by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
I teach a class called Loss & Transformation: Connecting Sacred Texts to Family Stories to Help Deal with Loss, in which I set forth a theology of how our losses can lead us to be transformed, and how the joining of the stories of our familial ancestors with texts of Jewish tradition can provide a useful tool in transforming our grief into a deeper relationship with the Sacred and bringing us to a place of greater strength and peace. At the core of the theology is the phrase we recite to mourners, HaMakom yinachem etchem – May the Place/Space heal you. The word makom, which in modern Hebrew means “place” or “space” is also a name of G!d – this phrase implies that the very space inside us that hurts so deeply is also the source of our healing!
The first words of Parashat Bo speak to this seeming paradox in the thick of Moses’ encounter with Pharaoh, as he – together with G!d – tries to get the Egyptian leader to free the Israelite slaves, G!d says to Moses, “Bo el paroh,” usually translated as “Go to Pharaoh,” (Ex. 10:1) but literally meaning “come to Pharaoh,” as in “Come with me,” or “I’ll be here, so come to me.” Implicit in the Hebrew is G!d’s presence in the midst of the Egyptian palace, the heart of the Israelite’s pain. This is just one example of many places where Jewish tradition speaks of G!d’s presence throughout time and space, reassuring us that the Holy One of Blessing is present in our places of deepest pain, including that empty space left within us after a loss.
I developed the Loss and Transformation class as part of my senior project in rabbinical school, and at the time I wrote my own stories – nine of them. My father had died more than 25 years earlier, and lo those many years he had haunted me in ways not generally useful. The project taught me how to grieve; it provided deep healing; and it helped me transform my life. Two years ago, when my mother died at the ripe old age of 92, I discovered that I truly did know how to grieve. I was OK. Yes, her age and her declining health prior to her death were absolutely factors. But I could also feel that I had developed inner tools to help me along the way.
My mother was an artist and a writer, and she spent about a third of her life working on a memoir she never finished. A year after her death, I realized that I needed to pull her writing and photographs together and publish her unusual story, her lyrical poetry and philosophy, and her moving photographs. I knew this would not be a simple project, but I had no idea of what it would actually entail.
During my initial months on this project, while working with my mother’s writing, I was in familiar territory – I could handle this, I knew what I was doing. But then I started sorting through her photographs, and I quickly found myself in an entirely different world, a visual world, a world much less familiar to me. My mother’s photographs express every step of her deepest and most intense transformation, they create an entrance into a world beyond words, they are the visible and enduring manifestation of the emotional and spiritual work that had pulled my mother out of life-threatening despair and angst, and into a fully engaged and meaningful existence.
Photo by Mary North Allen
As I began examining my mother’s photographs, along with some of her father’s from the early 20th century, absolutely unexpectedly I fell into a well of grief different from anything I had previously experienced. I was taken totally off guard by the complex emotions that so suddenly engulfed me.
What was I grieving? The answer was elusive. It took time and continued engagement with the photographs, but slowly I began to understand that although this grief bore relation to my mother, it was about so much more: this grief was for the planet; this grief was for all that is lost of our mountains and our farms and our suburbs; it was for the experiences my mother had that are no longer possible, for all those places she spoke and wrote about and photographed, and that her father photographed, in the wilderness, in distant lands, and close to home, they all no longer exist as once they did, 100 years ago, or 80 years ago, or even 20 years ago. This grief was for what has been lost since MY childhood, a generation closer in time. It was about the loss of the kind of connection to the land that I had as a child growing up in rural southwestern Wisconsin outdoors every day, winter, spring, summer, and fall. It was about knowing that children today do not play outdoors together in the woods and fields and parks without the watchful eye of an adult nearby. It was about the hum of traffic that is inescapable in suburban Boston where I live, stoppable only by a blizzard. It was about the work I do as a chaplain, sacred to its core, but that takes place inside the walls of a major urban, acute care hospital, where it is possible to spend the entire day without even a view of the sky – so profoundly an un-healing kind of place that is used for healing.
Down the Colorado River, 1930.
