When Jewish holidays can seem like too much

By Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein

This story was originally published on My Jewish Learning.

(JTA) — My son’s hair is more unruly than usual, though that’s typical for this time of year. In our family, we follow the custom of not cutting our hair during the omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot.

The omer is treated as a time of mourning — first marking the deaths of many thousands of Jews in the Bar Kochba revolt and subsequent plague in 132 CE, and later taking on significance as the time of year when Ashkenazi Jews frequently experienced pogroms.

Soon we’ll get a reprieve — a picnic, maybe a haircut — on the 33rd day of the count, known as Lag B’Omer (which this year falls on May 26). And we know we will end this period a little more than two weeks after that with the celebration of Shavuot, for not only have we survived massacre and plague, but we have received the Torah and have had harvests of plenty for thousands of years.

This week, I find my heart as scraggly as the wilding beards I see on the Brooklyn subway, because we are not only midway through the omer, but also just marked a trio of “yoms” — Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), Yom HaZikaron (Israeli Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israeli Independence Day).

In “Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory,” Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi calls our holiday observances acts of “ritual remembering,” a method by which Jewish collective memory is preserved through rituals, ceremonies and liturgical practices rather than just historical records. We don’t just hear about the Exodus from Egypt; we taste it as we eat matzo and salt water at the Passover Seder. We sing and feast to celebrate our liberation and we care for the downtrodden because we know what it means to be enslaved. And yes, the old joke about typical Jewish holidays (attributed to Alan King) encapsulates our typical ceremonies succinctly: “They tried to kill us, we prevailed, let’s eat.”

This year, that process is more fraught than most. It has been only seven months since the massacres of Oct. 7, and we are still engulfed in a brutal war. How can we engage in acts of ritual remembering when we are living in between “they tried to kill us” and “we prevailed”?

Our processes of mourning and memory can provide some guideposts. When a close loved one dies, we sit shiva, seven days at home in which our community ensures we do not grieve alone. Friends provide food and comfort, listening as we share raw expressions of loss and memory. We aren’t ready to make meaning. It is too soon with our fresh losses and ongoing trauma.

Instead, we gather, share stories and support those in the depths of grief, collectively waiting for the time when we might begin to make meaning. This sharing is the beginning of a narrative process during which memories become stories, eventually burnished into legacy when they motivate our actions.

My late father shared a poignant story from another challenging time in our history: Simchat Torah during the Yom Kippur War of 1973. With shades drawn down across Tel Aviv for air raids, every neighbor had a loss to mourn, a shiva to attend. Amidst the heavy grief and omnipresent reality of war, he suddenly heard sounds of singing. A throng was dancing with a Torah through the streets of secular Tel Aviv. They proclaimed, “If we cannot dance in the streets with the Torah, then what is the point of fighting at all?”

They knew the laws of sitting shiva are paused for Shabbat and ended for the festivals. And they were following the teaching of Rav Nachman of Breslov, who said that it is forbidden to despair. As long as we carry forward Torah, as long as we reach toward and seek to reflect God’s light, we access a source of hope. As future ancestors and as descendants of Abraham and Sarah, we embody an indomitable spirit that affirms life even in the darkest of times.

What if we could, even now in fresh grief, still weather our despair with the memory of past redemptions? What if our rituals this year could reflect not only the sorrow of those we have lost, but also our indomitable spirit and a stubborn hope for peace and security? What if we allow ourselves this Shavuot to truly receive the gift of Torah to give us strength and hope?

As hair grows and tears flow through this omer period, we add new stories of collective and personal sorrows. Someday our current sorrows will be memories, woven into the tapestry of our shared destiny, where time and again we “sow in tears and reap in joy,” in the words of the psalmist. As we count down to Shavuot, we are reminded that, just as we stood together at Sinai, we will once again gather in the celebration of Torah and the renewal it promises.

Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein is executive director of Atra: Center for Rabbinic Innovation. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media, or the Texas Jewish Post.

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