In this personal reflection, Rabbi Benji Stanley tackles loss, joy and life, finding a Talmudic parallel.
I have just lost my father, but we are in a festive time of year, a time when we hear from Rav Yehuda the son of Rav Shmuel bar Shilat (in the Baylonian Talmud, Tractate Taanit, page 29a) that happiness increases, the month of Adar, of Purim, of drinking and laughter. How does one hold such conflicting experiences? Next week I am invited to a Purim celebration, at which we will read the Megilla, the story of Esther and salvation, after doing a laughing workshop together. This week I am coming to the end of the first thirty days of mourning my Dad, Jack Stanley.
Today I started putting in a file letters that were sent to me on the occasion of his death. A friend wrote that
all we can do as the ones who mourn is to cherish and observe the quality and tones of the grief we experience at any moment - I think perhaps that is mourning and grieving at its “finest”.
I have been reflecting on the texture of my grief, and the texture of my father, the warmth of his smile and his oft-sitting presence, the texture of his skin, the wrinkles, and the marks on his forehead through which, it now feels to me, light shone. I appreciate the texture of those letters that have been sent to me too, the feel of the paper and the inked words between my thumb and fingers - I opened the envelopes excitedly, grateful to literally feel people’s thoughtfulness towards me and my family.
I am currently feeling for a texture of Adar and Purim that I can appreciate, and am getting closer to it on the pages of Talmud in which Rav Yehuda explains that happiness increases.
Mi She’niknas Adar Marbin B’simcha, the one who enters the month of Adar increases happiness. I first encountered the words in an unequivocally jolly tune, something like this:
Yet the full statement is
K’shem Shemiknas av m’ma’atim b’simcha kach mishe’niknas adar marbin b’simcha - Just as when Av begins we decrease happiness so too when Adar begins we increase happiness.
Av is the month in which we feel loss and destruction, in which we mourn. The statement brings together contrasting feelings and experiences, shaping them in relation to each other, and revealing a spectrum. It points me to a lack and longing in Adar as well as Av, the longing for relationship, for love, for fuller companionship in joy as well as grief.
The Talmud precedes to weave a finer sense of joy by adding two further statements from Rav Yehuda the son of Rav Shmuel bar Shilat to his teaching on the happiness of Adar:
Just as when Av begins we decrease joy so too when Adar begins we increase happiness…
“To give to you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29: 11). Rav Yehuda… said these [words “future” and “hope”] are date trees and linen garments.
“See, the smell of my son is like the smell of the field” (Genesis 27:27). Rav Yehuda… said it was the smell of apples.
These teachings might need some unravelling. In chapter 29 of Jeremiah the prophet writes a letter, on behalf of none other than the Ultimate, to the exiled community of Israel in Babylon, suffering its recent cataclysmic loss. He tells them to “build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit”, to create the texture of their ongoing lives:
For I am mindful of the plans I have made concerning you- declares the Merciful- plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a hope and a future. When you call Me and come and pray to Me, I will give heed to you.
Rav Yehuda expresses the reassurance that things can get better, that presence can be found even in seeming absence and painful loss, and gives it everyday texture. Trees and linen garments can last, they pass from one generation to the other - through them we can feel literally the past and the future on our skin, which itself carries less permanently the traces of those who have gone before us, and those to come. The last teaching in the passage above takes the moment that Jacob disguises himself as his brother Esau to steal the birthright from his father Isaac, and Isaac is part fooled by the small of the field. In adding the suggestion that the smell was specifically apples, Rav Yehuda the son of Rav Shmuel bar Shilat takes a potentially distant story of complexity and confusion, and using that most evocative of senses, smell, raises real memories of love and family.
At least for me. I remember a month before his death we were lucky to have my older brother Joel home from the States, to join me and my younger brother and Mum and Dad in celebrating the last night of Chanukah together, with lights and song and one last family selfie. There was no limit to my father’s love of apple-sauce, with (or without) his potato latkes.
I am grateful to feel around me a textured Judaism. A week of mourning, followed by a month, followed by a year. Letters that I can touch. The love and wisdom of Torah that I can feel in that scroll. Happiness that shades into a deep lack; loss that intimates love, a future and a hope. Clothes and Trees. I am grateful for a way of living that brings me into contact with others, present and absent, and suggests that “happiness” is perhaps not exactly what I’m feeling but rather paradoxical, painful joy, which the novelist Zadie Smith describes as that “strange admixture of terror, pain and delight”.
Benji Stanley is the Rabbi for young adults for Reform Judaism, creating transformative learning, experiences, and community with people in their 20s and 30s. He has worked as a Rabbi or Student Rabbi at Alyth, Weybridge, Liberal Judaism, and West London Synagogue.
Image credit: Sebastian Muller.