Tammuz is a hybrid month. It is a portmanteau joining of a happy first half and a somber second half. During the first two weeks, there is usually a flurry of summertime weddings. But the 17th of Tammuz is a fast day that begins the three week period of historical mourning. This switch in gears can be quite jarring. Is there a middle ground between these extremes. About 3 weeks ago, Audrey and I hosted Sheva Brachot for the daughter of wonderful old-time friends who we have known for many years. The daughter wanted to use our house because she wanted to have it outdoors. The weather cooperated with a blue sky and a pleasant late afternoon breeze.
The company was great and the food was tasty (explanation to follow). My wife organizes these things routinely and, though it always take a lot of work, she makes it look effortless. But this was my first simcha post-COVID. As an aveil, I am not supposed to attend happy occasions and enjoy things, especially in public. The clever way people like me get around these restrictions is to work at smachot. Well, I surely did. I moved the backyard furniture, got the chairs in order, barbecued all the hamburgers, hot dogs, London broil and chicken cutlets (why the food was so good), and cleaned up. But there is always a period of time after the food is eaten and people can relax and talk to one another before enacting that strange three cup family bonding procedure.
As I sat at the table, I was not sure if I was allowed to be there. Could I enjoy the company and conversation? Was I obliged to be a downer and talk about my parents? I felt disoriented and was about to sneak out to shul for Mincha and Maariv, before my wife forcefully retrieved me and told me I could not leave before Birkat Hamazon. It was my first real experience with being an aveil all by lonesome myself now that the pandemic is beginning to recede.
Recently, I was in synagogue for Mincha and Maariv during the week of Parshat Chukkat. The portion is famous for, among other things, the episode when Moshe strikes the rock when the parched people ask for water. Daniel Bloom, a terrific, smart guy and a spirited teacher, gave a Dvar Torah about the passing of Aharon, Moshe’s brother, which also occurs later in the Parsha. He focused on a single sentence that records that ALL of the people mourned Aharon’s death. What does this mean and was the national solidarity unique? Daniel referred to the Meshech Chochmah (Meir Simcha of Dvinsk), a brilliant rabbi who lived from the mid-19th into the early-20th century. The Meshech Chochma asserted that based on this sentence no one committed manslaughter during the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert.
The reason is that an unwitting murderer must flee to a city of refuge or the Leviim to escape the avenging family of the victim. He/she could only be released when the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) died. Those confined people would have celebrated the death of the high priest because they would be released and be allowed to return to their families. The fact that everyone mourned Aharon’s passing means that no one could have been in a city of refuge and be pleased that he died. By implication, no one could have mourned Aharon’s passing and at the same time be glad that he died.
For the Meshech Chochmah, sadness and joy are binary variables. You cannot be both at one moment. But my experience sitting the end of the table in my backyard among friends as the Sheva Brachot came to an end made me realize that this is too neat of a psychological picture. Most of us occupy a middle zone where our emotions are a blend of joy and sadness. We live at the littoral zone where our feelings mix in unpredictable ways. It can be a challenge wading through these conflicting states of mind. But it is also what makes life so interesting.