Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
05 June 2015 • Parashat B'ha'alot'cha
Grief and Gratitude
Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit…
This week brought the end of sheloshim, the 30-day mourning period, for David Goldberg, the late husband of Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. He died suddenly a month ago, while on vacation. He was 47 years old, and he and Sheryl have two young children.
If you’re on Facebook or read the NYTimes, you may have seen the heart-wrenching and inspiring reflection that Ms. Sandberg posted online to mark the end of sheloshim.
I want to share with you a few highlights from it, and my reflections. While I imagine it was cathartic for her to write, it is also a case study in leadership, as she took her private pain and turned it into an opportunity to reach out to others. Anyone who has lost a loved one, or knows someone who has, will resonate with her words.
She wrote, in part:
I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well. But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning… I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.
Sandberg went on to share lessons she learned about empathy:
I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth.
A phrase in this week’s Haftarah, from the prophet Zechariah, flashed through my mind when I read these words: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit…” Our instinct when we encounter someone in pain is to fix it. To make it go away. That’s why we say things like,
- It’s going to be ok.
- Time will heal all.
- Don’t worry.
- Don’t cry.
- Smile. Cheer up.
One of my most powerful memories from hospital chaplaincy training was a lesson taught by my supervisor. He had met with a patient who was not only very ill, but also depressed, bent under the burden of seeing her body give out, and losing her independence. She said to him, “I want to die.”
Our natural reaction to those words — and the response from family, friends, and nursing staff in this case —is to say, “No, you don’t mean that!” Somehow we hear those words "I want to die" as a form of surrender, and we, the living, can’t countenance that.
Really, it’s about our own fear of mortality. Our own avoidance mechanism. When you say to someone, “No, you don’t mean that!” – what you’re telling them is: I’m not really hearing you
or acknowledging your pain. You’re saying, I’m uncomfortable with your honest outcry so I’m going to impose on you a superficial idea of cheer to make MYSELF feel better. Not you. Let’s just sweep that painful messy stuff under the rug and make it nice and tidy.
In Jewish tradition, Bikur Cholim — visiting the sick — and Nichum Aveilim — comforting mourners — are deeply important mitzvot, sacred commandments that define our responsibility to one another. I believe they are commanded because they are not always easy or intuitive. When we sit by a hospital bed or at a shiva, we confront our own insecurities about illness and death. Only by facing our fears honestly can we be truly present for those who need us. Only then can we witness *their* struggle, and acknowledge *their* pain.
These mitzvot — visiting the ill and comforting the bereaved — are also commanded because they should be blessings to those who perform them. Here, again, Sheryl Sandberg’s words:
I have learned gratitude. Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before—like life. As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted. When a friend told me that he hates birthdays and so he was not celebrating his, I looked at him and said through tears, “Celebrate your birthday, goddammit. You are lucky to have each one.” My next birthday will be depressing as hell, but I am determined to celebrate it in my heart more than I have ever celebrated a birthday before.
“Not by might, nor by power, but by spirit.” Zechariah’s prophecy was about messianic times, the restoration of Jewish sovereignty to the land. But it means something for us, too.
When we truly show up for someone, when we let down our guard enough to really see and hear them, when we learn to cultivate gratitude in ourselves — then we bring redemption near. Each time we bear witness to another’s private pain, each small, honest kindness, is a taste of the world to come.
Shabbat Shalom. May we bring peace to one another.