November 21, 2018

Navigating grief’s wilderness: Parashat Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20)

“You must make yourself like a wilderness in order to receive the Torah” (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:26).

This week’s parsha, Bamidbar, begins the Book of the Wilderness, more commonly known as the Book of Numbers. We return to the narrative of the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, equipped with Leviticus’ revelation of the ritual technology, given to Moses at Mount Sinai, for maintaining a connection with The Holy. This technology provides metaphors for today’s efforts to find alignment with Holiness.

Many commentators, most recently Avivah Zornberg, have explored the etymological and experiential connection between the words for wilderness, “midbar,” and for speech, “diber,” which share a three-letter linguistic root. In my work, with those traversing what I call “the wilderness of grief,” the connection between the words is clear: Those I shepherd struggle literally “to come to terms” with their loss. 

I have tried to map the wilderness of grief, in order to make it more navigable and help mourners find their voice, by configuring the stages of grief as five sukkot, corresponding loosely to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ formulation of the five stages of grief. Each is a place mourners are commanded to live, but only temporarily, like the command that we reside in the temporary shelters we create during Sukkot. 

I have given each sukkah a holy Hebrew name, aligned it with one of grief’s emotional experiences, and created meditative and expressive exercises to facilitate expression of the relevant feelings. My hope: Emphasizing grief’s dwelling places as transitory, essential and holy, will make them less frightening, encouraging those who suffer to explore each sukkah fully in order to seek wisdom on the mourners’ path. 

Choosing words to describe and contain the experiences of those making their way through the wilderness of grief is a humbling task. Using language to shape an empty space has prestigious biblical antecedents. According to Genesis, the world was created out of chaos through the words of God (Bereshit 1:1-31). Medieval Jewish philosophy referred to human beings as “midaber” (creatures who speak), according to 20th-century philosopher and historian Gershom Scholem. It was in the wilderness that the Ten Commandments and the Torah, words to shape human behavior, were given. 

It is my hope that those who traverse this wilderness will “come to terms” not just with individual loss, but also with what it means to be human, creating new worlds for themselves from grief’s chaos and forging a new relationship with God. Grief becomes a spiritual path.

The time in the wilderness is a time of great vulnerability. This is certainly true for those in the crucible of grief work, where it feels as if the Divine Energy has withdrawn, shattering the world and hiding its holiness. It is here that the mourner enters the tents of the Wilderness of Mourning to confront grief’s broken, uncontained feelings to face grief work’s intensity. I hope each of these sukkot can provide the environment, in the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish, “hamakom yenachem (place of comfort),” needed for the work of grief.

Avodah, Hebrew for “work,” is the name for the sacrificial service performed in Jerusalem’s ancient Temple and the Yom Kippur service commemorating those practices. The sacrifices (korbanot, meaning “drawing near”) were the vehicles to bring closeness to God and realignment with holiness. Sacrifice provided the spiritual technology enabling transformation from physical (the sacrificial offering) to spiritual (closeness with God). In grief’s wilderness, the mourner, too, seeks the transformation of what has been prominent in his or her physical world to a spiritual connection.

Indeed, through these unbidden sacrifices, which propel individuals to the mourners’ path, the mourner can be brought closer to God. Although grief work mostly focuses on the loss of an individual, often it is about reclaiming and reconstructing closeness to the Holy Presence, which is hidden in the torment of loss and change, causing doubt and shattering faith. 

During this time in the wilderness, fractious emotional states are evident, including experiences of anger, depression and anxiety. On this nonlinear and often chaotic path, the mourner ricochets from one feeling to another. These broken feelings make their way into the containment and shelter provided by the sukkot. I hope that by distilling each feeling from the chaos of grief and assigning it to a specific sukkah, feelings will become less frightening and more manageable. Each sukkah holds an important truth about the human experience. Each reveals another place where one encounters, through the lenses of the emotions, another face of the Divine. 

Within each of the five tents in our wilderness of mourning, the mourner will find very different opportunities for struggle, growth and healing. When the mourner is ready to leave the tents, it is my hope that he or she will be transformed and able to utter the words, which, in the Book of Bamidbar, signify the transformation of what started out as a curse into a blessing:

Ma tovu, ohalecha Yaakov, mishkanotecha Yisrael! How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places Israel!

And to exclaim, as Jacob did as he began his journey, “God was in this place and I, I knew it not.”


Rabbi Anne Brener, an L.A.-based psychotherapist and spiritual director, is a professor at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights Publishing).