Shivah and Hanukkah: wrestling with my family’s grief and joy

Last Shabbat, in the middle of celebrating my niece becoming a bat mitzvah, we were told that my father in law had died. My wife suddenly entered aninut, the period of suspended religious status between the time of a loved one’s death and the onset of shivah, the seven day mourning period. At the same time, we all found ourselves suddenly suspended between deep sadness and the still palpable excitement of my niece’s rite of passage into young Jewish adulthood. My sister and our other family who had remained behind after Shabbat lunch did their best to comfort us as we all treaded water in this profoundly uncomfortable and painful holding pattern. We counted the hours, then the minutes until the end of Shabbat so we could begin a long night’s journey into more night.

Human beings abhor these kinds of no-man’s land suspensions, especially those between grief and joy, because they force too much chaos and unresolved tension upon us. We think in binary opposites, categories such as up and down or hot and cold, and we use this binary thinking to create highly structured rituals that push back at that chaos and help us to order our existence. Yet as my family and I were rudely reminded last Shabbat, the nasty tag team of life and death plays by its own rules. Its order and time tables are rarely neat, and they often resist being subjected to the endeavors of human will and ritual. Jewish law and ritual recognize this reality. They provide us with spiritual and ritual tools for embracing and sanctifying this messy interplay of life and death, sadness and simcha.

For example, the days of shivah for my father in law have overlapped with Hanukkah. This certainly is a no-man’s land in which we find ourselves celebrating at the same time that we are grieving. As avelim, mourners, my wife, her siblings, and my mother in law have nonetheless been obligated to light Hanukkah candles and recite the blessings thanking God for the miracles of the past and present. They were obligated to recite She-He-Che-Yanu, the blessing thanking God for bringing us to the celebratory occasion of Hanukkah which we say over the candle lighting on the first night of the holiday. Why impose such seemingly unjust emotional burdens upon grieving people? Why not simply exempt them from expressions of joy and thankfulness, especially at a time like Hanukkah when such expressions are so far from what they might be feeling? Alternatively, why not simply suspend shivah observances altogether in favor of the holiday observance?

Unlike Shabbat, during which public shivah observances are set aside, or Yom Tov, Jewish holy days whose onset ends all shivah observances prematurely, Hanukkah demands that we make room for grieving and for gratitude. Shivah observance and mourning practices are not set aside during the holiday, but mourners still observe its rituals, as my family has done. There are technical reasons of Jewish law for this, however, I offer a more poetic explanation that is hinted at in the words of the She-He-Che-Yanu blessing.

She-He-Che-Yanu thanks God, the Ruler of the universe for bringing us to life, keeping us alive, and for helping us to stay alive long enough to reach the specific occasion that we are celebrating. Among other occasions, this blessing is recited for religious obligations that occur mi ze-man li-ze-man, between periods of time that occur annually. In the case of Hanukkah, it is this year’s lighting of the Hanukkah candles that specifically calls for recitation of the blessing. Though it alludes to the miracles of the past marked by Hanukkah, She-He-Che-Yanu explicitly thanks God for nothing more or less than the precious, fragile gift of life and freedom that is ours at that very moment. My father in law’s precious life on this earth is done. Nevertheless, here we his family stand, lighting these Hanukkah candles that mingle with the light of the Ner Neshama, the seven day “soul-fire” lamp we lit in his memory at the beginning of shivah. By doing this, we subsume his story and our grief under the broader story of the Jewish people in which he proudly participated and which we will perpetuate.

She-He-Che-Yanu also asks us to locate my father in law’s life in the even broader, ongoing story of humanity. That he touched many lives for the better is no mere platitude, and I know that his influence on the world will endure well beyond his physical death. Yet, what if our grief had prevented my family from realizing this truth? Death threatens to spin a mourner into a tight cocoon of grief and loss that shuts out hope. She-He-Che-Yanu can begin to pull that cocoon apart by modeling gratitude for life in the moment, at that very moment of its recitation, without pretending death away. Obviously, each circumstance of loss is different, and grief is highly individual. Blessings and holidays cannot magically dissipate sadness, especially when a loss has been tragic. However, to paraphrase the poet, William Wordsworth, they hold out for us the possibility of being surprised once again by the joy of life, even as we are mourning.

Yehi zikhro barukh. My father in law’s blessed memory will help to bring light into the dark world.

Happy Hanukkah.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.
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