Torah Reading for Week of March 13-19, 2011
“The Fire of Grief”
By Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW, AJRCA Professor of Ritual and Human Development
“This is the Torah of the burnt-offering…a fire must always burn on the altar; it may not go out.” (Lev 6:1:6). While Parshat Tzav speaks of the altar that was built in the Tabernacle, its words are also true for the altar in our heart. Spiritual practice enables us to keep alive that eternal light that burns in our souls, whose flame, Proverbs tells us, is the lamp of G-d.
But sometimes the light goes out.
When individuals grieve, they often discover that they have not only lost someone central to their lives. They have often lost their connection with G-d. They may find that the understanding of G-d that may have served them before they were initiated in the fires of loss, no longer seems like a safe refuge. “How could G-d have taken my child from me?” they ask. “What kind of G-d would have caused my father to suffer like that?” “Why didn’t G-d answer my prayers?” Such questions unloose a person’s spiritual moorings. Grieving becomes all the more complicated, giving rise to a free-floating anger that may erupt without warning.
Mourners may feel ashamed by these feelings and repress them, causing them to carry molten lava in their broken hearts; a blazing force yearning for release and vulnerable to the slightest triggers. They may appear irrational and even dangerous to others, often the very others who most want to comfort them. It may cause those would-be comforters to keep their distance rather than being singed by the flaming anger of grief.
I believe that this rage is not what it appears to be. I believe that this burning heartache is holy. It is life-energy trying to re-assert itself after the passion for living has been tamped down by sorrow. What other emotion but anger can pierce the energetic iceberg of early grief’s heaviness that so often feels like clinical depression?
The Sfat Emet, as relayed to us through Rabbi Arthur Green, reminds us that “the two most basic properties of fire, [are] to warm and to burn.” He challenges us to attach those properties to the two wings of prayer, namely love and awe. How can the mourner harness his or her anger and bind it to prayer in an effort to reclaim passion for warmth and healing, while protecting his/her self and others from the dangers of fire? Anger must be re-framed as a holy force, a necessary part of bereavement, as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has taught in her “Five Stages of Grief.” Speaking anger then becomes a form of prayer. Anger becomes an alchemical force, providing the fire of transformation, helping the mourner to define him/herself and set boundaries in order to separate from the past and begin to embrace a new reality.
Anger also helps to transform the relationship to G-d. With rage, the mourner confronts the pediatric understanding of G-d as a kind of spiritual vending machine- A Great Father, who rewards good and punishes bad. Then, as the flames become less fierce, the mourner realizes that that wasn’t G-d at all. G-d is in the nourishing warmth of a controlled flame. G-d is in the life energy that moves him/her to again embrace life and return to the cultivation of the personal gardens both real and metaphorical. Let us have patience with anger, our own and that of others, so that it can be harnessed as a tool of spiritual growth.
Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW, is a Psychotherapist and Spiritual Director who assists institutions in creating caring communities. She is the author of the acclaimed Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path (Jewish Lights, 1993 & 2001) and has contributed to many other publications. In addition to AJRCA, Rabbi Brener is also on the faculty of Yedidya’s Morei Derekh- Jewish Spiritual Direction Program.