“Remember the long way that YHVH your God made you travel in the wilderness these past 40 years, that he might test you, by hardships, to learn what is in your hearts: whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deuteronomy 8:2).
My daughter just returned from Vietnam. When we heard her travel plans, her father and I struggled not to react as we did 40 years ago when someone pronounced the words, “I’m going to Vietnam.”
It is a testament to the Vietnamese people that they warmly welcome us as visitors. I think back on the 40 years since men (boys, really) of my generation struggled with the possibility of going to Vietnam, and I marvel at the healing process that makes friends of enemies and turns war into peace. I also think back to my own struggles “in the wilderness these past 40 years.” For in 1971, my mother and my sister both died.
“Ekev” — this week’s parasha — means “consequences.” As I ponder the collective trauma of the Vietnam War and my own personal trauma, I am filled with gratitude to know that unending rancor and suffering is not the inevitable consequence of hardship.
Moses posits that God tests us with hardships to learn what is in our hearts. While I don’t believe that our traumas are God-given, I know that life tests us. Each test offers an opportunity to search our own heart and learn what it means to be human.
We can find meaning in the pain, if we use it to open our hearts. A saying I once heard, “Grief is the knife that carves the space for the heart,” resonates with the last paragraph of the Kaddish, which reminds us that the end of mourning should be peace. But how do we find the compassionate heart of peace when we are so torn by the turbulent emotions that come in the wake of the losses that come with war — war between countries and war within the psyche?
We sit, our tradition tells us. While shiva, the seven-day period that follows a burial, translates as “seven,” it is also a homonym for the Hebrew word “to sit.” For seven days we sit, surrounded and sustained by community, looking for, in the words of the Mourners’ Blessing, “HaMakom,” “a Holy Place of Comfort” (actually, a name of God) “in the midst of those who mourn Zion and Jerusalem.” We look for comfort amid others who have known grief and carved hearts of compassion — hearts that have learned the Kaddish’s ultimate lesson: Seek peace.
Perhaps this is the intention of the biblical directive that those who encounter death, on the battlefield or elsewhere, should remain outside the camp for seven days (Numbers 31:19). They need time to ponder the consequences of acting precipitously after a trauma. They need to sit.
But it doesn’t happen. Not only do we rarely sit shiva, more often than not we recoil from mourning rituals. Determinedly, we return to the world we once knew, demanding that it not be inexorably changed by our loss. We harden our hearts, remaining frozen by the contraction of heart, which happens at the moment of trauma. We don’t take the time to be taught by the fact of mortality or to listen to the words of the Kaddish. The consequence: We find no place for refining the heart. No space is created for tears to melt our trauma and soften our hearts or for anger to propel us to create the world, as it ought to be. We remain frozen, and our unprocessed trauma, pain, tears and anger ricochet through the generations and are acted out as depression, abuse and war. We don’t seek peace. We seek revenge. The consequence: more death.
These last 40 years have brought me a life I never could have imagined. I have traveled a wilderness through what poet Deena Metzger describes as a “wormhole,” in which my “assumptions about life [had to] dissolve to create a doorway through which something new [could] enter.” I welcome my daughter home from a vacation, unimaginable 40 years ago, as I anticipate Moses’ words during Elul, the month of reflection, and repeated on Yom Kippur, when he “place[s] before [us] life and death, the blessing and the curse,” and exhorts us to choose life “so that [we] and [our] descendants will live” (Deuteronomy 30:19). As this New Year approaches, may we sit in the midst of those who have made the courageous and surprising choice to cultivate life and peace as a consequence of heartbreak. May we find in our hearts the willingness to “seek peace and pursue it.”