Grief from a Mussar Perspective

In the March e-letter from the Mussar Institute, Alan Morinis writes about grief and despair.  I want to share some of his thoughts (Mussar Institute – Through a Mussar Lens).

As much as we may be tempted to do so, we’re not supposed to seek distraction during shiva because our task at that time is to grieve, and grieving requires that we open up to our sadness.

Shiva, as with all Jewish rituals, is also an opportunity for spiritual practice.  While this is a practice one should not seek to experience, the need to grieve and experience sadness is the crux of Shiva.  Shiva is a time of reflection, not just personally but also communally, and laughter and happiness can be experienced through the lense of sadness of loss.  If you will, the happiness of shiva is the happiness within sadness ala the sefirotic intermingling fo sefirot i.e. Hesed shel Gevurah… 

… A broken heart will not kill us. In fact, we’re taught that a broken heart is a valuable thing.“The sacrifices HaShem desires are a broken spirit; a heart broken and humbled, O HaShem, You will not despise” (Psalms 51:19).

That is not to say that God wants us to be broken-hearted, but that in our times of sadness, it is spiritually beneficial and desirable to allow the heart to break and the tears to flow. We are encouraged to do this from the depths of our hearts. Or, to put it another way, we are taught here that being stoical is not a positive spiritual value in Judaism. When it is time for the heart to break, it is meant to be broken.

Allowing the heart to break is a surrender of will and ego. We try so hard to control our lives and, indeed, in many situations that is ideal. But the process of grieving is not helped along by asserting will over feeling. Giving ourselves over to grief is an act of courage in the face of the strong emotions that arise from loss. Opening wide the gates of tears means not being intimidated by the strength of those feelings. It means recognizing that they are part of the fabric of life, dark threads perhaps, but not contrary to life itself…

When we surrender the heart to its grief, we are being true to love and life. There is a limit, though. Despair is an extreme form of grief that does not bring about healing. Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner (1906-1980, late Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn and a student of Slabodka Mussar) clarified the difference between sadness and despair. “Despair,” he said, “is being tired of living.” It’s a hopeless state, and that can’t be an attitude we would be encouraged to embrace on a journey of ascent. Right in the Torah, God says, “I place before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 30:15). To accept despair is to make the opposite choice. No matter how grim a situation that comes upon us in life, the spiritual challenge is to believe in life, to make that choice, and to hope, even as we cry.

 Grieving is a process of letting go of self and allowing one to be overwhelmed by sadness.  Yet, as a process, on some level Judaism makes it time bound to the periods of mourning as prescribed.  This does not prevent from experiencing grief outside the shiva or sheloshim, etc. but it does give one a potential formula for the process of grieving.  The use of this time for the spiritual practice of being broken-hearted and sad must be time bound as a means of framing the periods for practice.  A practice unchecked could be more dangerous than good. 

Here we come to a couple of Mussar practices that show us ways to sow seeds of life even while experiencing the deep pain of a broken heart.

The story is told about the mother of Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm. The Alter’s mother was renowned for her piety and scholarship. One of her practices was to pass among the crowd at a funeral to collect charity for poor people. When her own small daughter died, she did not change her custom and circled among the assembled during the funeral with her tzedakah box, saying, “Just because I myself am mourning, do the poor of the town have to suffer?”

The custom of giving charity while mourning is well established. The Talmud tells us (Bava Batra 10a) that tzedakah is stronger than death itself and, in that sense, overcomes the loss of death. Non-monetary giving can fit the same bill, if mourners contribute time and effort to helpful causes.

Giving for the sake of others is a “sowing of seeds” that lifts a person out of their sense of isolation and personal loss, bridging the gap from isolated self to another. It’s perhaps with a similar thought in mind that a mourner is not permitted to say kaddish alone, but only with a minyan of at least ten.

Another practice was given to me by my Mussar teacher, Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr. He once told me that at funerals, he thinks about the person who has passed away and reviews that person’s qualities, seeking to identify a trait in which that person was stronger than he is. Perhaps he sees that the person was more committed to performing chesed (loving-kindness) or patience or generosity stronger than him. It could be anything like that, and surely everyone has at least one such admirable quality. Rabbi Perr then commits to practicing that middah in order to strengthen it in himself. In that way, he honors the memory of the departed in a very concrete way that actually keeps that quality alive in the world. You could say that a part of the person has not died but lives on, now embodied in the person who has undertaken to honor him or her in that way.

Rabbi Eliyahu de Vidas writes in Reshit Chochmah that love is the merger of two nefesh-souls. Loss, then, is a tearing apart of that merged soul, and so the pain is very real. Grief is healing. So, too, are constructive actions taken to connect self to other, even amid the tears. 

The primary lesson from here is that grieving and sadness is a sign of living and experiencing.  While the practices might be challenging when one is a mourner, it is nevertheless of benefit.  The key here is that we should practice before we ourselves face the tragedy that is loss for if we become accustomed to an action, we might find a sense of nechama in that same action when we are grieving.  Grieving is not a time to shut the world out but it is a time to feel the pain and to begin reframing that now broken heart into one’s life.

crossposted at http://steinhospice.blogspot.com/

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