This Shabbat marks the 9th yahrzeit (anniversary of the death) of my beloved father, Robert D. DeBlosi. Below is the sermon I gave during the first year of mourning him, an intense time of grief in Jewish tradition. It’s perhaps more formal than what you’ll normally read from me here, but I hope you find it enriching. Some of you have already asked how I am currently thinking about grief. It’s different. There are days when it’s the same. Perhaps in a future post I will take this on in earnest.
There is evening, and there is morning. One day turns into another.
And yet, sometimes, in my mind’s eye, I’m still standing before an open rectangle cut into the ground. I see the clods of earth, there, where I shoveled them over my father’s coffin. I hear that sound. The thud of earth falling … And part of me falls with it.
What does it feel like to lose someone?
To lose someone… feels like falling.
At least, for me it does. And I wonder, will I be able to rise at the end of this year — the traditional Jewish year of mourning for a parent? I wonder, will I again be able to get mixed-up in the lives of those around me? Will I always feel removed, as I do so often now — suspended, wandering aimlessly?
What does it feel like to lose someone?
For me, it’s like being Isaac. Isaac who walks, alone, at twilight.
When Sarah dies, Abraham turns his grief outward. He comes לספד לשרה ולבכתה, lispod l’Sarah v’livkotah, “to eulogize Sarah and bewail her” (Genesis 23:2). And then he is able to move on: ויקם אברהם מעל פני מתו וידבר…, va’yakom Avraham mei’al p’nei meito vay’daber, “And Abraham rose from beside his dead, and he spoke…” (3). Abraham gets up and gets going: he negotiates for the Cave of Machpelah as a burial-place; he fills his time with concrete tasks; he even looks toward the future, planning a marriage for Isaac.
In stark contrast, his son, who disappears from the Torah’s narrative after Mount Moriah. Isaac is conspicuously absent at his mother’s burial. Three years after his mother’s death, Isaac still mourns.1 Not active, not vocal, not like his father, Isaac is passive and pensive. ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה לפנות ערב, va’yeitzei Yitzchak lasuach basadeh lifnot arev, “And Isaac went out לשוח lasuach in the field at the turning of evening” (Genesis 24:62).
Alone, in a field, as the darkness descends, what does Isaac do? How should we translate that rare verb, לשוח lasuach?
Traditional commentators offer several interpretations: a שיח siach is a bush or a shrub, so Isaac went out to walk in nature, or to work in the fields. 2 A שיח siach is a conversation, so Isaac went out into the field to meet up with friends. 3
Perhaps the most pervasive traditional interpretation is that Isaac went into the field to pray. The Midrash identifies Psalms as a source for our tradition of prayer three times a day: ערב בבקר בצהרים אשיחה, Erev va’voker va’tzohorayim asichah, “Evening, morning, and noon, I plead” (Psalms 55:18). According to this midrash, we pray in the afternoon to imitate Isaac, who walked out into the field at twilight — that strange mix of day and night — lasuach, to pray mincha, the afternoon service. 4
I guess he began with Ashrei, the opening prayer? “Happy are they who dwell in your house, O God”? …. But, no. He couldn’t have.
As a mourner, I can only imagine Isaac’s שיחה, sichah, out there in the field as night began to fall.
It’s three years since she died… Why can’t he shake off this darkness? Why can’t he eulogize and cry, and then “rise up,” like his father Abraham? Isaac lingers in his grief. He can’t return to routines. He pours out words, but they’re not like Abraham’s neat and purposeful sentences. Not rational. Not a linear presentation of thoughts and wishes. Rather, a lament — as Rachel Adler describes: “contradictory rather than emotionally consistent.” 5
Whatever Isaac voices out there, in the field, at twilight, it is not a siach — not a conversation where Isaac says “X” and God replies “Y,” but rather lament’s “tumultuous and disordered language.” 6 At least, that’s how I imagine it. Unruly.
Because the world just doesn’t make sense anymore. Language fails… “How are you holding up?” Am I holding up!? What do I have to hold up? What’s holding me up?
It’s dark. And I’m falling.
ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה לפנות ער, va’yeitzei Yitzchak lasuach basadeh lifnot arev, “And Isaac went out lasuach in the field at the turning of evening” (Genesis 24:62).
Isaac went out to pray in the field at twilight… Perhaps. We might read לשוח lasuach as לשתחוות lishtachavot, which means “to bow” — in prostration and deference. Va’anachnu korim u’mishtachavim u’modim, we bend and bow and give thanks before God. 7
(But) How difficult it is to bow to God when I am already bent in grief.
What if Isaac bends not in prayer, in thanks, in acknowledgement of God? What if it is Isaac’s emotion that bends him? He sinks down to the earth in unremitting sorrow. So, don’t read לשוח lasuach but rather: ויצא יצחק לשוחה בשדה לפנות ערב, va’yeitzei Yitzchak la’shuchah basadeh lifnot arev, “And Isaac went out to a pit8 in the field at the turning of evening” (Genesis 24:62). In the depths of despair, Isaac wanders to a shuchah, a gaping hole in the earth, a reminder of his mother’s burial in the deep dark ground, a landscape that reflects his own low feelings. How could he carry on with life when his mother has been lowered into the dust?
