Friday, April 17, 2009

When Poetry is Useless

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote beautifully, in the 43rd chapter of Horeb, about the way that a Yom Tov’s national celebration overrides the private mourning of avelut.

I don’t have that text near me at the moment, but I do have Hirsch’s commentary to the chumash (Vayyikra 10:6), where he rhapsodizes on a related issue: the way that the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) is not permitted to mourn normally.

He wrote of the Kohen Gadol who “represents before Gd the ideal Jew, the ideal of the Immortal Nation; for him, the idea of Gd, and the idea of the Nation, is to drive into the background the feelings of his own wounded self. For before Gd, there is no such thing as Death, and the one who has been called away has only changed the scene of his existence; the Nation too knows no Death, אין צבור מת, in it, all past generations live on, and out of it all the coming ones blossom; in it, at all times past and future are present…

I love reading R’ Hirsch, and this post is in no way meant to knock him. His logic is always impeccable, and his writing is always beautiful. I wish I had time to learn German just to be able to read Hirsch in the original.

But, to be blunt, all of the florid poetry in the world, and all of the sound argumentation, are useless to me at the moment.

We suffered a loss in the community this morning, and someone mentioned the rule that mourning (even if a burial would occur on chol hamoed) is pushed off until after Yom Tov. That called to mind the well-known stories of sages and scholars who overrode their personal grief for the sake of Yom Tov celebrations, Simchas Torah dancing, etc.

I know those stories, and I know the halachah as well as its logic, but it doesn’t change a thing. Grief is hot, burning, and it cannot be cooled by logic and it cannot be soothed by poetry. That certain individuals have managed to overcome it does not diminish the size of the task; just the opposite, the fact that these stories fascinate us testifies to its near-impossibility.

Tonight there is a new widow, and tomorrow (well, today by now) there will be a funeral, and then will come Shabbos and shivah and shloshim. The same scene will be enacted, many times over, elsewhere, today and tomorrow and the next. It’s the most natural thing in the world, and I ought to be used to it by now.

But it still hurts, and the poetry is just that: words on a page, far less real, at the moment, than the person who was breathing just yesterday.


  1. המקום ינחם את כלכם
    feelings come and go regardless of halakhic status... and the brilliant theories of theodicy that sound so utterly convincing one day frequently mean nothing when they're actually needed.

  2. I agree that it's unreasonable to expect people to put aside their mourning for the sake of Yom Tov. (For me, it's been 3 months since losing my father, and Pesach was still not quite joyous.)

    My heart goes out to the new widow. It is good that she has you to help her in her time of need with your sensitivity to the pain and unfairness of the situation.

  3. Steg, Fruma-
    Thank you very much; I appreciate it.

  4. My father in law was unexpectedly niftar erev Pesach, only a few hours before the chag began. The levaya was here during Chol Hamoed with k'vura in Eretz Yisroel. Shiva was after Pesach. How anyone expected that my mother in law and my husband and brothers in law were going to be having a freilach yom tov is beyond me. I hope never to have such a yom tov again. My husband tried for the sake of our then young children but there was simply no way to put aside the death of a beloved father and grandfather until "later." My heart goes out to this new widow.

  5. ProfK-
    I'm so sorry to hear it; all I can do is offer my condolences, for whatever they might be worth. May your family know much joy on Pesach in the future.

  6. I'm sorry Rabbi if I was perhaps unclear, but the petirah of my father in law was not this immediate past Pesach but some years ago on erev Pesach. Yet, we all remember just how impossible it was to put aside the personal grief and concentrate solely on Pesach.

  7. I have experienced moments in which emotions seemed to conflict with halachic realities or the wisdom of chazal . The halachic reality that a convert is a descendant of Avraham and Sarah did not diminish my sadness at the deaths of my parents. Ulimately, halacha can and should guide action. I find this to be easier when I am honest with myself about matters of feeling. For you as a rabbi to share your honest feelings about your feelings about Rav Hirsh's teachings and your feelings about them is a valuable contribution. It gives common folk like my self permission to confront our conflicts with candour . This ultimately aids a person in avodas Hashem. As one who has experienced aveilus, your words have resonance. Thank you.

  8. ProfK-
    Thanks for clarifying.

    Thanks. I can't think that R' Hirsch was actually legislating emotion; he was too sensitive for that. I think he was describing an abstract ideal.
    On the ger-is-a-newborn front, I certainly don't see it as legislating the way one should feel.
    Even when it comes to "Do not covet," the great majority of halachic authorities understand that as legislation against coveting which leads to action, not the emotion in itself.