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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

From Tragedy to Comfort and Beyond: A Personal Mindful Journey

There is an old Yiddish proverb which is among the most overly quoted of all the overly quoted     Yiddish proverbs: Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht. Man [sic] plans, God laughs. In a moment you will see why this dictum has been ringing in my ears more than usually in the past few days.  But first, I would like to provide a framework for my musings.

This commentary is tangentially connected to this past week’s Torah reading, Va’etchanan (Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:27-7:11).  But it is also connected to the fast day of Tisha B’Av, which occurred last week, and the fact that this past Shabbat was Shabbat Nahamu/the Sabbath of Comfort.  Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE.  Both of these events, as well as other tragedies, are believed to have occurred on or around Tisha B’Av (the 9th day of the month of Av).  And so it has traditionally been a day of mourning and fasting in the Jewish tradition.  It is actually the only complete fast day other than Yom Kippur. 

Following Tisha B’Av there are six Sabbaths on which the Haftarah (prophetic portion) read are called the “portions of consolation”.  This is then followed by the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year.  The first of these Haftarot read following Tisha B’Av is from Isaiah 40 and begins Nahamu, nahamu ami … Comfort, comfort my people, hence the name Shabbat Nahamu .  Thus begins the period where we focus on comfort and consolation following the commemoration of destruction of the two Temples. 

In his book This is for Real and I am Completely Unprepared, the late Rabbi Alan Lew talks about this cycle of destruction, consolation and rebuilding as the essence of the cycle that begins on Tisha B’Av and ends with the High Holy Days and Sukkot, the fall festival of thanksgiving. Lew’s basic premise is that our own Temples, our spiritual homes, need to be dismantle in order for us to rebuild and continue to face the challenges and changes that are part of daily living.  If we try to hang on to our life as solid and unchanging, as permanent as the Temples were imagined to be, then we are bound to suffer.  But if we accept that tearing down our Temples is not only unavoidable, but desirable, we can face change as part of life, no matter how difficult. Taking life moment by moment, as mindfulness practice teaches, we can see each piece as an unavoidable part of life and growth.  

As the plans we make with such certainty suddenly fall apart (as they so often do) we can try to hold on to what “should have been,” what we desired and what we expected. But this simply turns the unavoidable pain of life into unnecessary suffering. Our other choice is to experience and acknowledge the loss, the change and the pain and then, eventually, to laugh, along with God. 
I couldn’t help but think of that this past week.  For you see, our family had planned for months to celebrate my cousin’s engagement at a wonderful party in Connecticut this past weekend.  My two sisters were driving down from Boston and I was driving up from Scranton with my mother.  We would meet in Connecticut to celebrate and then my oldest sister, Ann, would return with us to Scranton for a week of vacation that was to include the celebration of her birthday. 

As we made these plans we knew that one uncertain variable was my mother.  Because of her health we knew that we wouldn’t know until the day of the party whether or not she would feel well enough to make the drive to Connecticut.  However, if she didn’t, I would simply drive up myself and then bring Ann back to Scranton.  And so our plans were set.  Or so we thought.  For as is usually the case, an unforeseen and unknwon is what caused our plans to change.  
On Friday afternoon I received a call from my older Betsy that our sister Ann had fallen outside of Betsy’s apartment building.  She was at the hospital in Boston at that moment and we were waiting to see whether her hip had been broken or just her leg.  Luckily, her hip was not broken, but her femur was snapped in two.  She would need surgery the next day to insert a rod in her leg. Then she would need time in the hospital followed by considerable rehab.

We were all distraught over what had occurred.  This not only for the obvious reasons, but because the lower bones in the same leg were seriously broken 23 years ago when Ann was hit by a car.  This certainly was not fair to Ann.  It changed all of our plans.  And it was no laughing matter.

And so on Shabbat Nahamu/the Sabbath of Comfort I was driving my mother to Boston (from where she had returned five days prior) to see her eldest daughter following surgery.  How ironic, I thought.  On this day that focuses on consolation in response to tragedy, we were in the midst of our own family tragedy or crisis.  Certainly it was not on the same scale as the destruction of a nation’s spiritual home and the slaughter of thousands of people, but for our small family, it was indeed a tragedy.

