What if I Don’t Feel Grief for Another’s Tragedy?

The Torah demands of us to perform actions; we should not feel guilty for who we are emotionally.

This article is adapted from a sermon given two weeks after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA. The message is unfortunately relevant in the wake of all communal tragedies that the Jewish people face today.

I recently stumbled upon one of my favorite Jewish children books that I have not seen since my pre-teenage years. The premise of the book is that a group of Jewish travelers are abducted and brought to the fortress of the evil “Bad Middos Pirates,” where every section of the fortress is ruled over by a pirate leader who personifies a specific deplorable character trait. For instance, one section is ruled by Stingy Stan, whose constituents hesitate to share even a pea to feed another person. Another is ruled by Cruel Carlos, whose inhabitants steal and show no kindness to one another. Finally, after flipping through a few of the pages, I came upon the pirate named Worried Willy. I always felt bad for the people who live in Worried Willey’s section of the fortress. One example that stood out is a mother who calls the police to find her son as she had not heard from him a few minutes after he left the house. The book proceeds to provide religious exposition and claims that when someone is extremely worried about bad events befalling him, it is rooted in a lack of one’s faith in God. I was, and still am, troubled with this notion. Unlike a trait such as stinginess, people generally do not have a lust to be in a constant state of worry – in fact, one may even be suffering from anxiety that is beyond his control. It was almost like the book was heaping religious guilt onto a person who was already suffering, thus adding insult to injury. I happen to be a fan of the book, and it remains one of my childhood favorites. Nonetheless, I found this particular aspect to be problematic and reflective of a broader mindset in the Jewish community.

* * *

After tragedy strikes, rabbis and lay leaders immediately focus on the victims, as well as the solidarity and security of our communities — and, don’t get me wrong, they are one-hundred percent correct to focus on these areas. However, I oftentimes wonder about the people who are fortunate enough not to have direct connection to the suffering and tragedy. What about those of us who are not doctors tending to victims or nonprofit workers providing relief to affected communities? What of those of us with a regular work schedule the next day, a strict schedule that encourages life to simply move on? My intention is not to focus on the tragedies themselves, so much as our individual reactions to them.

There are two Biblical models of grief that I would like to highlight: The first is from Genesis (27:34), when Esau discovers that Jacob deceived Isaac, and allegedly stole the blessings that rightfully belonged to Esau:

כִּשְׁמֹעַ עֵשָׂו, אֶת-דִּבְרֵי אָבִיו, וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה, גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד; וַיֹּאמֶר לְאָבִיו, בָּרְכֵנִי גַם-אָנִי אָבִי

When Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with an exceeding great and bitter cry, and said unto his father: ‘Bless me, even me also, O my father.’

His grief at the loss of Isaac’s blessings was not withheld; it was loud, profound and clear as day. The pain he felt needed to be expressed and released from his inner being.

The opposite model is found in Leviticus (10:3). After Aaron learns about the untimely death of his two sons by the hand of God, the verse says:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר ה’ לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן

Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron remained silent.

The Rabbis interpret his silence as a paradigm of piety and submission for not protesting the will of God. However, the basic reading of the verse provides us with a unique Biblical perspective into the human psyche. I don’t see Aaron’s silence as deliberate restraint – I see it as his personal way of grieving. Not everyone expresses their pain on the outside, yet they all the same feel crushed and bereft on the inside.

After tragedy strikes, there are people who make their pain known to us, whether it be in person or posts on social media outlets. This is akin Esau’s model of expressing unbridled emotion and allowing others to observe him in such a state. However, many people naturally lean toward Aaron’s model of grief, and contemplate their thoughts and emotions in privacy. I suspect there are even more people who naturally fit into the Aaron category than I know personally, but since the very nature of grief is at many times personal, we are not privy to know the people who are going through such difficulties.

* * *

These two categories exist, and I genuinely think that many people can experience the Esau or Aaron states at different junctures in their lives. However, there is a third category which a significant portion of people fall into, but will not admit to it, because it is viewed as callous and socially unacceptable. The members of the third category are people who many times hear of tragedy and are silent – not because they are adopting the Aaron model of suffering on the inside – rather there is little to no feeling at all. Perhaps it is the frequency of horrific news or rather their inherent individual disposition just does not elicit an emotional and empathetic response in the face of another’s tragedy.

