In praise of mixed feelings

I recently asked someone who was mourning the sudden passing of a loved one, “Are you feeling more sad or mad?” She thought for a minute before responding. Then she said, “Actually I am feeling sad and mad. Often both at the same time.” I reassured her that feeling different feelings at the same is quite normal. Sometimes what’s intellectually challenging can be emotionally healthy.

In this week’s portion of Torah, our unloved matriarch Leah is quite fertile, giving birth to seven children. The names she associates with her first three children, Reuven, Shimon, and Levi, have nothing to do with her hopes for who they will become. Instead, they reveal her anguish, her longing to earn the love of her husband Jacob. With the birth of a fourth son, Judah, her emotional coordinates shift to gratitude and praise. “This time I will praise the Lord” (Gen. 29:35). Her glass is now half-full, brimming with blessings. “My cup runneth over” we often pray. It’s a lovely Thanksgiving message.

Except when it’s not. This year I noticed for the first time that Leah’s shift is hardly complete. Indeed by the time she names her last son, Zevulun, the emotional affliction she feels for the inability to have her husband’s love is just as painful is it was prior to Judah’s birth. “This time my husband will value me more highly because I have given him a sixth son” (Gen 30:20). Leah’s glass is both half-full and half-empty. She is grateful for what she has and still sad for what she lacks.

Gratitude is important this Thanksgiving weekend. Yet this year’s feelings aren’t neat or tidy. It’s been a year with so much virus-afflicting suffering and loss. Our tradition reassures us that having mixed feelings can be healthy. As the writer George Eliot notes, “a moment is room wide enough for the loyal and the mean desire, for the murderous thought and the sharp backward stroke of repentance.”

Still, instead of being named for Zevulun, Judaism is named for Judah. May Leah’s capacity to sort through her own contradictory emotions in favor of praise serve as an inspiring model for us all.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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