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.”