AFTER SEVEN DAYS
The Leviticus:8 Project
The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. Leviticus 14:8
Part of the undisputed wisdom of Jewish tradition is the designation of a time to mourn our dead. The Hebrew word for the number 7, shivah, has become synonymous with that week-long period after a funeral to separate from the everyday world and allow for comfort and regrouping. In fact, even people who truncate the number of days refer to that time as shivah, and it has the power in and of itself to convey comfort.
But after the shivah of whatever length is over, it is time to engage with the rest of life again. Yes, the mourning rituals retain daily reminders of loss for a period of time, but the purpose is to normalize the gap caused by loss, allowing life to fill in around it. Slowly and eventually, it is time to allow memory to replace ritual, which is to say it is time to internalize that which has been external.
Individually, I know that each of us remembers the circumstances of a loss. I remember vividly the news of my grandmother’s death when I was a boy well over fifty years ago. I recall my first kiss, the loss of the veneer of innocence. I recall the first time (and the only time) I was punched in the nose and called an anti-semitic name. I remember the moment it dawned on me that who someone marries is of no consequence to me, the loss of a certain arrogance.
Collectively, I know that we all remember the circumstances of a loss. Depending on our ages, we remember hearing about Pearl Harbor, about JFK’s assassination (and MLK’s and RFK’s), about September 11 with clear detail and an ability to feel the hints of emotion that attended that news. We remember Alan Shepherd and Neil Armstrong and the Cubs finally winning the World Series. Loss, be it for ill or for good, leaves an impression that requires some time to process and longer time to internalize.
(The two psalms that introduce the Jewish grace after meals reflect both negative and positive loss. “By the waters of Babylon…we wept when we remembered Zion.” “When God returned us to Zion we were like dreamers.” Neither one was to be fully believed…yet.)
We often reserve “shivah” for death, but the fact of the matter is that losses large and small, sad and happy, profound and personally significant need time for processing. The person sent to prison grieves until he or she adjusts. The person who leaves prison needs time to adjust to being freed. The person who receives a bad diagnosis needs time to absorb the implications. The person who is cured nevertheless spends worry on recurrence. Even the person delivered from death celebrates each morning as rebirth and each sunset as spiritually profound…until the return to life becomes normal again.
And it is that normalization that is the goal, whatever the “new normal” turns out to be. Despite our curiosity about new experiences and the thrill of engaging them, the great blessing of overcoming loss is the return to normal – to boredom, to routine, to predictability, to reasonable expectations. That is to say, to life. We may have a little more wisdom and we certainly have a little more experience. But what we have back is life on these new terms, and we do well to welcome it with open arms.
At this writing, it is the end of a very hard two weeks in America. Two people were murdered in a Kroger for being black. A host of prominent Americans received pipe bombs for the crime of being announced opponents of the President. Eleven holy Jewish souls were massacred in synagogue during Shabbat worship. The President announced that he was sending a gun and a half for every tired, poor migrant head to our southern border yearning to breathe free. We learned that a journalist was indeed assassinated, his remains obliterated, something we Jews know about millions of times over.
That’s a lot of loss in a short period of time. We need us some of that shivah. I encourage you to take it – plan for a wonderful Thanksgiving ahead, or a few days off with friends or family, or, in good Jewish fashion, a dose of carbohydrates. Slowly, come back into the camp. Wait awhile and come back into the tent. Attend to the hole in your heart.
Loss will come again. But we will survive it.