A couple on the beach in Tel Aviv on the fourth day of the temporary truce between Israel and Hamas, on Nov. 27, 2023

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Grieving and Living

How to hold one another in light of the ever-present reality of loss

Sharon Brous
January 09, 2024
A couple on the beach in Tel Aviv on the fourth day of the temporary truce between Israel and Hamas, on Nov. 27, 2023

Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
—Kahlil Gibran

The High Holy Days are the spiritual epicenter of the Jewish year. Each fall, these days call us into an annual encounter with the deepest truth: Life is precious and precarious, and never to be taken for granted. The rituals and liturgy of this season are designed to awaken us from our death-denying slumber, inviting us to sit instead with the reality that we all hover dangerously close to the very edge of life. The season begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and culminates with Yom Kippur, when we don’t eat or drink, we wear white, and we immerse ourselves in the memories of loved ones who have died. We repeat the words, “Who will live and who will die,” wrestling with the inescapable truth that some of us will be here next year and some will not. We do this not to punish ourselves, but because we have more clarity around what matters most when we recognize how profoundly vulnerable we are. The expectation is that an encounter with these ancient rituals will empower us to use the time we have to live with both humility and urgency.

But some years, we don’t need the Holy Days for that reminder. Sometimes pain tears through a community and we’re all too aware of how very fragile life is. Those years, the holidays become more of a spiritual touchstone, a reminder of how to hold one another in light of the ever-present reality of loss.

One year, at the start of this holy period, one of our families went away for a short end-of-summer vacation and their beautiful little boy Gidi died in a terrible boating accident. It was just days before his fifth birthday.

Gidi wore bright socks and colorful clothes, and he loved anything with a sparkle or a touch of glitter. He introduced himself to strangers in line at the ice cream shop and greeted every teacher by name as he galloped into his Jewish day school each morning, exuberant. His death made a mockery of the world.

ANASTROPHE [uh-nas-truh-fee] noun. An inversion of the usual order.
From the Greek, meaning “turning upside down.”

In literature, an anastrophe is a rhetorical mechanism that flips the usual order of a sentence, disturbing the expected flow of a text. It’s used to rouse the reader to pay close attention to a particular point, especially something they might otherwise have missed. From Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye: “Certain seeds it will not nurture, certain fruit it will not bear …” From Shakespeare, in Hamlet: “to thine own self be true.”

Anastrophe, I now believe, can also be a bitter lived reality, when a tragedy upends the natural order, disturbing the expected flow of a life. Like the literary device, it’s so jarring that it rouses the observer to pay close attention to a particular truth or reality, especially one we might otherwise have wanted to ignore.

The death of a child is an anastrophe. A turning upside down of the normal order of things (parents ought not bury their children), a disturbance so profound it inverts all logic and reasoning, leaving only chaos in its wake.

Gidi’s death was heartbreaking, terrifying, destabilizing. It was anastrophic. A blunt force confrontation with the unavoidable truth of our vulnerability. A terrible reverberative trauma tore through the community.

When I sat with Gidi’s parents, Jesse and Amit, that first night after the funeral, they said they’d come to Shabbat services on Saturday to say Mourner’s Kaddish. So we’ll do what we do, I thought. We’ll make space to hold grief.

The problem was, that Shabbat was Niko’s bar mitzvah, and this child was a wonder. Unlike so many kids, who have to be pressured, coerced, and maybe lightly bribed into adequate bar mitzvah preparation, Niko embraced it all, delighting in every moment. He deserved a wholehearted celebration, and I was committed to making sure he got it.

But how? How dare we dance and sing in the presence of such pain? Can the room even bear the weight of so much sorrow, and still manage to celebrate? As always, when faced with a grave moral or spiritual challenge, I looked to the wisdom of my ancestors. In this moment, two ancient stories became my guideposts.

Both stories stem from the same pivotal moment in Jewish history, the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE. Some context: Vespasian Caesar and his legions were merciless. The Romans waged a war of annihilation and humiliation against the Jews, slaughtering elders and children, men and women. Most of those who weren’t murdered died from starvation or were brought in chains to Rome to be enslaved, debased, and degraded for sport. And Roman forces burned the Temple, our holiest of holy sites—the center of Jewish religious and spiritual practice—to the ground. It was called a hurban, a great catastrophe. A complete devastation. These stories offer a glimpse at the lives of the survivors.

