It all seems a little bit bleak. With the changing of the seasons, we realize that our longer sunlit days will be replaced with colder moonlit nights. As we look at the beauty of nature, those limbs that were once covered with luscious green leaves then turned beautiful fall shades, will soon reach out bare as we contemplate the lifeless leaves that lay beneath our feet. As we celebrate the end of the most joyous and all-encompassing of Jewish holidays, no matter how good our lulav and etrog maintenance plan might have been, Sukkot will end with a browner palm frond, myrtles and willows that resemble sticks rather than leafy boughs, and an etrog that is on its way to shriveling.
And then there is Torah. Moses, our teacher and leader, our redeemer and connector, our man of faithful navigation, is going to leave us before we get to the promised land:
“So Moses the servant of the ETERNAL died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the ETERNAL. God buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated.” (Deuteronomy 34:5-7)
I remember watching the last episode of M*A*S*H in the winter of 1983 and wishing that it would continue, that the characters’ stories would be ever alive and fresh with new adventures. Sure, the writers tried to keep them alive with “AfterMASH,” “Trapper John M.D.” and “W*A*L*T*E*R,” but even with the most successful of them (“Trapper John M.D.”), it just wasn’t the same. The motivation for these shows was good not just from a profit-making perspective: Their creators wanted to follow the sad goodbye with a warm hello.
It seems like those writers were trying to live out the message of the scroll that we have been reading this week in celebration of Sukkot:
“A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying,
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for slaying and a time for healing,
A time for tearing down and a time for building up;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing,
A time for wailing and a time for dancing;
A time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones,
A time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces;
A time for seeking and a time for losing,
A time for keeping and a time for discarding;
A time for ripping and a time for sewing,
A time for silence and a time for speaking;
A time for loving and a time for hating;
A time for war and a time for peace.”
With each experience of life’s challenges, we know the opposite will follow. At times, when positive experiences come our way (e.g., birth, planting, embracing …), they are followed by negative experiences (e.g., death, uprooting, shunning …). And then, when negative experiences come our way (e.g., slaying, tearing down, weeping), they are followed by positive experiences (e.g., healing, building up, laughing). I think I like it better when the negative is followed by the positive.
It seems to be getting a lot brighter out there. I am grateful that we have a tradition that takes us from the very depths of loss and uncertainty immediately into the promise of a new beginning. For generations, as members of the Jewish community have participated in reading the very last words describing Moses’ death, the saddest of all words in the Torah, we have turned to the most optimistic of all words in the Torah:
“When God began to create heaven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water — God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day and called the darkness Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.” (Genesis 1:1-5)
As it is with Torah, so it is with life. Just when we think it is all dark, a little light can shine through. Just think about how life has been over these long years of COVID as opposed to how life is now. Just think about how our own personal losses of those who were intimate parts of our lives were so hard at first, and then just a little easier at times even through the ebbs and flows of personal mourning. Just think of how it has been for community involvement in civic and religious life with its ups and downs in participation and quality.
The lesson is as clear as the sun on a beautiful spring day: Just as Moses’ death is followed by the most light-filled act of creation, so must we look beyond the dark times in our lives toward the light that we create with each other and with God. PJC
Rabbi Ron Symons is the senior director of Jewish Life and the director of the Center for Loving Kindness at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.