Dahlia Topolosky
Dahlia Topolosky

Finding comfort in the matzah

The last three weeks have been a whirlwind, grieving the sudden loss of a friend in New Orleans, with my husband Uri flying there for the funeral — this just a week before the bat mitzvah of our daughter Adi, followed by the heartbreaking loss, the morning after the celebration, of my 31-year-old cousin, Helena. She leaves behind her two small children, now orphans, in the care of my aunt and uncle. I told Uri that I felt that the bat mitzvah was sandwiched between death and sadness, and I continue to feel so overwhelmed trying to process it all.

Sunday night, March 7, I was exhausted but flying high after Adi’s bat mitzvah. It was beautiful in so many ways. We shared Shabbat with our family and were filled with appreciation for the vaccinations that brought our family together for meals for the first time in over a year. We were grateful that my in-laws, especially my father-in-law, who had a difficult year with cancer treatments, and just found out in February that he is cancer-free, were able to be with us. We had a wonderful Zoom celebration, where we felt surrounded with love by friends and family from so many different places. Adi was radiant and filled with such happiness to become a bat mitzvah, and was excited by every detail — taking pictures, the balloons, the menu, the Zoom, and her friends who were able to come in-person, in small groups outdoors. It was still cold, but the sun was shining bright and we felt very blessed.

But I woke up on Monday to a call that my cousin Helena had just passed away after spending over three months in the ICU. I was planning to visit her that morning and had intended to bring her get-well cards that Adi and her friends made at the bat mitzvah the previous day. Instead of waking up with Adi in the joyous aftermath of her simcha, I grabbed the cards and ran out of the house in tears to visit my aunt and uncle. My little cousins Gavi and Amir (4.5 and 3 years-old), greeted me at the door and wanted to know what I was holding. Gavi asked me to read him every card. Afterward, the boys drew on the cards, and Gavi put them in his backpack to bring to school. They did not know yet that their mother had died, and my heart was broken for them.

On the way to the funeral the next day, I received an email link to the pictures from Adi’s bat mitzvah. I was struggling to find space for the colliding emotions in my heart. I focused my thoughts on the funeral and the right words I needed to describe my loving, warm, and goodhearted cousin Helena. When I had a moment to look at the pictures later, I was filled with such warmth, as the pictures so well captured the happy emotions of the celebration, but then the tears returned every time I thought of my cousins, Gavi and Amir, and of my aunt and uncle who had now buried a daughter who had been seemingly healthy just four months earlier.

This year has been a hard year for the world, with a tremendous amount of loss from Covid-19. For those who have personally lost family members or friends, the pain is incomprehensible. At the same time, many have experienced celebrations, opportunities, and wonderful moments with our family. Our daughter Adi had a life-changing experience in 2020, advocating for girls in sports, and we are so proud of her.

As I am now cleaning my house in preparation for Pesach this coming week, I am continuing to process these past few weeks, and have been struggling with how life could be filled with both light and darkness simultaneously. I realize that this is also one message of the Pesach matzah. On one hand, matzah is described as Lechem Oni, the bread of affliction — a reminder of the hardship of slavery. At the same time, Matzah is the symbol of redemption, baked on the way out of Egypt by a free people. On Pesach, our task is to carry both of these ideas. We remember what it was like to be slaves so that we can understand and appreciate the comfort of true freedom.

Perhaps, that is where I am standing right now, trying to hold seemingly polar opposite emotions together. I am hoping by allowing myself to breathe and feel the depth of all my feelings – the intense pain and the incredible joy, that I will experience the freedom of what it means to be fully human, fragile, and vulnerable.

Chag Sameach. 

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About the Author
Dr. Dahlia Topolosky is a clinical psychologist in private practice at the Integrative Therapy of Greater Washington who specializes in the treatment of mood disorders. She is also the Rebbetzin at Kehilat Pardes,The Rock Creek Synagogue in Rockville, MD, and has a passion for creating spiritual women’s programming.
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