From Sorrow to Song

Some winters feel harder, colder, darker than others.  February 2018 was particularly challenging for me.  I was in Parkland, FL on my way to the airport when the school shooting occurred.  I was there for my grandmother’s funeral, after of week already oversaturated with death: a shiva minyan, a cemetery unveiling, and the death of, and funeral service for, Karen Rosenberg, a member of CBE taken too soon by a rare form of early-onset dementia.

Shortly after I returned from shiva with my family in Florida, Beth Evegreeen hosted our monthly “Mostly Music” shabbat service, this one featuring contemporary gospel music. With the support of members of the esteemed Evergreen Chorale joining with CBE’s singers, our talented musicians, and the skilled and spirited leadership of Ms. Val Robinson directing, this gathering lifted the full house to its feet (and removed a cold, heavy shiver from my heart) as we welcomed Shabbat with smiling syncopations and celebratory song.

Why did that work?  How does one make such a shift from tears of sorrow to songs of joy?

It may be possible, but it’s rarely easy.  And yet, that is exactly what Jewish life calls us to do – to transform anger into justice, pain and fear into compassion and courage, sorrow into lasting joy.  The sages direct each household to conduct a Passover meal, or seder, according to this principle: begin with the oppression of slavery and conclude with the joy of freedom.  Remember, relive even, the experience of bondage in Egypt, the helplessness, pain, grief, sadness, learn from it, and harness its power into gratitude and joy.  And so we shall.

Though I still wonder: How does it happen?  Why did that Friday night service work?  My best guess?  It has something to do with this year’s theme: the MINYAN, a gathering of ten or more persons being uplifted when we courageously lift our words, of worry, grief, or disbelief, and weave them together with melodies into tapestries of thanks and praise.  That’s healing.  That’s holy.  And maybe that’s what we’re all about.

By that Friday, I was physically and emotionally exhausted.  I didn’t want to sing.  Or pray.  Or socialize.  Or eat.  I just wanted to go home to bed.  Instead, I came here, and somehow was buoyed by this community, nourished by the communal meal, inspired by the song, and moved by the experience.  As stood and heard and sang with this minyan bridging racial, religious, and generational lines, my sorrow shifted and deepened the gratitude and joy that filled (and still fills) my heart.  You did that.  Congregation Beth Evergreen did that.  And continues to offer that – week in and week out.  Thank you for that.  For everything.

Micki Isaacson, my grandmother spent much her 96 years reminding us of our connections to one another.  As an only child, she understood the importance of extending the bonds of family, adopting aunts and cousins and neighbors and newcomers into the family.  She understood that the blessings of family and community are created and sustained with deliberate actions – letters and overwrapped packages became emails and Facebook posts, all filled with fragments of stories that, like the halleluyahs and amens in contemporary gospel songs, remind us of our shared roots and plant within us a smiling anticipation for what’s to come.

A Zissen Pesach – May the Journeys of body-and-spirit this season transform individual sorrows into minyans of song.

Rabbi Jamie Arnold

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