Grieve and Live

The first story: Trauma rippled through the community of survivors, as the horror of the Roman conquest and all that was lost began to sink in. Many survivors and their children became ascetics. “How could we possibly eat meat,” they reasoned, “which used to be sacrificed on the Temple altar, or drink wine, which was poured as libation, when every bite and sip reminds us of the destruction?” What they were really asking: How could one even live in light of all that we’ve lost?

That thinking may sound extreme, but it was increasingly normative in their time. One of the prominent rabbis in the survivor community even decreed that Jews should no longer marry. How could they think of bringing children into a world of so much pain and persecution? His view was rejected—it would have ensured the end of the Jewish people!—but his thinking persists to this day. During the past decade, I’ve heard from many young people a reluctance to bring children into the world in light of climate devastation. These conversations are painful. I believe strongly that we need not to give up on the world but to invest in a healthy, resilient future. And even still, I both respect and resonate to the impulse to preempt human suffering at all costs. I really do understand.

But listen to the rebuke those ascetics received from the great Rabbi Yehoshua: “OK, no meat or wine,” he said. “But then you really ought to stop eating bread, too, because the meal offering can no longer be made after the destruction.”

“That’s fine,” they said. “We can live on produce.”

“Well, but you really shouldn’t eat fruit either,” Rabbi Yehoshua said. “Because the first-fruits can no longer be brought as an offering. And by the way, you really should also stop drinking water, now that water-libations have ceased.”

And to this they could find no answer. Checkmate. “We’re listening,” they said.

So Rabbi Yehoshua taught them, and us, a lesson about loss and life: “My children,” he said, “hear me out. You must mourn. The devastation deserves our attention and commemoration. But to mourn too much, to live in perpetual deprivation, is simply wrong. Instead, the challenge is to find a way to grieve and live.”

How, though? How can we hold that tension? Rabbi Yehoshua offered some very practical guidelines: When we paint our homes, he advised, we should leave a little patch bare, unfinished. When we prepare a feast, we must leave out one delicacy. When we get dressed up, leave off one piece of jewelry. We remain always mindful of what we’ve lost, even as we build houses and eat good food, get dressed up and go dancing, fall in love and maybe even make art and babies.

The moral of this story: Even in the deepest suffering, there is still joy. To be alive is to see that this world overflows with blessings. Even here, even now. You grieve, and you live.

Live and Grieve

The second story: A generation or two after the great destruction, a young couple got married and there was a big, communal feast. But during the course of the evening, the groom’s father, a rabbi, grew increasingly agitated as he saw the wedding guests, including his esteemed Rabbinic colleagues, dancing, schmoozing, and boozing with reckless abandon.

It’s too much! he thought. As if the Temple hadn’t burned at all! He grabbed an expensive, precious white glass; held it high above his head; and smashed it to the ground. It was the sound of shattered glass that sobered them, and they remembered.

Thus emerged one of the most evocative Jewish rituals: breaking a glass beneath the chuppah, the wedding canopy. The logic of the broken glass is this: Even in this wholehearted moment, surrounded by love, don’t you dare believe that you are somehow disconnected from the rest of humanity. There is anguish, aching, striving all around us, and we must never forget that we’re inextricably and enduringly connected to one another.

The moral of this story: Even in the greatest joy, there is still heartache.

These stories, inversions of one another, took place decades apart. But taken together, they form a coherent message, an ancient wisdom echoing through the ages: As long as this world remains unredeemed, the most human thing we can do is build a spiritual consciousness that can hold both heartache and happiness. Grieve deeply, and leave room for the light. Celebrate wholeheartedly, but always with humble awareness of where the pain lives. Grieve and live. Live and grieve. Because if we’re paying attention, every moment is pregnant with both pain and possibility. There is simply never only one or the other.

Excerpted from “The Amen Effect” © 2024 by Sharon Brous. Published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founding rabbi of IKAR, a Jewish community in Los Angeles. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of IKAR or any other organization.