Torah teaches us to move from darkness to light

In times of bleakness, we must look after ourselves, without feeling guilty for doing so


Statue of Maimonides in Cordoba

May 08, 2024 10:59

Every week after Shabbat, I turn my phone back on with mild feelings of trepidation. For a long time, as the late Queen grew older and frailer, her possible demise over the previous 25 hours was a cause for concern. More recent events, such as discovering the full scale of the terrible events of October 7 taking place on Shemini Atzeret, have reinforced my concerns about post-yomtov news.

This year there was no terrible news after Pesach, but for many people the festivities were overshadowed by the ongoing trauma of events in Israel. In common with families around the world, we set a place at our seder for a named hostage and my husband recited the prayer composed by Chief Rabbi David Lau, before we sang Vehi She’amda. The phrase “but in every generation they try to destroy us” was more poignant than ever. While my children have many friends whose grandparents or great-grandparents are Holocaust survivors, all of my husband’s and my grandparents were born in England and the concept that Jews could be murdered, simply for being Jews, was not part of my childhood.

Sadly, however, it seems that for my children and grandchildren this is once again a possibility. The campus protests are not just frightening in themselves, they are also concerning as a harbinger of things to come. The students protesting now will go on to be the professionals, academics and business leaders of the future. Who knows if their opinions will change? During Pesach, an old friend told me that she felt like the good times were over. I asked if she meant antisemitism, food shortages, the economy, climate change, Brexit…? She replied, “Probably all of those!” With this list of impending doom, it is hard not to just curl up in a ball under a duvet and wait for it all to go away. These days, we are all familiar with the concept of self-care, whether it’s a walk, meditation, a coffee with a friend or a bubble bath with scented candles. Yet we can sometimes feel guilty while enjoying ourselves – how can we relax when others are suffering?

Classical Jewish literature is replete with references to happiness. From the Torah onwards, there are many synonyms for joy, each with a slightly different meaning, and specific times when we are commanded to rejoice.

Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, was also an eminent physician who understood the connection between mind, body and soul. While some of his medical advice is strange and outdated to us, his concept of maintaining a healthy balance by regular eating, exercise and sleep continues to be relevant today. He also suggests that someone who feels sad should listen to music or walk in a garden to cheer himself up – 12th-century self-care.

I realised when my father died that many of the things forbidden by halachah to a mourner at various stages of the mourning process, such as bathing for pleasure, listening to music or buying new clothes, are precisely those that one would normally do to “take one’s mind off” a sad event. I understood these restrictions as the halachah ensuring that one truly experiences grief, rather than distracting oneself from it, emerging at the end of the prescribed period as a different, perhaps stronger, person.

The Jewish year also takes us through this process. Between the physical redemption of Pesach and the spiritual awakening of receiving the Torah on Shavuot, we pass through the semi-mourning period of the Omer, when in ancient and medieval times, the Jewish people suffered great tragedies. During this period, the modern calendar also commemorates the Holocaust, with Yom HaShoah, followed the next week by Yom HaZikaron, mourning fallen soldiers and victims of terror, which transitions into the joy and hope of Yom HaAtzmaut. Jewish liturgy reflects this journey, using the familiar phrases “from slavery to freedom”, “from mourning to Yomtov” and “from darkness to light” regularly.

For the past few years we seem to have been passing through the reputed curse of “May you live in interesting times.” The good times might be over but the interesting times are still continuing.

In these few days between Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron/Yom HaAtzmaut, all commemorating “interesting times”, we can look both ways: back at the past, to learn from our history, and forwards to the future, experiencing the grief, but always moving from darkness to light and looking after ourselves, without any guilt for doing so.

Vicki Belovski is a wife, mother, grandmother, writer and educator

May 08, 2024 10:59

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