June 3, 1999
Parashat Beha'alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)
We buried her 13 months ago -- this flower, this light, this precious partner of his for 60 years. Everything was done in our ancient way: the funeral with its torn, black ribbons and clods of earth thunking on plain pine; the shiva, with its prayers, grief and Bundt cakes; a year of "Kaddish" ending with an unveiled marker that captured his love for her in words as terse as Haiku.
It's been more than a year, but Irv doesn't want to move on. He's too sad. Misses her every day. Tried dating, couldn't stomach it. Tried the support group -- full of women with more time and money than good sense. Parties? Too much happiness to stand. Sure, he loves the kids and the grandchildren , the Sunday dinners and tennis four days a week. But....
So this morning, Irv sits on the old, lumpy couch in my office, looking old and lumpy himself. He asks me why he can not shed his darkness. "My friends and my children say that I should move on," he tells me, fighting back the tears. "But I don't want to move on. Am I -- normal?" he asks after a long pause.
So I talk to Irv about time. Not the time of clocks and calendars, but the realm of time, whether we try to smoke, drink, spend or work around it; the time that cannot be accelerated; the time it takes to heal, breathe, laugh again and move on; the pace of human existence governed by "God time."
I tell Irv about my friend Barry, who discovered the pace of God time after burying his brother, who committed suicide. At first, Barry tried to rush his grief, but found he could only ache. He made peace with his sadness, took his time, learned to live in darkness. Soon, he will stand beneath the white chuppah with a woman who loves him as deeply as he once hurt. It just took time for the cloud to lift, just -- time.
Our ancestors lived beneath a cloud too. Maybe it was a cloud of confusion, maybe sadness, maybe just an ordinary cloud. The Torah doesn't say. What it does say in this week's portion is "whether it was two days or a month or a year -- however long the cloud lingered -- the Israelites remained encamped...only when it lifted did they break camp." There is no magical formula given for making the cloud disappear, no incantation, no prayer, no slap on the back, no blind date, no support group, no self-help hook. Just a settling in for the sadness, a sometimes slow but always sacred space for healing.
Through years of wandering, loss and faith, the ancients grasped what seems elusive to Irv and so many others. When we suffer loss -- a lost wife, a marriage, a job, a breast, a dream -- there must be a peacemaking, a reckoning with God time -- the simple truth that sometimes we can only move on by staying put, however long the cloud may linger.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of "The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things," published by Behrman House.