There is a quote that I noticed being circulated on my social media, “If you have a heart, it has to be broken. If it’s not broken, you should question whether you have a heart.” I believe that whoever penned this soundbite not only has a talent for pithy writing, but also genuinely means to inculcate a sense of unity into whomever should happen to read it. Original intentions notwithstanding, the quote also insinuates that those who do not experience heartbreak should introspect and figure out what is wrong and missing inside themselves – and that is a message that I believe is untenable.

After talking with many people, I have discovered a common theme; there is a feeling of genuine guilt due to being incapable of mustering up the emotions to feel the pain of another. I know this to be true, not only because of the friends and colleagues who have confided in me, but because I also struggle with the inability, at times, to adequately empathize with another’s difficulties, and I too contemplate whether it is a shortcoming of my own character.  It was about when I was going through that thought process that I rediscovered the “Bad Middos Pirates” book from my childhood in which I shunned the idea of imposing guilt on a person simply for his disposition or lack of it thereof. If a person is naturally worrisome, do not condemn him if that is how he is emotionally wired. I think it is the same case here – we should not feel shame for our lack of feeling and emotions when a calamity occurs, if it is something that our mind simply does not permit us at the time.

While I did not procure a Biblical model for this third category, I think the broad system of the Torah’s commandments already speaks to this issue. Judaism and its commandments rarely, if ever, demand emotion, if one looks at the mitzvos they are circumscribed and mandated in the form of deed: Do not light a fire on the Sabbath; bring a peace offering; do not consume blood – the list goes on. (Even mitzvos tzrichos kavananah, which is principle that requires actions to be coupled with the mind, only refers to intellectual intent.) Astonishingly, this principle applies to the mitzvah of “love thy neighbor”, one of the few commandments that one would surmise that it requires an alteration of one’s emotional state. The Sefer HaChinuch, the go-to book for explaining the 613 commandments, describes the mitzvah as follows:

ודיני מצוה זו כלולים הם בתוך המצוה, שכלל הכל הוא שיתנהג האדם עם חבירו כמו שיתנהג עם עצמו, לשמור ממונו ולהרחיק ממנו כל נזק, ואם יספר עליו דברים יספרם לשבח ויחוס על כבודו ולא יתכבד בקלונו…

…The general rule is that a person should conduct himself with his fellow the same way he conducts with himself, to guard his property and guard it from damage, and if he speaks about him, he should do so in a manner of praise…

(Sefer HaChinuch, Mitzvah #243)

We see that even this mitzvah that you would think is rooted in the adjustment of one’s sentiments is commanded in the form of deed. I believe this is because God created humans with the intention that we all have varying psychological proclivities, and that our personality and emotional state are not always in our hands – therefore, we should not feel ashamed for the dispositions which we are predisposed to possess. Instead, God demands of us to be proactive and when our fellow community members need our help, rather than sit and meditate to bring ourselves to an emotional state, skip that and go straight to the deed at hand and fulfill the mitzvah of aiding your neighbor. If one’s emotions can lead him to perform a mitzvah, then he should make use of them as a means to action, and if his emotions do not compel him to perform a mitzvah, then let him perform it nonetheless.

Emotions and the ability to empathize vary amongst individuals, and we should not shame people for who they are or are not. Rather, we are all capable of action, and I believe that when tragedy occurs, God demands us to act – and that is something that can be done by all people regardless of their innate mental dispositions.

About the Author
Moshe Kurtz is a Rabbinical student at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and is completing his Master of Science at the Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education & Administration. Moshe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Yeshiva College where he was also granted the “Steven Gladstein Memorial Award for Service to the Jewish People”. During his undergraduate career, Moshe held the position of Executive Director at Hisoriri, a program which services under-resourced synagogues in America’s Northeast region. Moshe is an alumnus of the LimmudNY/Hartman Rabbinical Student Fellowship and has worked at the UJA-Federation of NY’s Wiener Center for Leadership and Learning. Moshe currently serves as the Rabbinic Intern at the Young Israel of Plainview, works as a Kollel Fellow teaching Talmud at Ramaz Upper School and is a member of the 92nd Street Y’s Jewish Innovation Fellowship.
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