The grief I began experiencing was about all these things and so much more – we are paving paradise and putting up parking lots, we are filling the oceans to their very bottoms with the waste from our need to be comfortable, we are changing the climate of the planet in dangerous and irreversible ways. We are multiplying exponentially, filling every nook and cranny of this planet with our presence. Every day. Every minute of every day. And always thinking that only we are created b’tselem Elohim – in the image of G!d, only we deserve the best, only we need to live.
My heart was breaking for all that I love that is gone forever, and for the future that is more uncertain than ever before.
But I kept on, and as I was sorting photographs we were also going through our possessions, ridding ourselves of some of our extraneous Stuff, and during this sorting, I came across a copy of Appalachia, dated December 1997. Wondering why I had it and where it had come from, I opened it up. One article was entitled “Sierra Madre Upshot: The Mountains Mothering Leopold’s Vision of Ecological Health,” by Gary Paul Nabhan. That name, Aldo Leopold, always catches my eye, for it was common parlance in my childhood home – as a botanist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the web of connections in my father’s life in his first years at UW connected to Leopold, and Leopold’s Sand County Almanac was one of my mother’s favorite books, dog-eared from so many readings on long winter nights. And, having lived on the East Coast for over 40 years, his descriptions of his central Wisconsin farm provide a reassuring link to the landscapes of my childhood.
Lapland circa 1933
I started reading. And almost immediately, and without warning, without apparent reason, tears again began streaming down my face. Gary Nabhan goes in search of “the ghost of Aldo Leopold.” He describes Leopold’s response to the Sierra Madre Mountainsof the southwest as the first “healthy ecosystem” he had ever seen. Both Leopold and Nabhan speak of the prehistoric human-built terraces on the mountains – hundreds or perhaps thousands of them – and the positive impact those terraces had on retaining water and providing support for the exceptional biodiversity of the region. The first hint of destruction is Nablan’s reference to Leopold’s statement that this was the ONLY healthy ecosystem he had ever seen – meaning of course, that all the others were NOT healthy, and also that the likelihood that this one would remain healthy for long was minimal.
Nabhan then describes what he experiences, some 50-60 years after Leopold, including details of the widespread degradation of the Sierra Madre ecosystem. Once these mountains had supported indigenous peoples who knew how to live in comfortable self-sufficiency on the mountains, but by the time of Nabhan’s visit, their connection to the land and healthy living had slipped away, so that during a drought truckloads of food had to be brought so they wouldn’t starve. The ecosystem could no longer sustain them.
My heart and soul had been in a vulnerable place, Nabhan’s description of loss touched deep within me and as I read, the tears kept streaming and streaming, and at moments my chest heaved with sobs. I was more fully experiencing that grief for an Earth that no longer exists, and for magical kingdoms of green and brown and gray and blue and pink and more that are gone forever. I wept and I mourned, and my heart was heavy. I knew not what to do.
Later that day, I spent time learning Talmud with friends, and we studied together from that ancient source of Jewish wisdom and law:
The nations will say, “Sovereign of the Universe, has Israel, who accepted the Torah, observed it?”
The Holy One, blessed be He, will reply, “I can give evidence that they observed the Torah.” The nations argue, “O Lord of the Universe, can a father give evidence in favor of his son? For it is written, ‘Israel is My son, My firstborn.’” (Ex. 4:22)
Then will the Holy One, blessed be He, say: “Heaven and Earth can bear witness that Israel has fulfilled the entire Torah.” But the nations will object, saying: “Lord of the Universe, Heaven and Earth are partial witnesses, for it is said, ‘If not for My covenant with day and with night. I should not have appointed the laws of Heaven and Earth.’” (Jer. 33:25)
Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish further said: “What is conveyed by the phrase. ‘And there was evening and there was morning the sixth day’ (Gen 1:31) [of the month of Sivan, the day the Torah was revealed at Mt. Sinai]?” It teaches us that G!d made a condition with the works of creation, saying: ‘If Israel accepts my Law it will be well, but if not, I shall reduce you to a state of chaos,’ which accords with the comment of Rabbi Hezekiah on the verse, ‘You caused sentence to be heard from Heaven, the earth trembled and was still.’ (Ps. 76:9) If Earth trembled, how could it be still, and if it was still, how could it tremble? Rather, at first it trembled [because it feared that without a moral code as the foundation of society, Earth’s inhabitants would not be considerate of it], and subsequently it became still [when the Divine commandments were proclaimed from Sinai and Israel accepted the Torah].’ (Avodah Zarah 3b)
Wow! Fifteen centuries ago, the ancient rabbis taught that if human beings did not abide by a moral code, the Earth would be plunged into the same kind of chaos that pre-existed it in the Genesis creation narrative! How relevant this teaching is for us today! If we do not behave morally toward the planet and all of its inhabitants – 2-legged, 4-legged, many-legged, no-legged, growing in the ground, on the ground, above the ground, in the water, on the ice, and everywhere – chaos will ensue.
