Even as it is necessary to make space in our lives to grieve, so it is necessary to make space to feel joy. Our parashat hashavua, called Va’Etkhanan after a word specific enough to help us find our place in the unmarked wilderness of letters which is a Torah scroll, sets up the tension.
וָאֶתְחַנַּ֖ן אֶל־ה’ בָּעֵ֥ת הַהִ֖וא לֵאמֹֽר׃
I pleaded with ‘ה at that time (Devarim 3.23)
Moshe is disconsolate, begging HaShem to reconsider his upcoming date with death so that he can at least see the goal of 40 years of wandering; he has brought our people all the way to the edge of the Promise, all he wants to do is see it. This is truly a moment to grieve for all that Moshe will not be able to see, and be part of, in a future he did more than anyone else to help bring about.
There is no answer for his suffering, nor for ours as a people and as individuals. Of course Moshe “deserves” to get there. But life is more mysterious than that. A level of emotional maturity which expects fairness to of life is childish. Growing up, we learn that joy and sadness are always mixed. There will always be grief.
But today, Erev Shabbat, is also Tu B’Av, a day which in our past was dedicated to joy:
אָמַר רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל, לֹא הָיוּ יָמִים טוֹבִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל כַּחֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בְּאָב וּכְיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים, שֶׁבָּהֶן בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת בִּכְלֵי לָבָן שְׁאוּלִין, שֶׁלֹּא לְבַיֵּשׁ אֶת מִי שֶׁאֵין לוֹ. וּבְנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם יוֹצְאוֹת וְחוֹלוֹת בַּכְּרָמִים.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: There were no days as joyous for the Jewish people as Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur, as on them the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in white clothes, which each young woman borrowed from another. Why were they borrowed? They did this so as not to embarrass one who did not have her own white garments. And the daughters of Jerusalem would go out and dance in the vineyards – Mishnah Taanit 4:8
Putting aside the astonishment you may be feeling at this moment over the complete metamorphosis of Yom Kippur once the Rabbis got their collective hands on it, it’s interesting to consider the absolute opposites we are offered by our cultural calendar within one week.
The harvest time, the miracle of gathering what we’ve sowed and the attendant sensual joy, is perennial; every year of our lives, we are invited to celebrate the gift of life, its tastes and experiences.
The grief of death, and the collective death we mourned on Tisha B’Av only six days ago, is also part of the life experiences that we reap. Our rabbinic tradition speaks clearly to this sense that we are caught between polar opposites:
שֶׁעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה נוֹצָר, וְעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה נוֹלָד, וְעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה חַי, וְעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה מֵת, וְעַל כָּרְחֲךָ אַתָּה עָתִיד לִתֵּן דִּין וְחֶשְׁבּוֹן
for against your will were you formed,
against your will were you born,
against your will you live,
against your will you will die,
and against your will you will give an account and reckoning. – Pirke Avot 4.22
In other words, none of it is under our control, and we will never know why. Life is not fair; life is life. We are left to navigate as best we can between life and death, every day. On this Shabbat, may you open your heart to the joy that is the gift of your life, and may it fill you utterly, up to the brim, with peace.