I’ve never been one for following commandments strictly — without some personal adjustment — especially those that prescribe emotional states. Though I observe the laws of kashrut and have only recently relaxed my notion of Shabbat, I recoil from the implied obligation to be happy — as suggested in the Mishnah in reference to the month of Adar (“Mi sh’nichnas Adar, marbim b’simcha,” “When Adar arrives, we (make) much joy”).
On the morning of erev Purim, I ended a week of sitting shiva for my 94-year-old-mother. Her long and purposeful life was devoted to distributing her enormous love among our large extended family. Though her death was neither a shock nor a tragedy, I felt astonishingly depleted after sitting at her bedside for several weeks, keeping her company as she very, very slowly let go of life. I was overcome by the finality of her death — knowing I would neither hear her voice nor feel the softness of her hand on mine again.
I could not feel the joy of the holiday. Casting about, I recalled the teaching of my friend and colleague, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld on Midrash Tanchuma (a collection of legal discussions and narrative stories about the Tanach) concerning the book of Ecclesiastes. She points out that the verse, “God brings everything to pass precisely at its time, and also puts eternity in their hearts,” could be read as, “God hid the time of death from the human heart” by substituting the Hebrew word ha’olam (eternity) for the related Hebrew word he’elim, (hid). Building on the midrash, she writes: “If the Holy Blessed One had not hidden death from the human heart, it is possible that a person would not build and plant, for he or she might figure, tomorrow I’m going to die, so why should I stand and tire myself out for others? Therefore, the Holy Blessed One hid from human beings the day of their death, so that every person would continue to build and plant. Therefore, facing both the certainty and the mystery of our death, it is our purpose and our obligation to build and to plant — to live and to give life, as joyfully and as generously as we can.”
I sensed this last line as a rejoinder against apathy, as a gentle nudge toward living as fully as possible — letting joy wash over me, even in times of sadness. I thought of the notion of hiddur mitzvah, how we are instructed to adorn in beauty a mitzvah: Rather than just reciting kiddush, we are instructed to say the blessing over wine using a particularly beautiful goblet. We amplify the experience. My mother amplified life with love; it wasn’t enough to invite newcomers into her home, she made certain they felt welcome, part of the family, heard, appreciated. It was that additional attention — especially toward the vulnerable — that made her life of building and planting joyful and generous.
As I made my way out of mourning, I sat in that transitory place of slowly letting go of sadness. Certainly, it wasn’t so much joy I hoped to experience that day as we headed into Purim, but rather some less densely weighted feeling — laced with gratitude that Judaism regulates mourning with incremental steps back toward life: the seven days of shiva, the shloshim, or 30th day after death, and the year of reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish. And it was at this moment that I understood the aspirational decree to be joyful — if only for a brief interval. The structure of Jewish law would provide a way out of mourning, would lift me out of myself and reintegrate me into the world.
When I returned to work — to editing this particular issue of Sh’ma Now
focused on “simcha” — I reread Rabbi Margie Jacobs’ essay (see previous page) on using the spiritual practice of “mindfulness” to elevate oneself to joy. In particular, I resonated with her interpretation of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov — a Hasidic master: When attending “to the pain in our hearts, we have greater access to the joy that is also there.” At my desk, quiet, rereading this line, I felt both pain and comfort. I knew that sorrow would lift, memories would surface, occasions of pure joy would be recalled, and the fullness of this, my blessed life, would eventually replace mourning.
Susan Berrin is the editor-in-chief of Sh’ma Now. She dedicates this essay to the blessed memory of her mother, Vera Berrin, z”l.