The right moment

Grief, love and loss: A year in Jewish stories 

In Short

As we emerge from the pandemic, how do we name grief and say yes - I am grieving, I have been grieving and I will continue to grieve. And how do we also look toward the future and rebuild? What comes next? How do I keep moving forward? How do I live each day into a new and different future? And how can I support those around me in doing the same? 

As pandemic restrictions recede into the background, how do we make space to honor loss and recognize that many of us are still grieving? Over the last two years we have experienced losses both big and small. We have grieved the loss of personal space, travel and water cooler small talk. We’ve missed major milestones like births, graduations and weddings. And more than 1 million people in the U.S. have now died from COVID-19. As in-person programs return, masks disappear and people talk of “returning to normal,” some of these losses have started to feel like a thing of the past. Despite this, many of us still feel the gaping hole left by loss of life. I count myself in this collective.

In May 2021, a dear friend tragically and unexpectedly passed away in a climbing accident at the age of 31. After his funeral, I asked his fiancee if there was anything I could do to help. She asked me if I would share Jewish stories that I thought might resonate, provide comfort or offer wisdom. In the days after, I decided I wanted to send a different story before Shabbat each week for the following year. The journey of grief is a long one, and while I knew my friend’s fiancee was surrounded by love and support at that moment, I also knew that support might be less present as shiva and shloshim passed and the weeks turned into months. Every Friday since, I’ve ended my workday early and spent an hour or two reading Jewish stories, reflecting on the topics of grief, love and loss and selecting a single story to share.

Despite being a full-time Jewish communal professional, it’s been many years since I’ve had a consistent practice of Jewish learning. When I started “doing Jewish” for a living, Jewish learning too often felt like an extension of work into my very limited personal time and space. But that wasn’t my experience this year. In the first weeks of acute grief, reading Jewish stories and finding the right one felt like an anchor, holding me steady. After the first two weeks, my friend’s fiance brought others into the fold, and the weekly stories grew to include his immediate and extended family. Grief is complex. And writing stories week after week was also complex. It was deeply healing and offered a sense of purpose and meaning to share these stories with the people closest to my friend. It was also exhausting, week after week, unpacking my grief and looking at it in the face, trying to put words to something indescribable. And it was at times anxiety inducing. Who am I to offer comfort? Can I explore grief in all of its complexity? Can I talk about risk-taking or anger when the loss happens in the midst of someone pursuing their passion? What about love after the loss of a committed partner? I’m not a parent… What can I possibly have to say about the loss of a child? Can I talk about finding moments of joy? Are they ready for this story; is this the right moment?

Stories are powerful conveyors of emotion, meaning and connection. They give us the distance to explore something that we might not be ready to hear or understand when it’s so close and personal. They offer universal truths, while also leaving room for each person to read and take something different away. In Judaism, there is the concept that time is a spiral. We circle in time, and turn forward to the same moments of the year, Shabbat, holidays, yahrzeits. Yet, as we engage with these moments each year, we bring a different self to them. So too with stories. The number of times I’d flip through dog-eared books saying, “Not this story, not this story,” and then all of a sudden a story I’d passed by for 30 weeks would resonate and take on a new and different meaning. 

Jewish tradition is rich with stories. They’re there for us in times of struggle and in times of joy. They ground us in a history, a tapestry of brightly woven threads touching on all aspects of the human condition. They have been passed down through the ages from parent to child, teacher to student, friend to friend. They teach us values. They make us think, evoke questions and can challenge deep seated assumptions or beliefs. And they remind us we’re not alone. This thing I’m feeling, others feel it too. There’s hope. Tomorrow is another day. 

With that, I’ll end with a story. The year is 70 CE, and the Romans have destroyed the second temple in Jerusalem. The Jews have lost their religious and communal center, the great diaspora has begun, and life as they know it is over. “How can Judaism continue?” people asked. “What does it even mean to be a Jew, to practice without the temple?” And at the time, many thought the loss of the temple would be the end of Judaism. But it wasn’t. The Judaism we know and practice now looks completely different than what Judaism looked like in the days of the temple. So how did we get from a religion of ritual sacrifice and temple observance to the rich tradition we have today? 

In the last days of the Roman siege, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai smuggled himself out of Jerusalem in a coffin. He fled the city and went to the town of Yavneh, where he helped establish the first rabbinic community of the diaspora. In Yavneh, rabbis gathered. They debated, they mourned, they learned, they loved, they cried. And despite crushing loss, they lived. In Yavneh, the Talmud and rabbinic Judaism were born. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was bold and dared to imagine a future vastly different from the life he thought he would lead. The temple was lost, but Judaism was not. The rabbis integrated the loss of Judaism as they knew it into their new future, rebuilding, step by step, a life without the temple. And here we are today, 2000 years later, with a rich and vibrant Jewish tradition born from the town of Yavneh. But the temple was not forgotten. Every year on the ninth day of Av, Tisha B’Av, we mourn. We may have survived our loss and found a new path forward, but our grief remains. 

As we emerge from the pandemic, how do we name grief and say yes – I am grieving, I have been grieving and I will continue to grieve. And how do we also look toward the future and rebuild? What comes next? How do I keep moving forward? How do I live each day into a new and different future? And how can I support those around me in doing the same? 

Jory Hanselman Mayschak is the co-founder & CEO of BaMidbar, an organization dedicated to building a Jewish community that actively supports its members in cultivating mental health and wellness.