The State of Grief 2 (Angels, Oars, Visas, and a Little Theology)

Thanks to so many who wrote me with consoling words of hope – no, not just hope; faith is more like it, faith that I would eventually find my way back home to Wellbeing. Faith and patience, actually, because the word “eventually” looms large.           

The mind is an amazing thing. Out of nowhere, I found myself remembering a tenth- century rabbinic responsum I used to teach — would you believe it? For those who did not go to rabbinic or cantorial school, let me say that a responsum is just a rabbinic answer to a legal question. This one is about pidyon haben, “redemption of the first-born boy,” a ritual that (for several reasons), is not universally observed nowadays, so some readers may not have been at one. No matter. The section of the responsum that I somehow conjured up is no longer part of the official ritual anyway. 


1. Angels:

In medieval times, the ritual gave thanks for the healthy baby by including a statement of rabbinic embryology. It is a poetic fiction of course, an imaginative attempt to capture the miracle of embryonic formation and a baby coming successfully into the world. With no medical science on which to rely, the prayer draws instead on quotations from the Book of Job (Chap 10), where Job looks back on his embryonic existence, and says (among other things), “You [God] granted me life and loving-kindness” (chayim vachesed). From this, the prayer deduces, “God appoints angels to watch over the foetus in the mother’s womb.”

The “proof text” (Job 10:12) is itself rich with implications. Reasonably enough, Job recalls being granted life throughout his gestation, but why loving-kindness? 

The lesson I draw is that to be human, you need two things: not just life but the capacity for loving-kindness as well. An embryo that does not develop into life is an anomaly that (we say) “is miscarried”; a baby born with life but not loving-kindness is equally an anomaly, a type of person about whom we wonder, “How can someone be so unfeeling, even cruel?” Think of Jaubert in Les Miserables, for example. Jaubert is alive; he is human — but not humane, not the way people are meant to be. 

What amazes me equally, however, is something else: the play on words, by which the prayer interprets “life and loving-kindness” as the names of the angels, as if God summoned two angels named Chayim (Life) and Chesed (Loving Kindness), to watch over the proper development of the foetus. Naming is a concrete way of bringing lofty ideas down to earth.


2. Oars: 

“Don’t even try to comfort the bereaved while their dead still lie before them,” the Rabbis say. Good advice. When loved ones die, they lie before you long after the funeral. Only eventually, do you heal sufficiently to hear what people say, and only then do you begin paddling back across the river that divides the State of Grief from the State of Wellbeing. What I have learned since my last letter is this: what you need most for that journey are faith and patience: faith that you will someday get there; and patience until you do. 

If a foetus could write a blog, I suppose it too might urge “faith and patience,” to get through the nine months until birth. It strikes me, then, that the in-betweenness of floating between Grief and Wellbeing is womb-like: I am in the process of being born again; this gestation of mourning will not quickly end, just because I wish it would. I should never have imagined that I could just jump into a canoe and paddle home without being repeatedly turned back by the tide. The Rabbis think that waiting for the Messiah is another period of gestation, and they say of it, “You cannot force the end.” So too with mourning. Canoes are sleek and speedy, but speed is not my friend at the moment. 

So I ditched my canoe and paddle and traded them in for a rowboat and oars — two oars, mind you, which I have named: not “Life and Lovingkindness,” but “Faith and “Patience.” 


3. Visas

What I like about my clunky rowboat is that, unlike a canoe, it must be rowed slowly, just a bit at a time. When the effort exhausts me, I sit on the gentle waves for a day or two, before rowing some more. On one of those periods, quite close to Wellbeing’s shore, I observed that whenever I got this close, the current would draw my little rowboat back into the river’s depths again. Now, patience is a fine thing to help one wait, but waiting is itself an opportunity, not just to vegetate but to look around and see things differently, so I pondered the problem and discovered my mistake. I was fixated on the jetty from which I had left the State of Wellbeing in the first place. I had forgotten the advice of a friend who had gone through this before me: “When you return, you will find yourself landing on a different stretch of beachfront.” 

Sure enough, by expanding my horizon, I could see several jetties along the beach. The State of Wellbeing, it turns out, is not a single thing. It is divided into provinces, each with its own beachfront. The beach from which I left has no landing jetty at all; you can leave from there, but you must return to some other province, which requires its own visa. These provincial visas come with asterisked caveats in small print, “Wellbeing, even though….” I am rowing once again, still patiently of course, but this time, I am heading toward the province set aside for returnees to Wellbeing (*Even Though They Have Suffered a Devastating Loss). 

Everyone copes with something or other, eventually – several somethings or other over the course of a lifetime. If we flip through the pages of our passports, we will see them stamped with stages of our life that we have visited, and a record of the various visas we have had to obtain along the way: each major disappointment, each terrible sadness, each character flaw that made us do something of which we are not proud – each of these has its own jetty for return; each one demands a visa. Wellbeing, then, is not just “wellbeing because”; it is equally “*wellbeing even though….”  


4. A Little Theology

I hate to quote truisms, but some truisms deserve attention, and this is one of them: You can’t go home again. Each step we take disappears into eternity, never to be trod again. Theologically, we might say that it disappears from us, but not from the mind of God, that sole point of view that sees time the way we see space (time and space being, as we know, a single continuum). We think of eternity linearly, as if it is just that part of a straight line that goes on without any end. But eternity isn’t linear. It is cumulative. It contains all that will happen as well as all that has already come to pass. 

Imagine our expanding map of space. Human mapping began with just our neighborhood; then bits and pieces of the globe until we had explored all around the world; and now we are extending it, endlessly actually, to include however far we go into the ever-expanding universe. Take a spacecraft out to Jupiter, and you no longer see the earth; but the earth is there. So too, with time. What happened long ago is still “there,” but only God can see it; because only God sees time the way we see space. God sees “everything” (space) all the timesub specie aeternitatis, “from the aspect of eternity,” as Spinoza phrased it. 


So much for patience, my first oar. It’s taken some patience for you (and for me) to get this far into the story.  But then there is faith, my second oar, which is its own chapter, and will have to await another posting.


4 responses to “The State of Grief 2 (Angels, Oars, Visas, and a Little Theology)

  1. your writing is like poetry. absolutely captivating. thank you.


  2. Arlene Michalovitz

    Beautiful analogy to expresse this difficult subject
    I’m looking forward to What the second oar faith has to say

  3. Larry,

    You write, you describe so beautifully – I am in tears after having read this.

    Give faith another chance and faith more time – eventually you will reach the shore. But, it will always be a new normal – I used to think after crisis, loss in my life, when will it be normal again and the answer is never, it is always a new normal or new place to land. Our life continually changes whether we want it to or not.

    I always think of a commentary you wrote for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. You spoke of gates – you can look back through the gate but we can’t go back again. As with many of your students, your friends, your readers – your commentaries have affect our lives. And, we all have faith that you will return back to us.

    Bereaved people are told not to make any major changes, like selling a house, for a year. And, your feelings have shown why.

    With love from Joel and me—






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