Isaac walks into the field at evening-fall to bow… not in prayer, but in despair. Shachoach: to lower, to incline downward, to be bent, to be oppressed. 9 To lower his body toward the ground — because his soul is already lowered. From Psalms: כְּרֵעַ כְּאָח-לִי הִתְהַלָּכְתִּי כַּאֲבֶל-אֵם קֹדֵר שַׁחוֹתִי, K’reah, k’ach li hithalachti, ka’avel eim koder shachoti, “I behaved as though he had been my friend, my brother; like one who mourns for his mother, I darkened with grief and bowed low” (Psalms 35:14).
Isaac can’t get up and get going like his father Abraham. Instead, he walks into a field, alone, at evening’s-fall, and he drops to the ground in despair and in grief.
What does it feel like to lose someone? What does it feel like to mourn?
Philosopher Judith Butler describes mourning in her recent book, a post-9/11 reflection called Precarious Life. She writes, “[O]ne is hit by waves. […One] starts out the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and finds oneself foiled. One finds oneself fallen” (Butler 21).
You fall. Darkness descends.
What is the significance of Isaac’s wandering precisely as evening falls? He is crossing into a time that is neither here nor there.
ערב, erev, evening, is a time for עירוב, eiruv, for mixing.
Isaac walks in the field לעת עירוב, l’eit eiruv, at the time when boundaries blur. Neither day nor night, but something in-between. Neither day nor night, but a mixing of the two.
When we think of the Shabbat עירוב, eiruv,10 we might think of a boundary. A line that marks the farthest one can travel. A marker of the limits of the public realm, the outside. But an עירוב eiruv is also a way to extend the inside. What is an עירוב eiruv if not a plea that I might carry a little farther, that I might blur the boundary between the safety of my home and the risk of the wide, wide world? 11 Perhaps, for Isaac, the ערב erev represents an עירוב eiruvfor his grief: he wants to linger there, to carry on a little further. To wander out into the field and fall sobbing to the ground as darkness falls around him.
Love and loss topple us from our careful plans and our automatic routines. Some of us recover quickly, like Abraham. We weep and we mourn and we rise up. And some of us run from the messy work of mourning — we run because we don’t want to fall. If we keep moving, maybe we won’t notice how off-balance we are. And some of us are like Isaac, and we can do little but go out lasuach.
We can ask, as Judith Butler asks, “Is there something to be gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief, from remaining exposed to its unbearability […]? If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for […] one another?” (Butler 30).
Because, when we wander into evening, we are turning not only to the despair of ending. We are wandering into the time for mixing. It’s a tricky time, an in-between time, a liminal time.
And so with Isaac. Walking out into the field, bent low in his grief, Isaac enters the realm of the liminal.
Anthropologist Victor Turner notes that, in the liminal, one is “betwixt and between” 12 — not this and not that. Isaac, too, is betwixt and between: A boy who has lost his mother. A man not-yet a husband. A person walking alone in a tribal society. Like an initiate in a rite of passage, Isaac walks in the wilderness, בשדה, basadeh, in darkness, לפנות ערב, lifnot arev.13
And in the darkness, boundaries blur. When we walk into the liminal, we risk the breaking of some ties, and the building of others. As critic Richard Schechner writes, the point of liminal space is “to reduce those undergoing the ritual to a state of vulnerability so that they are open to change.” 14
Liminality represents potential. In a liminal state, we might become anything. Truly anything. That kind of transformation is frightening and risky. No particular result is guaranteed. And yet, we walk out into the field, lowered. We walk at twilight, vulnerable.
ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה לפנות ערב, va’yeitzei Yitzchak lasuach basadeh lifnot arev, “And Isaac went out lasuach in the field at the turning of evening” (Genesis 24:62).
But not just evening… ערב erev. Jewish-time. Evening not as ending, but as beginning. First, there is evening. And then, there is morning.
There’s a line in Freud’s famous essay, “Mourning and Melancholia,” in which he makes a peculiar observation about mourning — a phenomenon he can’t explain through psychoanalysis. It’s what he calls “the regular amelioration” of grief that happens “toward evening” (Freud 589). How remarkable. Mourning eases at twilight. As if our bodies know that dawn will come.
ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה לפנות ערב, va’yeitzei Yitzchak lasuach basadeh lifnot arev, “And Isaac went out to despair in the field at the turning of evening” (Genesis 24:62).
But the story continues: וישא עיניו וירא והנה גמלים באים, va’yisa einav va’yar, v’hinei! G’malim baim! “And he lifted up his eyes, and behold! Camels are approaching!” (Ibid.). Isaac wanders, hunched over in the field, and only then can he lift up his eyes — נשא nasa — an action that leads to נשואין nisuin, a marriage, a love, a turn from the past and from death to the future and to relationship.
