Ki Tetzei: The Right To Grieve
“I miss Gan Edna,” my three-year-old daughter told me this morning at breakfast. Gan Edna was the nursery school Hannah attended two years ago, but out of the blue, she decided she missed it. We spoke about it, and I assured her we could go back and visit it if she’d like. She loves her new school, and I was surprised to hear that after so long, she still missed her former school. As the new school year approaches, meeting new teachers and classmates and getting to know a new space will be exciting; but at the same time it also means a loss of past teachers, classmates and cherished space.
“I’m a little bit big,” Hannah explained. Becoming big inevitably entails the loss of being small.
In light of this experience, a troubling part from this week’s Torah portion resonated for me in a new way. This week’s parasha, Ki Tetzei (when you go out), begins with a difficult passage. The text stipulates: if you go out to war and see a beautiful woman among the war captives who you want to marry, you shall first bring her to your house and she shall shave her head, trim her nails, and sit in your house for a month so that she could cry for her father and mother. Only afterwards can you marry her.
The passage is disturbing. Why couldn’t it have simply said: you shall not marry war captives — or don’t take war captives in the first place.
Nonetheless, what struck me in reading this passage is how the Torah honors the most disempowered members of the community’s right to grieve.
The text asserts that mourning is essential to human dignity. Perhaps in the month of waiting, the soldier would get over his desire for the captive and release her, or maybe, seeing her in her distressed, disheveled state, he would come to care for her for who she is, rather than what she looks like. In any case, the Torah asserts that the right to grieve is integral to human self-worth.
Unfortunately, human life is chock-full of loss. The transitions of growing up entail a myriad of losses — from relinquishing a crib, diapers, or pacifiers, to saying goodbye to beloved teachers at the end of each school year. Some of these losses may seem trivial to adults but are profound for a child. Adulthood is likewise full of loss — from people we love to dreams that don’t materialize. For each of these losses, we need to give ourselves permission to mourn. This idea sounds simplistic but is extremely hard to do.
This past week, Mimi Strichard, a beloved member of my former congregation, passed away at the age of eighty-eight. Mimi was a rare, unique soul — sweet to the core with no edge whatsoever. She never said a harsh word about anyone and was the epitome of kindness. Her death was sudden; she had been in synagogue perfectly healthy a few days before her passing. I saw her close friend at the funeral. She said, “I’m okay; It was just such a shock.”
“You’re allowed to be not okay,” I responded gently. I remembered how difficult it has been for me to accept how not okay I’ve been in times of mourning.
From previous schools to dear friends and dreams, the losses of life are manifold and profound. This week’s portion teaches us to honor the sanctity of grief.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches biblical interpretation at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.