Devarim: When sadness steals the show

Devarim: When sadness steals the show

Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform

Rabbis rarely receive the opportunity to write movie reviews. However, if you haven’t yet had the chance to see Pixar’s latest animation marvel “Inside Out,” you are strongly encouraged to do so. “Inside Out” follows the life of an eleven-year-old girl named Riley — who loves her parents, ice hockey, and her life in Minnesota — after her father takes a new job in San Francisco and the family is forced to move. How the story is told is downright clever. With brilliant brushstrokes, we are brought “inside” Riley’s mind, to understand the story and the impact of her journey through her emotions – namely joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger.

What is perhaps most remarkable about the movie is that tension and discomfort rest with the emotion of sadness. Just like real life, we see how sadness is supposed to be suppressed, how we are often instructed to “perk up,” “snap out of it,” or “get over it.” “Inside Out” reminds us that there are times in our lives when it is perfectly acceptable for sadness to steal the show.

As we approach Tisha b’Av, (the 9th of Av, beginning Saturday night after the conclusion of Shabbat), we prepare for arguably the saddest day in the entire Jewish calendar. The fourth chapter of Mishnah Ta’anit explains that there were numerous tragedies that befell the Jewish people on this day, among them, the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem. Further, the period of three weeks from the 17th of Tammuz to Tisha b’Av is regarded by a tragic time, named aptly as a time bein ha-mitzarim, “between the straits.” The Haftarah (prophetic) readings during this period focus on words of “admonition” and “rebuke” from Jeremiah and Isaiah. In this week’s Haftarah portion, taken from the opening chapter of Isaiah, we read that God has come to hate our New Moons, feasts, and appointed festivals, and that God is no longer listening to our prayers (Isaiah 1:14-15). This is truly a time of deep sadness.

But it’s not easy to connect with sadness, admonition, and rebuke. At this time of the year, deep in the throes of summer, with temperatures in the nineties, it’s much easier to head for the beach, fire up the grill, set up the volleyball net, and enjoy a pace of life that’s ever so slightly slower than the rest of the year. Mourning the loss of a sacrificial temple, or reflecting on the tragedies that have befallen our people since the beginning of time, aren’t the first ideas that we jump at when planning our summer holidays.

But that’s precisely the point. Day after day we see that the world is not yet what we want it to be. We question the recently proposed accord between the United States and Iran and we fear for Israel’s survival. We watch with horror as Marines in Tennessee and parishioners in a Charleston church are the latest victims to be gunned down in bullet sprees of hate. We still find unspeakable tension throughout the Jewish world. And our own lives are affected by sadness. We all endure loss and bereavement, loved ones are suffering, and many of us go through life feeling unfulfilled.

In addition to being a day of commemorating our people’s tragedies, perhaps Tisha b’Av should also be the day in our calendar when we acknowledge that our world is not yet whole, and that focusing, for most of the day on the emotion of sadness can be a good thing. In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Devarim, Moses reflects on a moment of turmoil and sadness as he begins his final address to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land. The Israelites have grown so numerous that Moses is overwhelmed. Sadly he cannot bear their problems, burdens, and disputes all by himself. But when he takes a moment to pause amid his sadness, he experiences a moment of pure reflection. Moses knows that change is necessary, and he suggests that wise, understanding, and respected men be chosen to lead the Israelites in smaller groups (Deuteronomy 1:9-13).

At this time of the year, our Jewish tradition and calendar remind us of the importance of sadness in our lives. What might happen when we pause in our lives and allow ourselves to focus on that sadness? Like Moses, what fresh perspective and new beginning might come when, as a people, we acknowledge our pain, our loss, and just for a brief moment, we allow for sadness to steal the show?

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