When to rise

“People keep trying to cheer me up” my college buddy recently told me. A terminal diagnosis had shaken him to his core. “For now, I just need to feel terrible. Maybe someday I’ll feel something else. But not today.”

We all want to say helpful things. Yet sometimes we rush hopeful sentiments to a scene before their due. Where you’re feeling the stab of shock and pain, tender presence is a better first-responder than conjured hope is.

Barbara Ehrenreich makes this clear in her book Bright-Sided. She recalls the days after she learned she had breast cancer. “You should embrace this disease” she was told. “It’s actually a gift to you that’s going to make you stronger.” Such optimism gone-awry can actually tell someone you’re not with them. When they are lying prostrate and you run in to pull them up, you might just be telling them you’re elsewhere.

Our Calendar’s saddest day arrives this Sunday. It recalls national destruction. The prophet Jeremiah witnesses the initial fall of Jerusalem’s Temple. Centuries later, self-inflicted hatred will destroy it again. Tisha B’av begins in the grip of grief. We hear the lament Eicha uttered for a third time as we sob through a book that bears its name (Lam. 1:1). This week’s portions of Torah and Haftorah find Moses and Isaiah wailing it too (Deut 1:12, Is. 1:21). The Torah’s final book opens by recalling the faithless failure of the spies whose generation wasn’t allowed to begin settling the covenanted land. Before they can learn life-lessons, they need to dwell at low points. Hope will follow. We will resume praying Ashrei, a different four-letter word that signifies grateful joy three times each day.

Being hopeful is enormously helpful. It’s the backbone of American ingenuity and of Zionist resilience. Israel’s founding Prime Minister, Ben Gurion, used to say, “The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer.”  

But there are times when hope needs to wait outside. Not to give it the cold shoulder. Rather to enable it to flourish. This is because when you’re honest with your sadness then you can believe in your recovery-capacity. 

Let’s take the lesson of Sunday’s national fast day personally. In doing so, may we recall that it’s a lot harder to launch from mid-air. It’s the low-points that can offer firmer footing. The key is to know when it’s time to plant your feet. 

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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