They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” We’re all familiar with Alan King’s famous summary of the Jewish holidays. But in a couple of weeks we will be commemorating a very different festival. Tisha b’Av is a fast day: a day of mourning for the destruction of the temples in ancient Jerusalem.
During these weeks we will also be remembering other Jewish tragedies that coincide with this time of year. Many Jews observe laws of mourning such as not having haircuts or shaving during this sad time. Yet, amid the atmosphere of grief and mourning, this is a period in the Jewish calendar when I start feeling like a palaeontologist; trying desperately to connect with the past but then wondering whether I’ve become stuck there. This time of year makes me think about my relationship to the past in general and how much of it I bring with me into my present life.
As a therapist, the influence of the past is a common theme. In the past few months, sadly, I have met many families who are dealing with significant loss due to the coronavirus pandemic. These losses range from having relatives who have passed away, to the loss of health, livelihood, social interaction, routine and stability. Today, wherever we stand, when we look around we see loss. At this stage it is still too early to see what the end might look like. It is too uncertain for any reassurances. But I have noticed many families still feel the frustration of wanting to return to normal, to a time in which the pandemic will be history and we can all move forward with our lives.
Moving forward brings with it a sense of relief, of speed and of being productive. Why wouldn’t everyone want to wholeheartedly embrace the future with little more than a nod to the past on the way out?
When supporting families who are grieving for loved ones, we have similar conversations. People want to move on, possibly find a new partner or form a new family. They want to create a new normal, but they feel guilty about letting go of those they will leave behind. This makes me think, is it even possible for us Jews to celebrate the present and embrace our future while still swirling in the repetitive cycle of Jewish holidays that keep pulling us back to the past?
I found the answer while observing my clients struggling through this painful pandemic. I have noticed many find comfort when they use their experiences to learn and prepare for the future.
The difficult lessons they learn along the way give their losses a sense of meaning and a hope that they can use these lessons to live a better future. I can only imagine that, in a decade’s time when they look back at this experience, they will learn even more.
Similarly, what I have realised is that, even though the historical events of the Jewish holidays don’t change, the messages they tell me change every year. Celebrating freedom in lockdown meant something different this Passover. Keeping technology-free Shabbat since the invention of the iPhone has become a brand-new experience. Similarly, as society lurches from one -ism to the next, I find myself noticing patterns repeating themselves as echoed in the past, which gives me insightful perspective on how current events unfold.
For me, it’s become less about being stuck in the past and more about using the past meaningfully to inform my present behaviour and my understanding of those around me. We can never truly leave our past behind, but we can choose how to bring it with us, as we go forward, in a meaningful and helpful way. Perhaps this is one way that a Jew can learn to move on.