Hand in hand: Mourning and celebration come intertwined

Rachel LaVictoire,  is a recipient of the prestigious Nemerov Writing and Thomas H. Eliott Merit scholarships at Washington University, where she is a sophomore. She grew up in Atlanta, where she is an active member of Temple Emanu-El and the Marcus Jewish Community Center.

By Rachel LaVictoire

When I was little, sometime around ages 5 and 6, I used to love visiting my grandma. Back then, she lived in New York. I wouldn’t be able to describe the house today—what it was made of, how the front yard looked, or even where it was. But I remember the inside.

I remember how the three-bedroom house seemed to stretch as guests arrived, making room for my grandma’s two daughters, son-in-laws and four grandchildren. I remember how the four of us preferred to sleep all together on the floor in one room, than to divide between the two. I remember my grandma’s bathroom was lined with yellow wallpaper and the bath with a big green foam footprint.

I remember getting up in the morning and hearing her voice from the kitchen. She’d kiss me good morning and then I’d lay on the cool tiled floor in my Tarzan and Jane silk PJs to piece together my Flounder puzzle for the 100th time. She’d watch me from the kitchen while she made challah french toast. Sometimes, I would finish before food was ready, and I’d go sit up at the breakfast bar to be with her while I waited. I remember she always sat really close to me at the table, and even with a plate of warm, syrup-covered goodness in front of me, I always took note of my grandma’s comforting scent. 

My grandma Eileen passed away in January at the age of 79 from a form of lung cancer called Adenocarcinoma. I’m inclined to say the cancer stole her from me—that it’s a deviant creature who sneaked inside my grandma and refused to leave. It knew she wasn’t ready, that I wasn’t ready and that the hundreds of other people who loved my grandma weren’t ready. It had to know.

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But on the days when those angry tides settle, I sometimes see the cancer as a blessing. Too often are deaths sudden and unpredictable, leaving behind untold stories and broken hearts. The cancer was a signal, an alarm we could press snooze to because it was set ten minutes early. We knew our time was short, but at least we got to say good-bye.

On Saturday, the 6th of Av, we’ll celebrate Shabbat Chazon (“Shabbat of the Vision”) during which time we’ll read of Isaiah’s prophecy of the destruction of Holy Temple. Three days later is Tishah B’Av (the 9th of Av), a day with such remarkable significance, that it has been named the Jewish national day of mourning. It was on this day that the Israelite spies reported the Holy Land as unconquerable in 1313BCE, that the First Temple was destroyed in 423BCE, that the Second Temple was destroyed in 69CE; and it was on this day that the Jews were expelled from England in 1290CE.

Tisha B’Av is both a day of fasting and humility. The laws of mourning prohibit eating/drinking, wearing leather footwear, being intimate and sending gifts, as we are commanded to spend the day commemorating these tragic events as well many others.

It’s a mistake, however, to think that the true focus and meaning of the day is on grieving and sadness. Many of us have either heard or told the Jewish joke we celebrate holidays because “someone tried to kill us. They didn’t, so we eat.” Knowing there’s more to our celebrations, we tend to laugh this off, but there’s more truth to it than meets the eye.

This week, in Devarim, Moses retells the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan. In these final days before entering the Promised Land, he reminds them of wars with other nations and conflicts with G-d.

This relationship between grief and joy shows up throughout Jewish text. In the book of Isaiah, we read, “Rejoice with Jerusalem and exult in all those who love her: Rejoice with her a rejoicing, all who mourn over her” (Isaiah 66:10). The Talmud, too, says, “Everyone who mourns for Jerusalem merits to share in her joy, and any one who does not mourn for her will not share in her joy” (Talmud, Ta’anit 30b), and also, “Not to mourn at all is impossible, because the blow has fallen. To mourn overmuch is also impossible because we do not impose on the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure” (Talmud, Baba Bathra 60b).

Clearly, therefore, there’s some tie between mourning and celebration—that we cannot enjoy that which we did not grieve for. In order to fully appreciate anything, we first have to pay tribute to the misfortunes that led us there.

Now, I’ll admit here that before even reading the Torah portion, I knew I would be writing about my grandma. This weekend my family and I will be gathering in Florida for the unveiling of her tombstone, a moment sure to cause an emotional whirlwind. I felt that this week I needed to write about her, and to write for her.

And in making that decision to share even a bit of her story, I too made a connection between mourning and celebrating, and realizing that you can’t do one without the other. I can neither miss my grandma without recalling wonderful memories; nor can I speak of our time together without missing her. 

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