Mending the Broken

By: Betsy Pownall

There is a 2,000 year old text buried in the Mishnah, or the oral Torah, a book of Jewish oral traditions, that includes an ancient practice of dealing with grief and loss. In her New York Times essay, “Two Lessons from an Ancient Text that Changed My Life”, Sharon Brous describes a pilgrimage ritual where “hundreds of thousands of Jews would ascend to Jerusalem,” climb the steps of the Temple Mount, enter the plaza and turn to the right, circling counterclockwise, as a group of thousands. 

Meanwhile, “the brokenhearted, the mourners (and the lonely and sick) would make this same ritual walk but they would turn to the left, and circle in the opposite direction: Every step against the current”.

As the mourners walked clockwise, they would meet the eyes of those walking counterclockwise, who would ask, “Why does your heart ache?” and the mourners would answer. “My son is sick” they might say. “My father died and I never got to say these last words to him”. Those walking on the right side would offer a spiritual blessing that includes the words “You are not alone”.

When one is in pain the world is eclipsed, and felt experience is telescoped into a tiny pinprick of feeling of pain. The world surrounding this pinprick is dark. Nothing else seems to matter, and the feeling of loneliness can feel interminable. This ancient exercise allows the person feeling broken to be seen, felt, and held by others, as they pass. Everyone acknowledges that while today I might be walking on the right side of the plaza, offering a blessing, next time I could be walking on the left, needing the blessing to stay afloat. None of us are immune.

Ms. Bouse offers two insights she has taken away from this text. First, she says, if you are mourning a broken heart, don’t isolate yourself. Move toward people and communities who can support you, and hold you in this time. And, when you feel strong, show up for those in pain. She writes that when we see someone who is emotionally struggling, “asking, with an open heart ‘Tell me about your sorrow’ may be the deepest affirmation of our humanity, even in terribly inhumane times.” While we cannot make another’s pain disappear, we can connect and support the other so that they are not alone in their grief. Approaching another when they are grieving means “training ourselves to approach, even when our instinct tells us to withdraw”. Calling, reaching out, going to the funeral, the wedding, the birthday, “err on the side of presence”.

Ms. Bouse’s second insight is that while human beings generally gravitate toward what they know, this tribal instinct “can be perilous”. She suggests that “one of the greatest casualties of tribalism is curiosity”. When we do not try to understand or imagine what another person may be experiencing, “our hearts begin to narrow”. We become less compassionate, more assured in our own existence, and less humble in the face of the other. 

As a society, she asks, wouldn’t it be transformative if we learn not to be afraid of the other? That we learn to hold each other “with curiosity and care…we learn to see one another in pain, to ask one another “What happened to you?” These “sincere, tender encounters” remind us we are all connected. It is in our connection we can heal our broken hearts.

Rabbi Brous is the founding and senior rabbi of Ikar, a Jewish community-based in Los Angeles, and the author of “The Amen Effect.”

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By Amalia Trieger

What role do traditions play in your life? 

Like planting my grandpa’s favorite flowers every spring, or making a wreath in the winter as my grandma used to do, traditions can help us remember people who’ve gone before, and to honor their legacy. They don’t have to be serious to be meaningful. Passing on silly sayings through the generations, or enjoying a slice of cake to mark a birthday help us keep memories alive, and can be nostalgic, comforting, and familiar. 

As we roll into the winter months, we enter a time that’s rich in celebration, but holiday traditions aren’t always a source of comfort and joy. If we aspire to be thoughtful and compassionate towards others, it’s worth considering the ways in which traditions may also be painful, or in need of an upgrade. 

If you are newly sober and the holiday office party or the family gathering revolves around wine, it can be deeply uncomfortable or even impossible to attend. For many families, the added expense of shopping for holiday gifts puts strain on a budget already stretched thin. Ads depicting large gatherings around tables laden with food can feel ostracizing to those who don’t have families to go to, or who have difficult family dynamics. Many people will be grieving the loss of loved ones or continuing to stay isolated to protect medically fragile or immunocompromised friends and family, and the ongoing pandemic makes travel more challenging, even for those who can afford it. Some folks grew up within religious traditions that don’t accept their adult identities, leaving them without the structure of celebrating in the community. If the holidays are a lonely time for you, know that you aren’t alone. 

If you’ve ever wished for rituals to mark important events in your life, or in the yearly cycle, that felt more inclusive, welcoming, or simply fit better, here is a template for crafting a tradition that uplifts and centers the things that are important to you. Take out a pen, or open your computer, and write down whatever comes to mind in response to these prompts.

Step 1. Ask yourself what needs you’d like to meet with this tradition.

Do you need to grieve, to celebrate, to be playful, to receive an acknowledgement, to ask questions, to share bounty, to reflect? 

Step 2. Go way back.

Even if you never met them, it may be worth looking into your personal family history to discover what traditions have been practiced in the place your grandparents (or great great great grandparents) grew up. Some of these may be religious, and some secular. You might be surprised by what you find. There is also an opportunity for healing here. Generational trauma lives in our bodies, and creating ways to process that inherited trauma through ritual and ceremony can be profound. Knowing what we want to address with our traditions may be informed by things that happened in the past, but the echoes of which are alive today. 

Step 3. What support or companionship would you like?

You may want to share this new tradition with friends, family, or the wider community. Consider the energy of young people, the camaraderie in a group of people with shared experience, the perspective of wise elders, or, if solitude is what you need, maybe this tradition is one you do by yourself. Step 4. What are some tangible ways you can mark the occasion? 

This step is where creativity comes in. It can be as simple as lighting a candle, wearing a favorite piece of clothing, or planting a seed, and as elaborate as decorating an altar, organizing a singalong, hiking a challenging trail, or making a five-course meal. 

Step 4. Look to the natural world. 

In wisdom traditions and cultures around the globe, humans have celebrated the changing of the seasons and found ways to bring the beauty of nature into their artwork, ceremonies, and daily lives. In winter, if we take our cues from the shorter days, we may find a yearning to spend more time in silence, resting, reading, or listening. While a consumerist culture encourages ramping up, over-socializing and spending money, the rhythm of the season shows us another possibility. Tune in to the landscape that surrounds you by looking out the window and watching the light change, or taking a walk. Read nature-inspired poetry, or write some of your own! If you have access to outside space, collect colorful leaves, harvest wildflowers, pine boughs, seashells, interesting rocks, or whatever is to be found (without decimating your neighbor’s garden, of course).

Step 5. Balance inspiration with humility.

You might find ideas from other cultures that you’d like to incorporate into your tradition. 

It’s important to first ask whether the people whose culture you’re appreciating have been marginalized, harmed, or prevented from practicing the very same thing you’d like to do. Choosing to make our own traditions means we can be mindful of where power imbalances lie, and we can create meaningful celebrations that feed our desire for connection and comfort without appropriation or upholding structures of oppression. 

If the list feels overwhelming, boil it down to these three things that activist and minister Kathleen McTigue looks for in any ritual or practice: Intention, attention, and repetition. Why are you doing what you’re doing, are you paying attention as you do it, and is it something you’ll do again and again? 

Wherever this season has in store for you, remember that if you’ve been longing for new traditions, it’s very likely that others have to. Knowing that you’re in good company, trust your intuition, don’t be afraid to make things up, and share what you discover.