D’var Torah: Naming our sense of loss
Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 3 July 2020
Very early on in the lockdown, a short article was published in the Harvard Business Review entitled ‘That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief’.
The article contained an interview with David Kessler who, together with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, wrote the book, ‘On Grief and Grieving’, an exploration of her five stages of grief. Kessler spoke about the different types of grief facing people around the world in the context of pandemic – the feelings of loss – loss of normality, loss of connection – the anticipatory grief about what an uncertain future might hold.
There was then – and remains – something very powerful about naming our shared, and personal, experiences as forms of grief, of loss. It gave a frame to acknowledge what we have been through, to recognise our emotions.
And in truth it still does.
Because, more than three months on, our reality is that we continue to have to confront this feeling of loss.
For all of our youngsters in transition this year – taking exams, finishing school, moving schools – the rituals of their lives are not as they should be. Today, in a normal year, we would be wishing many of our young people well as they head off for the summer in our annual summer send off. Public exams would have finished last week, our 16 year olds should be heading off on Israel tour. This room should be filled with the noise of celebration. The sense of loss, of grief, is acute.
As we head into the summer, the many weddings we would normally be celebrating as a community have been postponed, or are being reimagined with limited guestlists, no parties, social distancing under the chuppah, the officiant unable to sing the sheva brachot… Again, there is a sense of loss – loss of opportunity, loss of normality.
And while much of the talk of the last week has been of shuls opening up, as we have explored what this will really mean, for me it has been accompanied not by a sense of relief or excitement but of loss. I’ve spent much of this week in briefings – with government ministers and civil servants, with Public Health England. What I now know is that what we will be able to do as and when we eventually open this building a little, is not Alyth as I know it. And for that – after 12 years of work to serve and sustain a community of joyful prayer – for that, I grieve.
I want nothing more than to be open, to be in this room with people – lots of them. To be with community; to sing together – our voices joining together in joyful song. This is what I, what we, imagine when we think of opening up. But that is not what is on offer, not how it would be – and facing that reality causes me to grieve.
I grieve for the experience of all of us together. Because if and when we open, we will not all be here – in fact only a tiny proportion of our praying community – with the vast majority still watching online – kept away by age, vulnerability or – for most – sheer over-demand. This is why the quality of what we offer online must remain our first priority.
I grieve for a building open to all, where I get that lovely surprise of seeing someone I haven’t seen for a while, or that unexpected visitor. But those here will be a few who have managed to book in – anyone turning up would not be welcomed, but unable to come in.
I grieve for 300 people singing together in this room. Because we won’t be in this room together – the lack of ventilation means that in practice we will not use this space; And there will be no singing – in fact, no loud speaking either. As is now well known, only the leader will be allowed to sing, from behind a plexi-glass screen.
And together on the bimah, we will need to be separated too. It turns out that one of the things that has been restorative for us as clergy over the last few weeks, standing together but apart on the bimah, has not been good practice, that singing is so problematic that – from as soon as we can get a screen – we will need to be separated by a divider between us, too.
Most of all, I grieve for the human relationships that are fundamental to my work – the hugs and handshakes, the quiet words – to be replaced by 2m distance and policing of regulations. The current guidelines state that each household will stay separated; no Kiddush, no chatting together, separated when here and also on coming in and leaving. Physically separated by distance, in the case of clergy, by screens. In the same room but more distant than ever.
The decision that communities like ours face is not the same as those which have not held services on Shabbat or festivals at all since March, that cannot do Shabbat without opening, that won’t say kaddish online. The decision for us is not a binary open/closed. In fact, we should stop using that language. The opening up of which we have heard so much – at least in the context of our communal prayer – is a misnomer. We are talking about gradations of closedness. We have not been fully closed. And the options available to us are far from opening.
The experience of coming in to this place will not be as we wish, as we imagine when we close our eyes; will not fill that gap, will not be the source of sustenance we need.
And so, I come to this Shabbat with a sense of loss that has not been so great since I stood alone in front of a laptop 105 days ago. I am grieving for the continued loss of something which is normally the source of such joy. Grieving for the wellspring of energy and love and joy from which I, and many of us, have drunk each week and currently we cannot.
It is a sense of loss tempered by what we are doing now. By the fact that we still have this extraordinary, wonderful thing that so many others do not – the joy of being community even if apart, the joy of seeing one another joining together in lighting candles, singing together, being together.
And tempered by the knowledge that as soon as it is possible, we will all be together, singing, once again. But not yet.
What was so powerful about that article back in mid-March, why it went around the world, was that it named our pain.
The challenge we face now is not to pretend that the pain doesn’t still exist – that is a politician’s trick. No real use to us.
Nor is there much point in screaming and shouting, and demanding. Denial, anger, bargaining will not change our current reality.
For now, we have to accept that we cannot yet have back what we want.
For now, we have to live with loss in the best way we can.
And despite the loss strive to still fulfil the words that define our prayer life – Ivdu et Adonai B’simchah, to serve God with joy.