Watershed Moment of Tears

In this period of the coronavirus stay at home order, I have maintained a mostly positive outlook.  I have held on to the fortune I feel in having a beautiful home, food to eat, and a job that both keeps me spiritually nourished and busy during this time and insures an income.  Through it all, I have remained cognizant of what a privilege it is to say those things and to live them.  And, I have chosen gratitude.  In my interactions with others, in my work – I have found moments to feel and name the gratitude I feel.  It has inspired me to help others less fortunate during this time and it has certainly inspired my expression in prayer to the Holy Blessing One.  Just this week, a dear friend and mentor commented that she admired my ability to stay positive in all of this craziness.

All that was true until today.  Today, the overwhelming feeling of fear, anger and loneliness crept into this isolation.

For Jews, today was not only Shabbat, but also the second day of Shavuot, the holiday on which we celebrate receiving God’s Torah anew.  It is also the day that we typically recite the Yizkor prayer, the memorial prayer that recognizes that whether a loved one died yesterday, a month or year ago, or even almost 8 or 33 years ago (as did my own parents), mourning never ends and our need to remember and recall our loved ones within community is a powerful testament to the fact that they lived at all.  Today, after 10 weeks in isolation during which the occasions I have been in physical presence with others have been limited, I joined my community for a virtual prayer experience.  Through these unprecedented times, I have chosen to use electronics in ways I would not normally do on Shabbat.  Yet, when it came time for Yizkor and the invitation was given to share the name in the chatbox or to turn to the person next to you, the dam of tears poured erupted in me.

I cried tears because that moment of sitting alone during the Yizkor service took me back to the early days of mourning when reciting kaddish was the simultaneous primal scream that the world was anything but normal AND the protective layer against having to express any vulnerability at all. All at once, I was a mourner again and felt the loneliness as if the actual loss happened but a moment before.

I also cried tears as a watershed reaction to the brokenness of the world around us.  This week, our country reached the milestone of 100,000 deaths from this terrible pandemic.  One hundred thousand individuals, one hundred thousand families mourning the loss of a loved one, one hundred thousand worlds brought to an abrupt end.   But, the brokenness of our world doesn’t stop with the people who have died or even with this disease itself.

I cried tears of loss over a man George Floyd, whose last breath was taken from him by a knee to his neck as he cried out ‘I can’t breathe” and called for his mama. I cried at the realization that his killing came at the hands of someone who is charged with upholding the law, not breaking it.  I cried for people of color who live every day wondering what act of bias will be the one against them today. I cried for the injustice in our society and the inherent racism that continues to exist and in knowing that we can and should do better.  And, I cried in anger that there are a few who are using this moment for senseless acts of violence – looting, vandalizing, starting fires – in ways that lead some to lose focus on the need for systemic change.

These were the tears of this Shabbat and holiday.

The truth is – I don’t want to ever stop crying at the loss of my parents.  I know there will come a time when reciting Yizkor will once again be in person, in the midst of my friends and community who will bear testimony to the life that both my parents lived.  And, I have faith that we will eventually have a vaccine for the virus and an end will come to the daily toll of human life from this terrible disease.

Tonight, as I recited havdalah, in the confluence of light and darkness, I found extra meaning.  We are in a moment of great darkness and the light will come when we help shine it brighter than any darkness.   I think of  the mandate of Deuteronomy “Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof – Justice, Justice shall you pursue.” I hope and pray that each of us and all of us will see the mandate that we pursue justice – to bring fairness and equity to all people.  And, I pray that we pay attention to the second occurrence of the word justice in this verse as well, the addition which our commentaries tell us is to teach that the justice which we pursue has to be done in just and peaceful ways.

This is where I find seed of hope for I believe this is possible.  It takes each of us and all of us.  It takes deep reflection on our own role in the injustice and in the path to commonality.  It takes an ability to know that each person red blood is the same.  And, it takes seeing the pursuit as a reflection of our value of liberty for all and as a mandate from none other than the Holy Blessing One.

Ken Yehi Ratzon – so may it be.

About the Author
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz is the Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which trains rabbis who go on to lead and re-invent Jewish institutions for every stage of life and strengthen Jewish living for people of all ages. Rabbi Peretz has experience as a pulpit rabbi and serves as a speaker and scholar-in-residence in communities around the world. She holds an MBA in Marketing Management from Baruch College, and helps bring those skills and expertise into the operational practices of rabbis and congregations throughout North America. Her work has been published in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and on the Ziegler’s Today’s Torah, and she has contributed chapters to books on Jewish living.
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