Sorrow in our Happiness: Processing a War Over a Holiday

Perhaps there is not a time in life to mourn, and then a time to dance. Rather, the two times may co-exist.
October 19, 2023
Mourners grieve during the funeral of Naor Hassidim, 22, who was killed with his girlfriend, Sivan Alkabtas, during the attack on kibbutz Kfar Aza, in Ashdod, Israel. Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Ecclesiastes (3:4) observes that our lives oscillate between a “time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.” The author poetically communicates a truism about the vicissitudes of our social and personal existences: Life is a pendulum of joy and sorrow. These words are either encouraging or ominous, depending on which crescent of the pendulum’s ebb and flow you currently occupy. Indeed, for Ecclesiastes, various moments in life enjoy an incompatible binary relationship:
If you are experiencing jubilation or some high, one ought to feel summarily warned about what is right around the corner.  

Unfortunately, Ecclesiastes’ profound axioms found real-life situations in which both the aforementioned opposites co-existed on one fateful holiday. In the U.S. and in Israel October 7 was simultaneously a time for both mourning and dancing. Those two days were Simchat Torah, the Jewish festival that celebrates the completion of the annual cycle of reading the Torah in synagogue. It is a joyous holiday, replete with congregants dancing while holding Torahs, flag-waving, endless songs, and thrilled children riding upon shoulders; a festival of unparalleled joy and excitement in Jewish tradition. However, the terrorist group Hamas had other plans for this holiday. It began an unprecedented attack Saturday morning in Israel, murdering hundreds, taking hostages and turning the festival into a horrific nightmare. Hamas’ actions created a theological conundrum: Should synagogue attendees celebrate a festival joyously while their brothers and sisters are being murdered and fighting for the safety of our nation?

A similar question was posed by Rabbi Norman Lamm 50 years ago, in 1973. He asked, “[h]ow, indeed, shall we participate in a joyous Simchat Torah when Israeli soldiers have suffered such high casualties? How shall we sing while Jewish mothers weep? How shall we dance while Jewish families in Israel grieve?” Only one day before Hamas’ attack, Israel commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. Like the attack on Saturday, that war started when a group of Arab militants mounted a surprise attack on Israel on a Jewish Holiday. However, in 1973 the holiday was Yom Kippur, more than two weeks before Simchat Torah. This gave Rabbis, theologians, and community leaders two weeks to decide if and how Simchat Torah should be celebrated that year in the painful aftermath of a war which cost Israel more than 2,600 lives. 

A reverse situation occurred on June 7, 1967, when the Old City of Jerusalem was liberated by Israeli paratroopers. The liberation took place about two months before Tisha b’Av, the annual day of mourning commemorating the destruction of the Temple. It was reported that Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the first head of Israel’s military rabbinate and former Chief Rabbi, disbanded his synagogue on Tisha b’Av after reading Lamentations and only half a stanza of the Kinot liturgy. Clearly, the people could not mourn at a time of such joy.

What happens when a time to weep overlaps with a time to laugh, and a time to mourn is also a time to dance?

What I believe these three events have in common is this question: What ought religious practitioners to do when tradition demands an emotional response that is at odds with the realities on the ground? What happens when a time to weep overlaps with a time to laugh, and a time to mourn is also a time to dance?

A more mundane, but similarly tragic predicament regularly arises when a bereaved individual loses a loved one near a Jewish festival. Jewish law demands that the seven-day mourning period cease when the Festival starts. For example, my father had passed away two days before Rosh Hashanah and was buried several hours before the start of the Jewish New Year. My family’s mourning period lasted not seven days, but less than seven hours. I regularly ponder the question: If Judaism considers the seven-day period of mourning a benefit to mental health that helps the grieving process, then how could a Jewish festival ever cut that period short? Should not Judaism consider such a cessation anathema? Similarly, my mother experienced a parallel situation but in reverse, where her mother passed away during the Sukkot festival. Jewish Law in this case demands that the seven-day mourning period be delayed until after the completion of the Holiday. In my mother’s case, her mother passed away on the second day of Sukkot so her seven-day mourning period was delayed seven days until after the close of the festival. She had to wait seven days to mourn! In both these cases, it was clear that the opposing experiences were not permitted to coexist; the individual’s mourning had to be abbreviated or delayed.

Leviticus 10:1-3 presents a narrative that also serves as a paradigm for an individual with conflicting emotions. On what should have been one of the happiest moments in Biblical Israel’s history – the dedication of the Tabernacle – tragedy struck, as Aaron’s two sons died while offering a strange fire at the newly minted altar. We can only imagine Aaron’s boundless glee as he helped create a space on earth for God’s presence to rest. However, that joy was suddenly interrupted and replaced with devastating mourning and grief for his two boys. Aaron’s response is, itself, a case study for responding to sudden tragedy. Aaron could have lashed out; he could have cried, questioning God’s justice and punishment. Instead, his response was silence. Of course, there are many types of silence: There is the silence of obedience, silence of the abused, silence of strength, silence of acceptance, and more. So which silence was Aaron expressing? While we cannot be sure, it certainly was a difficult silence; one that had to account for the glee accompanying the tabernacle’s dedication, the nation’s expectation of their High Priest, and the untimely death of his beloved children. It was a soul-crushing silence that resonates for all readers of the Biblical text.  

Instead of Aaron experiencing the ultimate cognitive dissonance, torn between the need to rejoice and to mourn, I believe that he maintained a cognitive consonance, realizing that one can hold two truths at one. While the concept of balancing two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time may cause mental discomfort, it may hold the key for the most realistic approach to the vicissitudes of life. In real world situations, we may not have the luxury of cognitive dissonance, or be able to hide our pain behind our actions. Instead, we may be charged with a life of consonance where our joy and our pain or grief are all present in each of our actions. 

This Simchat Torah, most synagogues in the U.S. still celebrated the holiday, but in a reduced manner. Many recited additional Psalms; most danced a bit less than they would have. But, like Aaron, we have been forced to balance two truths at the same time, even if they contradict. So, maybe we need to reinterpret Kohelet’s words. Perhaps there is not a time in life to mourn, and then a time to dance. Rather, the two times may co-exist: One must understand that sometimes the time to mourn must also be the time to dance.

Rabbi Russ Shulkes is Associate VP, IA and Associate Dean, IA, RIETS at Yeshiva University.

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