So many thoughts were running through all of our minds: we couldn’t go to the party, which meant that hardly anyone from our side of the family would be there.  My mother would not be there to in some way “represent” her deceased sister, the grandmother of my engaged cousin.  In addition, Ann couldn’t come home for her birthday and other plans needed to be put on hold or scrapped altogether.  It was difficult in that moment to move beyond focusing on what wasn’t going to happen in the future, as well as what did happen in the immediate past and focus instead on the present.  Yet when this struck me I began to write this commentary in my mind.

I had the opportunity to live on a personal level what Alan Lew writes about on a communal level.  Our Temples du jour (and we all have them) were the celebration of the engagement and Ann’s coming home for her birthday.  These both were laid waste by her fall.  And yet in the midst of the sadness we were already finding comfort.   

My mother, Betsy and I were there with Ann.  Friends and family galore were writing, calling and emailing to be supportive.  Friends of mine who don’t even know Ann were sending love and support to all of us via Facebook.  We were indeed living the essence of Shabbat Nahamu.  We were creating, over many days, an extended Sabbath of Comfort. 

As I wrote above, none of this was a laughing matter.  Yet, by the end of Saturday, once Ann had come through the surgery with flying colors and her healing process had begun, we also began to make jokes about the fall, the recovery process and even about missing the party (“if you didn’t want to go to the party there were certainly easier ways to get out of it!”).  Of course, most of the attempts at humor were fairly lame.  It was also clear that underlying the laughter was our sadness and frustration.  But still, we laughed as if that were the only logical response.  Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht! And so it goes.

Now, of course, comes the time of repair, renewal and rebuilding.  Physically this is about rehab and medical treatment.  But it is also about more than that.  Each day there is a new reality to face (OK. Each moment, really!) Things may go smoothly, there may be set backs, we don’t know when Ann will be able to go back home (as she lives on her own and there are 17 steps to her apartment). So many unknown variables.  But that is why the only way to proceed is moment by moment.  That is the essence of the renewal and rebuilding.

As I wrote these words, three passages from the Torah portion (Va’etchanan) that had been read in synagogues around the world as we drove to Boston this past Saturday entered my mind: (1) You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you. (Deuteronomy 4:2);  (2) The Eternal our God made a covenant with us…It was not with our parents that the Eternal made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today (Deuteronomy 5:2-3) and finally, one of the central verses of Jewish tradition: (3) Hear, O Israel, the Eternal, our God, the Eternal is One! (Deuteronomy 6:4).   

From a mindfulness perspective, the first passage can serve as a reminder that in life we have no ability to add or subtract from the reality of the moment.  What is, is what is. What happens, is what happens.  Sure,  we can try to change it. We can play mental games as much as we like.  But that does not change the reality of the moment.  What we are commanded is to be mindful of the moment, to experience the reality of what is.  Nothing more and nothing less. 

In the spirit of the second passage, we must remember that this reality is not about the past.  Of course, I cannot deny the reality that we all build on what has been given to us. However, the commandment to live in the present is meant for the present.  It is meant for us.  We have inherited from those who came before, but ultimately that is not what matters.  What is important is our covenant with the reality of this moment.  Nothing else.

And finally, that which gives us the ability to attempt to live this way in each moment is the One of the Universe. God. Our Higher Power. The Divine Spirit. The Eternal One.  Whatever name you choose, it is the unseen essence that connects all of humanity and the universe which provides us with the strength to face tragedy, accept it, rebuild and renew ourselves. Perhaps most important of all, it is the power that enables us face each moment and laugh.   

We must pay attention with heart and soul to that still small voice within. However, we must also remember that God is not a panacea, quick solution or a “babysitter in sky”.  On the contrary, that still small voice within us is what enables us to realize that there is no panacea. There is no quick fix. There is no heavenly babysitter.  There is only us and the moment.  But if in that moment we are connected, then that is all we need.  That is what family, community, love and faith are all about.  That is the essence of what we call spirituality or faith. And that is how we learn to continue one moment at a time.  Moving from trial to comfort and beyond.  That is how we learn to truly live.

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