I am totally out of sync.
The Jewish calendar sets aside certain times of year for joy and others for sadness. In late winter, the month of Adar ushers in a time of celebration. However, this past year a string of familial illnesses and problems began on the first day of Adar and continued through the spring. The happiest time of the year for me was a fun-filled summer spent with my children – which coincided with the month of Av on the Jewish calendar during which Jews mourn the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. This fall, “zman simchatenu,” the time of the joyous holiday of Sukkot coincided with a new period of sadness for our family – as my step-grandmother was hospitalized. I feel intense emotional dissonance. What do you do when you feel like dancing on Tisha B’av and mourning on Simchat Torah?
In this week’s Torah portion, Noah and his family must have felt an overwhelming mix of emotions. After the flood, they must have felt tremendous loss at the scope of the destruction, yet also relief that the flood finally ended, offering them a new chance at life. Once the flood concluded, God forged a brit, a covenant with Noah and his sons, along with their descendents (i.e. all humanity) and all living creatures. The covenant elaborates responsibilities for humanity to keep key commandments (including not committing murder), and God promising never to flood the world again.
This first brit between God and humanity foreshadows the second brit that God made with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants in next week’s Torah portion. This second covenant includes more commandments for the Jewish people to keep and more promises by God. As Jews, we are subject to three different covenants – the one with all humanity, the one with the Jewish people, and the one we make with our family.
Each of these covenants has emotions that go along with our responsibilities, which do not necessarily overlap. We may experience familial joy during the Jewish season of mourning. Conversely, a familial tragedy can occur on a joyful Jewish holiday, as can a horrific event in the world – such as the shooting in Nairobi that happened during Sukkot. In such moments our emotions are mixed. We experience discord between how we feel as a person or as a family member and as a Jew at that moment.
Our tradition recognizes emotional conflicts and symbolically represents them. On Shabbat, salt is placed on the challah to remind us of the sadness that accompanies celebration. Likewise, a glass is broken under the wedding canopy to signify that even at our happiest moments, our joy is inherently incomplete. Somehow at joyous times, we are even more aware of the passage of time. We wish such moments could last forever, and we know that they can’t.
Perhaps then the emotional dissonance that I’ve been experiencing is an inevitable bi-product of the blessings of being in multiple covenants – connected to family, community and all humanity. While synchronicity between these realms is not always possible, we can hope that joy in one realm can offer some comfort for sorrows in another.