Photo by Mary North Allen
I sat back and breathed deeply. The sacred text needed to accompany the family and universal story told by my mother’s photographs had jumped right out at me.
At the same time that my mother’s photographs were touching and releasing my grief, they were also becoming part of me. Yes, I had acknowledged this grief before, but this time, something different was happening. Immersing myself in the piles and piles of photos inherited from my mother, juxtaposed with texts both secular and sacred, had plunged me into a grief I had not experienced before, and by allowing a profound sense of loss of all that has gone from our planet to be expressed, it was also allowing me to be healed, and to be transformed.
As I continued sorting my mother’s pictures, periodically I would get overwhelmed by the enormity of the project I have undertaken, but quitting has never been an option, and neither has taking a month off from work to finish it, for that would mean giving up my own life and all that nourishes me in order to do her work. No, continue I must, both with this project and with all that is important to me, and also, and perhaps most importantly, with living joyfully and with gratitude.
I recognized this, and I realized that the need to keep on slugging through this project was forcing me to work through my grief, for who wants to spend every day mourning, depressed, crying? Not I, that is for sure. And so I continued onward, I alternated between her project and my own projects of work and family and community and following my passions, and as I did so, I began to understand that by standing in the grief and not running away from it, the family story and its connection to a Jewish text were able to come together to not only touch and release my grief, but also to help me deal with my loss, and to help me be transformed.
I first began to recognize the transformation taking place within me when I sensed a change in how it feels to recite the morning prayer of gratitude that is part of my spiritual practice.
Modah ani lifanecha, melech chai v’kayam, shehechezarta bi nishmati, be chemla, raba emunatecha.
I offer thanks before You, Eternal One, for restoring life to me, with compassion and great faith.
This blessing entered my prayer routine the morning after I camped out beside the beaver pond on my brother’s property in southern New Hampshire. It had been a stunningly starry autumn night, cold, and the morning dawned with mist rising from the pond. Just before I headed up the hill to my brother’s home, I turned back for one last look at the pond and trees and sky, and that prayer rose unbidden to my lips. I stood still chanted it out loud to the universe.
Since then, every time I had recited that prayer, I envisioned the beaver pond and its surrounding forest before my eyes, and I felt gratitude for that beautiful spot. But then something changed, and I started feeling instead gratitude for the moment, for being alive, and for the trees and birds before my eyes in my own back yard, and for all that is good in my life.
As the days passed, that sense of gratitude in the moment began to stretch throughout the day. One particularly challenging day, each time I started to feel discouraged or overwhelmed, I found myself pausing and asking myself, “Gratitude?” and then feeling before my eyes my family and my life and my blessings. The ensuing wave of gratitude swept away the fear or the pain or the sense of inadequacy.
I discovered that gratitude can give birth to joy, and to peace, and to courage.
Transformation in the making.
Except, of course, that life is neither orderly nor straightforward. And so, I remind myself that grief is a process and comes in waves, healing is growth and is not linear, each moment is sacred, perfection is impossible, transformation and change really can happen, and throughout them all, I am held and loved by the Holy One of Blessing.
On this cold winter night, inspired by a friend, I invite others to join me on a bridge over the river to watch for a glimpse of the aurora borealis. As we stand in the cold, our eyes raised to the sky, we see no blues or greens in the dark northern sky, but we do see a bright quarter moon, white snow on the frozen river, shining stars and planets, and woven wavy branches of the trees lining the river, and we breathe in the winter night air. And all the while, I revel in the beauty around me, the love I feel for family and friends and Earth and trees, and the joy of being alive.