Recently, I sat in our living room watching a movie on my laptop with my wife and three children, our laughter at the film punctuated by the quiet raucousness that their not-so-frequent reunions engender. These siblings really like each other, and their playfulness, well played out on the stage of our family’s life over many years’ time, is one of our greatest blessings. We had all been together a month before to say goodbye to my wife’s father, whose presence in all our lives was as wide and deep as the hole which his absence in death created. This most recent family gathering followed the end of Shloshim, the thirty day period of mourning for a loved one after a funeral which was instituted by Halakhah, Jewish law. During Shivah, the first seven days of that time which are the most intense and ritually restrictive, we helped my wife, my mother in law, and my siblings in law through the initial stages of grief. Whatever laughter we shared was laughter running beneath our tears, as we remembered my father in law’s life. At this moment after Shloshim, our tears ran just beneath our laughter. We were all changed by the journey through my father in law’s illness and death, yet here we all were at home, beginning to laugh again for the sheer joy of being alive, as he would have done had he been with us.
Walking with my wife and our family through our experience of loss, grief, gratitude and love, I have been thinking a lot about a couple of biblical psalms that we pray regularly, which explore this transition from tears to expressions of joy. In the early morning service, we recite Psalm 30. It was likely a prayer used by individual worshipers when they were delivered from illness or other mortal crisis and they entered the Temple to give an offering of thanks. At one point in the psalm, after thanking God for deliverance, the poet proclaims:
Ba-erev yalin bekhi/V’la-boker rinah
In the evening one lies down, weeping/In the morning…a shout of joy.
On Shabbat, before Birkat Ha-Mazon, the blessings sung after a meal, we recite Psalm 126 as an introduction. Some Bible scholars have emphasized the well crafted ambiguity of this religious poem. Its author places the Jewish people and the reader in a dream-like realm that simultaneously evokes hope for and remembrance of our people’s return to Zion. Strong images abound of a redemptive return that is as sudden and explosive as a flash flood in the arid Negev desert; it is as verdant as the new crops emerging after a planting season accompanied by anxious weeping over the uncertain future of their successful growth. At one point in this psalm, after asking God to bring us back home, the poet similarly chants:
Ha-zor-im b’dimah/B’rinah yik-tzoru
Those who sow with tears/Shall reap with shouts of joy.
Both of these lines of poetry intrigue me, for neither one is as simple as it appears. Apart from their obvious differences – one focuses on the individual and one is about a group of people – they seem to make the same declarative point: sadness and weeping will eventually give way to the joyous singing that accompanies happiness. Yet these are not merely biblical versions of the silly bromide that time heals all wounds. The authors of our two verses are delivering a far more mature and realistic religious message.
These verses are placed in the context of inevitable human suffering and hardship. A person has been at death’s door, but has been brought out of the pit of death by God. A people has languished in exile, but has hoped for and been delivered from it by God. Both person and people have moved through time from wound to wellness, yet neither pretends away the past trauma or asserts that it could never happen again. What each declares is that, with God’s support and guidance, they transcended these traumas and found the capacity to shout with joy once again at the miracle of being alive. Going to sleep in tears might result in waking up joyously, as a good night’s sleep sometimes helps us to do, but it is not guaranteed. Sowing one’s field in tear-filled anxiety may result months later in the joy of growing a good crop, but it is not guaranteed. Our verses are not statements about simple or automatic causality. They are profound assertions of faith and hope about how our experience of the world can turn out over time, as we tentatively move forward in life.
I sit in our living room holding my wife’s hand, listening to my kids laugh and tease each other playfully. The tears well up in my eyes. Even in the midst of mourning, here is the morning song of joy we have composed. Here is the crop we planted and nourished, a robust harvest waiting to nourish the world.