These Three Weeks on the Jewish Calendar Are the Perfect Time to Reckon With Grief

In a world that continuously demands that we face unthinkably horrible things, may we be blessed with the ability to befriend our sorrow.

There are two ways to deal with a shipwreck, the Talmud says, and two side by side stories (Yevamot 21a) illustrate them.

In the first, Rabban Gamliel sees from a distance a boat that shatters and sinks. He is bereft, thinking of course a Torah scholar was on that boat and of course — in true Jewish anxiety — they must have died. And who was on it? None other than Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva emerges from the water, soaking wet, and starts teaching about halacha (because, what else is he gonna do?) Rabban Gamliel says, “My son, who brought you up from the water?” Rabbi Akiva responds, “A plank from the boat came to me, and I bent my head before each and every wave that came toward me. The waves did not wash me off of the board, and I reached the shore.”

Almost immediately following this tale, we have a parallel tale. This time, Rabbi Akiva is the witness of the shipwreck. Rabbi Meir, the one who survived, emerges from the water, and starts deliberating on halacha. This time, when Rabbi Akiva asks, “Who brought you up from the water?” Rabbi Meir says, “One wave carried me to another, and that other wave to another, until I reached the shore, and a wave cast me up onto dry land.”

We all experience various shipwrecks in our lives: ends of relationships, loss of loved ones, ends of jobs and life chapters, times that bring us face to face with the fragility and vulnerability of being human. With each shipwreck we experience, we see which reaction to the tragedy we will take. Each of these approaches has their place. Sometimes, we cling on to whatever plank remains from our shattered boat, powering through the waves until we get to shore. Sometimes, we are being asked by our life/the universe/God to let it all go and float, knowing that we will arrive on dry land eventually, even if we don’t have control over the timeline.

About two years ago, I went through my own shipwreck, where basically every aspect of my life shattered at once. Eventually, after clinging to plank after plank and trying to power through, I let go and floated to Jerusalem. On the bedside table of the room I was subletting was a thin little book that changed my life forever: “The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief” by Francis Weller.

In his book, Weller argues that much — if not all — of our distress as modern humans comes from our distant relationship with grief, our trying to compartmentalize and squash it and other negative emotions. By facing and befriending our grief, he explains, we are able to actually be present in our lives and allow ourselves to love deeply, knowing that everything we will love we will ultimately lose. He argues: “Welcoming our sorrow eases the hardened places within us, allowing them to open and freeing us to once more feel our kinship with the living presence around us.”

But, Weller explains, grief needs a container to hold it. A container like ritual.

In Judaism, we have many rituals when a person dies. Rituals around how we care for the body, what we say when we are caring for the body and guarding the body. Rituals around burial and rituals around mourning. But, what happens when the world is falling apart? What kind of containers do we have to hold for being with grief on a global scale?

In our calendar, we have times set aside for grieving. The two most notable are the 49 days of the Omer, when it is said that Rabbi Akiva (of our story above) and his 24,000 students died of a plague. The other, which is fast approaching us, is called the Three Weeks. The Three Weeks span from 17th of the month of Tammuz (July 23, 2024) until the 9th of Av (August 13, 2024). Many challenging things are said to have happened on both of these days and between them; most commonly commemorated is the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans on the 17th of Tammuz, and the destruction of both the first and second Temple on the 9th of Av. It’s a time of grief in our calendar, where (similar to the Omer) there are prohibitions but not very many prescriptions. We are told to generally be with our grief — to not shave or swim or listen to live music — but not given much instruction on how to do that.

My proposal is that we use the Three Weeks this year (and beyond) to intentionally build a relationship with our grief, moving towards befriending it and making it our teacher. Perhaps you think this is futile in the face of so much devastation, or that it’s selfish to sit with your own grief in this moment as many others suffer more directly. Our rebbe Francis Weller is here to comfort us, saying: “This [grief work] is deep activism, soul activism that actually encourages us to connect with the tears of the world. Grief keeps the heart flexible, fluid and open to others. As such, it becomes a potent support for any other form of activism we may intend to take.”

In a world that continuously demands that we face unthinkably horrible things, may we be blessed with the ability to befriend our grief and sorrow, embracing and floating on its current, knowing that by doing so we will become more equipped to fight for a better world.

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