Another school year is in the books. At this time of year, children exhale a massive sigh of relief as they begin summer vacation. Summer is a wonderful time for relaxation, adventure, travel and renewal. From the perspective of a parent like me, we get a bit of a break from the grueling car pool schedule (the flip side is that by August, we’ll be itching for the kids to get back to school and into a regular routine).
It’s funny that the image of children eagerly leaving school is invoked by one of the major commentators of this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotekha. This portion introduces a profound shift in the tone of the fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar. The first ten chapters paint a portrait of order and structure in the camp. In chapter 11, everything starts to unravel, and the rest of the book portrays the tension between the stiff-necked people of Israel and Moses, their increasingly impatient leader.
According to Ramban (Nachmanides), the transition from order to chaos hinges on a single verse, 10: 33: Vayis’u me’har Hashem derekh shloshet yamim, they marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days. Ramban says: “They fled the mountain like a child running from school” lest God give them any more commandments or prohibitions. The Israelites couldn’t wait to go on summer vacation from God. They sought a spiritual, emotional and physical distance from Mount Sinai. It’s precisely at this moment that the book of Numbers spirals from order to chaos.
A few verses later, chapter 11 opens Vayehi ha’am k’mitonenim ra b’oznei Hashem, the people complained bitterly in the ears of God. At first, we’re not even told what they were complaining about—just that they were complaining. Only a few verses later the Israelites wept and said mi yaachileinu basar? “Who’s going to feed us meat?” No wonder God was holding His ears, as it were—the people were complaining about God’s cooking—the miraculous manah that rained down every day was not good enough for the people. They were sick of Tofu-like imitation meat; they demanded the real thing. And so it goes throughout the rest of the book: complaints and challenges to authority. They depart Mt. Sinai, and rather than have a peaceful summer vacation at a desert oasis, all Hell breaks loose. It is remarkable how quickly the people have forgotten the Exodus from Egypt and their salvation from God.
A lesson from Bemidbar is that when we lose our sense of gratitude for life’s greatest gifts, our world turns into disarray. Ironically, all too often it is people who suffer adversity who teach us the greatest lessons of gratitude for what really matters. A case in point is Sheryl Sandberg. Until recently, she might not have been the poster child for adversity. In fact, she is the COO of Facebook and the best-selling author of Lean In, an analysis of women in the workplace in the 21st century. Her husband, Dave Goldberg, was the founder and CEO of Survey Monkey. He was respected in his industry and adored by all who knew him. Then, last month tragedy struck. Dave Goldberg was working out in a gym while on vacation in Mexico. In a freak accident, he suffered a severe head injury and died. Their family had it made. Both husband and wife were captains of industry—the high tech industry. Moreover, they had a beautiful family rooted in Jewish values. They had it made.
One can hardly imagine the emotional toll this tragedy has taken on Sheryl Sandberg. And yet, this week she published a moving and courageous essay on the occasion of the shloshim, the end of the formal thirty days of mourning since her husband’s death. Here are some excerpts :
Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband—the first thirty days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.
A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: “Let me not die while I am still alive.” I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.
I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.
But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.
And this is why I am writing: to mark the end of sheloshim and to give back some of what others have given to me. While the experience of grief is profoundly personal, the bravery of those who have shared their own experiences has helped pull me through. Some who opened their hearts were my closest friends. Others were total strangers who have shared wisdom and advice publicly. So I am sharing what I have learned in the hope that it helps someone else. In the hope that there can be some meaning from this tragedy.
I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.
I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.
I have learned gratitude. Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before—like life. As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted. When a friend told me that he hates birthdays and so he was not celebrating his, I looked at him and said through tears, “Celebrate your birthday, goddammit. You are lucky to have each one.” My next birthday will be depressing as hell, but I am determined to celebrate it in my heart more than I have ever celebrated a birthday before.
I am truly grateful to the many who have offered their sympathy. A colleague told me that his wife, whom I have never met, decided to show her support by going back to school to get her degree—something she had been putting off for years. Yes! When the circumstances allow, I believe as much as ever in leaning in. And so many men—from those I know well to those I will likely never know—are honoring Dave’s life by spending more time with their families.
Sheryl Sandberg somehow mustered the strength amidst her agony to produce this gem. She taps into her pain to articulate some of life’s most important lessons, and on top of that she grounds her reflections in a Jewish framework. Over the next few weeks, as we encounter once again the wayward Israelites in the desert crying out to God and Moses with their constant complaints, let’s recall Sheryl Sandberg’s counterpoint that we must pause to appreciate the things in life that really matter.
School is over, summer begins. Let this be a summer in which we are mindful of God’s blessings to us.