I remember like it was yesterday. The first day in a long time I felt rested and could attend to my own needs. I see myself standing outside my daughter’s daycare, chatting with another parent, enjoying the sun on my face. When was the last time I stopped to chat with a parent? When was the last time I stopped to do anything! It was nourishing to speak with another grown up about our children and the world at large. I said goodbye and turned towards the park to go for a run, spiritual practice I missed and needed in my life. And then, the phone rang. It was my mother. My mother who NEVER calls in the morning. I don’t remember the precise language she used but the message was clear. My father was dead.
Myriad stories follow that moment of painful discovery. They twist and turn like the growth of knotted roots under the ground and crooked branches that hold the leaves and blossoms emerging, disappearing and reemerging throughout the unfolding months that make up the year. What remains constant is the way I have marked my father’s death each year since 2015 when my heart ripped open in pain and complexity, strength and love.
Jewish tradition teaches that one whose parent dies rips their garment and wears that tear in front (where all can see it) throughout the 7 days of mourning. In the case of one’s father or mother, one rips a rip long enough to expose one’s heart. The mourner must rip apart the border of the garment and not tear it with a utensil (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning, 8:3). The Rambam sees this act of kriah, tearing open, as a physical manifestation of one’s insides. The act of ripping exposes the vulnerability of the mourner in all of its messiness and pain. Like many in these times, I planned to tear a ribbon pinned to my shirt and wear that as a sign of my grief and separate place in community throughout the week of shiva for my father. When the time came, it was not enough. I needed the fabric of my garment to tear and separate from itself. I wanted to expose my heart as fully as possible without apology or explanation.
Over the years, I’ve wondered how the Holy One mourned the loss of my father from this world. I had and continue to have ritual, informed by traditions of the past and ones of our making in my home. We tell stories and look at pictures. We wonder what grandpa would have said and affirm how grandpa would have reacted. But Gd? How does the Divine Source of life and love mourn the gaping hole of my father in this world.
Lamentations Zuta, midrashim on the book of Ecclesiastes, shares this parable of a wise man who had never seen mourning in his life. He had one son and he died. He summoned all his disciples and said to them: Please, show me how to mourn.
They said: a person in mourning rents his clothes.
He said to them: So I rent my clothes.
They said to him: a person in mourning sits in silence and lets his face be apparent.
He said to them: So I sit.
They said to him: a person in mourning turns his bed over.
He said to them: So I turn my bed over.
They said to him: a person in mourning dresses in black.
He said to them: So I am dressed in black.
They said to him: a person in mourning cries day and night.
He said to them: So I cry day and night.
That wise man is God, as it is said: God by wisdom founded the earth, by understanding he established the heavens (Proverbs 3:19)
How amazing to imagine Gd learning from us how to mourn, tearing away our outer shell, not being compelled to speak or fill space, wearing our broken heart on our sleeve (or face), sitting instead of running around, living life upside down, dressing in black (not so unusual in our home but that is another story) and letting the tears flow as they will without regard for the rhythm of day or night. As beings created as reflective image of the Holy One, we exist in the ripples in the water and the shadows children chase in the sunlight. It is not only in the mirror that we see the holy, but in the way in which we live each day and breathe each breath on our own in community.
In the years since we buried my father, I have worn that ripped shirt each year on his yarzheit. Read about the origin of the sacred safety pin of memory that holds the fabric together even today at https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-sacred-safety-pin/
Five years into this lifetime of mourning, the shirt fits differently. The rip appears less profound. I have grown. My heart has expanded. To the outside world, there is healing. There is healing inside as well. Still, I wonder, what does Gd experience 5 years into my father’s footsteps (for which he was known!) not walking this sacred earth? Perhaps it is that some tears do not mend. We come to wear them differently. Some silences find voice as they are woven into a richly layered fabric that combines the past and the present. Learning to live life a bit upside down opens us to the flexibility we need to make space and adapt to changes and challenges along our path, from simple disappointments to larger bumps and pitfalls…like a pandemic. How we clothe ourselves in body and spirit makes a statement and a difference. Tears are here to cleanse the soul.
Rivka Miriam writes, This was a peaceful tearing like the peaceful tearing of twilight when the warp and woof are parted for an instant so that their continuing can take place that was a peaceful tearing like the tearing that parts the eyelids in the morning when sleep dissolves before wakefulness rises to a new beginning. (Translation, Rabbi Steven Sager).
We mourn as we live. Day by day. Moment by moment. Separating one piece of ourselves from the other. Disrupting the usual to make space for growth and potential to emerge and transform. There is a time for ripping and a time for healing, a time to give and a time to receive, a time to teach and a time to learn. We all have our time. May we wear it with grace and love.
@Rabbi Lisa Gelber
July 17, 2020/25Tammuz 5780