paused for a moment, thinking.

“Calling Grandma!” she exclaimed, her eyes brightening.

“What else?” I asked, and we listed off things that bring this small person joy—baking muffins, riding in her wagon, and, she added with gusto—”Shabbat!”

Then, suddenly, her face fell again. “I’m really sad,” my niece reflected, “that it’s not Shabbat today.”

My first reaction was to delight in having a family member who shares my passion for Shabbat. But later, I got to wondering about her sadness.

I had tried to rush past my niece’s melancholy, but she—even when reflecting on things that brought her joy—was led back to that sense of loss that she had been shared with me, seemingly out of the blue. If Shabbat was something that made her feel happy, why did the mention of it make her remember her sadness?

This is the first in a series of explorations of sadness I’m going to offering in my divrei Torah in the coming weeks. Most of us are feeling some sadness these days, and for good reason. The virus is carrying with it all types of loss. For some, this is the very real loss of a loved one. For those of us blessed with continued health, there are still other losses that can feel enormous—jobs lost or suspended; precious visits with family or friends put on hold; wedding and graduation plans canceled. All around us, there are small and big reasons to be grieving.

There is also another kind of sadness simmering in the air, one even a small child might sense: what psychologist David Kessler identified in a recent interview as “anticipatory grief.”

Anticipatory grief, explains Kessler, “is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain… There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety.”

Or, as writer Ashley C. Ford put it in a Twitter comment recently, “You are watching people go through withdrawal from the emotional addiction to the myth of certainty.”

“I’m so sad it’s not Shabbat right now,” my niece opined, and in her 3-year-old brain, I think she probably meant she would rather be singing “bim-bam” than whatever she was doing just then. But I’ve been thinking about how sharply those few words capture just what this moment feels like for me.

It hasn’t occurred to me until recently just how much my life before this moment mirrored a world of Shabbat. I have been privileged to always know where my next meal is coming from; to always know when my next paycheck will come. There is a reason that a particular constellation of social and economic privileges are referred to as a “safety net.” Poverty is so bad for one’s health, in part, because of the stress it brings with it. People who live with uncertainty are never fully at ease.

By contrast, when we have certainty, there is a depth to the kind of rest we can feel that we cannot access without such a feeling. It is this depth, I think, that the Rabbis may have been getting at when they challenged each of us—wherever we are on the socioeconomic ladder—to enter Shabbat with the mindset that all of our work is complete. They are adamant that we time all our work so that when the sun goes down on Friday, there is nothing nagging at the back of our minds—maybe that wool will not be dyed completely? Maybe the bread won’t bake?—but that, instead, we can confront the world as if nothing is left to be done.

Of course, the moment Shabbat ends, the world picks up again—and we are confronted again with all the uncertainties, all the asymptotic loose ends that will never be neatly tied up. In other words, if there is a “myth of certainty”, as Ford pointed out, Shabbat is it. Shabbat is a 24 hour-fantasy that the world is as we want it to be right now.

I am left wondering: what does Shabbat’s arrival every week offer us in this moment—when, for some of us, the myth of certainty has been shattered in our everyday? When our sense of safety is falling apart, isn’t it tone-deaf to pretend—even once a week—that the world is whole and at peace—and so are we?

Maybe. Or, maybe Shabbat is not an attempt to deny or bypass sadness; it is instead an opportunity to take a break from grieving, however brief, so we can begin to build our immunity.

On Shabbat, mourners remove their outward signs of grief. We invest extra in ta’anugim—yummy snacks, beautiful clothes, singing, intimate touch— small material comforts that bring us pleasure— as we might when we were trying not to escape the wounds of a loss, but to gently and kindly tend to them. These small material comforts—and in fact, the physical act of resting—signal to our bodies that we are cared for. And from this place of deep rest, we can begin to build up our strength.

In the Shabbat version of the mi sheberach prayer for the sick, we add an ironic phrase: Shabbat hi mi-liz’ok—meaning, on Shabbat, we refrain from crying out in distress. Of course, a prayer for loved ones who are ill is the most desperate cry for help there is! In the same breath, we acknowledge that on Shabbat, our world is perfect and we make no requests—and then, sneak in this plea for healing. How does our liturgy get away with such a thing?

I think there is a substantive reason why the prayer for healing is the exception to the rule that we don’t ask for change on Shabbat. Asking for healing is not a violation of Shabbat; engaging in the deep rest of Shabbat is itself a process of healing. On Shabbat, we take a break from sadness so that we can begin to heal. Our healing strengthens us to feel the sadness and not yield to it; to feel uncertain without losing hope. To taste olam haba—to imagine, with our bodies, a safe and peaceful future—is to maintain a vision, a horizon to reach for; to hold a memory of the world as it should be deep in our bones, so we can walk through uncertainty a little less afraid.

Shani Rosenbaum is a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.

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