Because it is Rebecca approaching there, in that caravan. It is Rebecca, and, like Isaac, her transformation begins as darkness falls.
When does Eliezer the servant first meet Rebecca? לעת ערב לעת צאת השאבות, l’eit erev, l’eit tzeit hasho’avot, “At evening-time, the time when women come out to draw water” (Genesis 24:11).
And now, in the caravan, approaching the field, ותשא רבקה את עיניה ותרא את יצחק, va’tisa Rivka et einehah va’teireh et Yitzchak, “Rebecca lifted up her eyes and she saw Isaac” (Genesis 24:64). Saw him there, sunken in grief. Saw him there, betwixt and between. Saw him there, as he lifted up his eyes to new possibilities. ותפל מעל הגמל, va’tipol mei’al hagamal, “And she fell from her camel” (Genesis 24:64).
Like the sudden miracle of love, she falls into Isaac’s life.
So Isaac meets Rebecca at twilight, the liminal time. And, out of this ערב erev, out of this עירוב eiruv, emerges love and comfort and hopefulness:ויבאה יצחק האהלה שרה אמו ויקח את רבקה ותהי לו לאשה ויאהבה וינחם יצחק אחרי אמו, va’y’vi’e’hah Yitzchak ha’ohalah Sarah imo va’yikach et Rivka va’t’hi lo l’ishah, va’ye’eh’ha’ve’hah, va’yinachem acharei imo, “And Isaac brought her toward the tent [of] Sarah his mother, and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her, and Isaac was comforted after his mother” (Genesis 24:67).
How do we know we’ve found our comfort? Though I have turned, eagerly, to traditional Jewish mourning customs, I don’t expect my comfort to come all at once at the close of eleven months. In his classic work on Jewish mourning, Rabbi Maurice Lamm writes, “Twlight is neither day nor night, or perhaps it is both day and night. The law, however, must be clear.” 15 The laws of mourning are neat and clear and measured. They can give shape to the overwhelming messiness of grief. But what if we can’t help but linger, like Isaac? The practices of shiva and sheloshim and yarzheit offer a way for the mourner to move, as Rabbi Lamm puts it, from darkness to light. 16
But some of us find ourselves in the twilight. What can we do? We can take the risk to truly experience that in-between. If we can be willing lasuach basadeh lifnot arev, perhaps we too can look up from our dark place and be transformed.
Because, like Isaac, we are never the same. Love and loss change us. Love and loss hurl us down into the pit. We walk out into the evening, fallen.
You see, the bad news is that our relationships leave us vulnerable.
But the good news is that we might, through falling, manage to lift up our eyes and see the caravan approaching. היני! Hinei! Behold! We know something is about to happen to us — but we don’t know what. We lift up our eyes and we see an Other walking toward us in the field. וניפול מעל הגמל Va’nipol me’al hagamal, and we fall from the camel. We know our lives are different — but we don’t know how we will be forever changed.
What does mourning feel like? It feels like falling. But, then again, so does love.
1 Radak on Genesis 24:62.
2 Ibn Ezra on Genesis 24:63; Rashbam on Genesis 24:62.
3 Ramban on Genesis 24:62.
4 Bereshit Rabbah 68:9, cf. Rashi on Genesis 24:62.
5 Rachel Adler, “For These I Weep: A Theology of Lament,” Dr. Samuel Atlas Memorial Lecture, The Chronicle, Issue 68 (2008): 10–15, p 11.
7 Evan-Shoshan’s Biblical Concordance.
8 Evan-Shoshan. See Jeremiah 2:6; 18:20, 22; Proverbs 22:14; 23:27.
10 Under traditional Jewish law, carrying an object from the private sphere into the public sphere is prohibited on Shabbat. An eiruv, usually a string suspended on poles, even telephone poles or street signs in modern neighborhoods, links neighboring houses in a community into one big “private realm.” This symbolically enlarges the private realm, allowing people to carry objects during Shabbat in their own neighborhood.
11 Wendy Zierler, “Feminist Voices,” My People’s Passover Haggadah, Volume 1: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing): 2008, pp 104–105; and Zierler’s conversations with this writer in preparation for writing and delivering the sermon.
12 Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Aldine Transaction): 1969, p 95.
14 Richard Schechner, Performance Studies: An Introduction (New York: Routledge): 2003, pp 57–8.
15 Lamm, Maurice. The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning. (Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers, Inc): 2000, p 82.
16 Jewish mourning customs are extensive, and offer stages for the mourner to move from the shock and isolation of hearing the news of the death of a loved one to the embrace of the community and a return to normal routines. During shiva, the first seven days, mourners remain at home, sitting on the floor or on low stools; it is the most intense period of grieving. The first thirty days, sheloshim, represent a mix between sadness and return to routine. A yarzheit is the anniversary of a death; Jews end the strict mourning practices for a parent (like not attending public celebrations or not cutting one’s hair) one year after a person’s death (sometimes measured as eleven months). We also mark the anniversary of a death each year.