רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר, אַל תְּרַצֶּה אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ בִשְׁעַת כַּעֲסוֹ, וְאַל תְּנַחֲמֶנּוּ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁמֵּתוֹ מֻטָּל לְפָנָיו
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said:
Do not try to appease your friend during his hour of anger;
Nor comfort him at the hour while his dead still lies before him…
(Pirke Avot 4:18)
I’ve been thinking about this teaching from Pirke Avot- Ethics of the Fathers- quite a bit in recent weeks. There are, of course, teachings from this small section of the Talmud that are more uplifting. There are many that are more spiritual… more optimistic. And yet, this year, this is one of the sections of Pirke Avot that is resonating most loudly for me.
There are a few reasons for this.
The statement “[Do not try to] comfort him at the hour while his dead still lies before him…” may strike some as a bit too “in your face” but that is, in part, because it is addressing every one of us. We may not recognize it but we are all grieving. Some people are grieving family members and friends who have died during this pandemic. Their grief is to be expected and our hearts go out to each and every one of them… to each and every one of you.
But that is not the only loss with which we are dealing.
Our preschool, elementary, and high school students are dealing with the abrupt end of their “normal” school year.
Our High School seniors are dealing with the cancellation of their prom… and their (in-person) graduation… and, after years of working toward college admission or a gap year, the inability to plan to begin a new chapter in the fall.
Many in our community are dealing with radical changes to their income.
Many others are concerned with the future of their jobs or businesses.
And we are all trying to deal with not being able to lead our usual daily lives.
Sadly, these losses continue to mount. Just yesterday afternoon, our Reform Movement made the painful decision to cancel all in-person summer camping experiences. That is a tremendous loss for both our young people who were excited about heading to camp in two months and for their parents.
And while we may not think of it this way, each of these is a loss. And loss, in any form, evokes a range of emotions from anger, to sadness and every emotion in between. To a greater or lesser extent that is where we each find ourselves as we finish another week of physical separation.
There is another reason this teaching from Pirke Avot has such resonance this year. While it may not appear so at first, this teaching offers guidance to us regarding how we respond to loss AND how we respond to the losses of others. The teaching tells us not to intervene when someone is angry. And it instructs us not to comfort the person who is bereft. “Why,” one is left to ask, “would a caring person not help calm someone who is angry? What kind of mensch doesn’t want to comfort those who have encountered loss?” At first look, this teaching certainly seems devoid of compassion. A closer look reveals something deeper and more caring. You see, the text doesn’t say “stay away from your friend during his hour of anger.” Nor does it say, “Avoid the bereaved.” Instead, it ASSUMES we are present for our friends and neighbors who are angry or bereaved while also offering guidance on how we respond. “Don’t try to appease the angry… just be present. Don’t try to comfort the bereaved… but be there to listen and support them.” By instructing us what not to do, this ancient text also instructs us regarding what we should do. “Don’t try to ‘fix’ your friend or neighbor. Simply be present. Be ready to listen. And give them the space to feel.”
We are all dealing with the various losses imposed on us by this pandemic. And we are each going to respond in our own, unique manner. There is no right or wrong way to feel at a time of such challenge. And while it may not seem to be the case, when we allow one another to express our fears, concerns, and anxieties we are indeed making a difference. And by so doing, we are bringing a bit more holiness into each other’s lives.