Three and a half months ago the parents of a little girl named Blake recorded her reaction to learning that everything needed to be closed down because of the germs. That’s how we talk to our toddlers about COVID. In this video, Blake is sitting at a table and explaining, through tears and the broken breaths of a distraught child, that it is so sad and so unfair that everything has to “shut all the way down,” especially the ice cream truck. Many things made her sad—church closing, her favorite restaurant closing—but for Blake, it was the ice cream truck. Oh, and it just breaks her.
This video was made three and a half months ago when her parents, and the rest of us, thought the quarantine might last a few weeks. This week, however, the video went viral. And I wonder if maybe it’s because this moment is so ripe to feel those innocent, but resonant, words that presciently named this excruciating time, in the form of the loss of her ice cream truck.
We have been holding a lot in for the past four months. And to some extent, we have been living in a liminal space. Liminal means “in limbo.” Not here, not there yet, but in between. Almost holding our breath, waiting to see what the next moment will bring. And now, this summer is signaling to us the beginning of the end of our liminality. We are starting to have to consider hard decisions that will come whether we like them or not. We’re talking about how to open our preschool and religious school in the fall. How we do the High Holy Days will require clear determinations. Our families have decisions to make about whether we will send our child to school in a hybrid part time model, virtually, or will families move out of state? Will working folks go back into the office? Questions are being called now.
September is on the horizon, and liminality is giving way to the next stage of our narrative. And make no mistake, our bodies and our emotions and our stress levels are just at the brink of getting really involved in this moment. So what now? How do we do it, how do we move ourselves out of the liminal and into the next with such meager information and a good deal of anxiety and sadness? Since we have no choice, how do we transition?
This week, in Torah, we read Parshat Pinchas and we find a description of a time mirroring where we are now. Our people have been wandering the wilderness for 39 years and we are now in the final year. The final months of our liminality between the life we once knew and the life we don’t yet know. As we approach the Jordan River, the border of the Holy Land, we are approaching some serious decisions points. And some things that were able to just sort of float along until now suddenly become a lot less theoretical.
One of those things occurs to the five daughters of a man named Zelophechad. As they hear word that Moses has been directed to divvy up the land that they’re approaching into holdings for each of the tribes, they realize they’ve got a problem. They are five unmarried women with no father and the land is being given out only to the men, as the heads of the households. In ancient law, including our own, a woman could not inherit or own property and so, they realize, they weren’t gonna get any of that land and they were about to be homeless in their new home. It wasn’t a problem while everyone was nomadic, but it was about to become one. The question is being called.
Now, what they do is genius. They go to the decision-makers, they make their case, and ultimately, it works. Moses takes their case to God and God reports back…huh, “kein b’not Zelophechad,” which is to say “Huh, those ladies are right. This is a huge a problem.” And then God instructs Moses that God is changing the law so that they and ultimately, women, can inherit and own property, which is entirely radical and amazing, but a conversation for another time.
What I want to share here is how they do what we have to do now. How they move from liminal space to the next stage.
The five sisters together approach Moses and all of the elders, and the very first words out of their mouths are: “avinu met bamidbar.” “Our father died in the wilderness.” The very first thing they do is to grieve what they have lost. “You want us to move into the land? Okay, we can do this. But first, we need to name out loud what we lost in this liminal place, between what life was and today. We have to talk about it. Because we enter the next stage changed, with something taken from us. And we can’t pretend that hasn’t happened. We can’t be whole in the next stage until we sit with our loss in this one. Avinu met bamidbar, our father died in that wilderness.
The next set of decisions we make have life and death consequences, are questions of morality and mortality. They will require our fortitude and trust, our clarity and, in some cases, the courage of our best guesses. We can do it. But not without acknowledging and processing our grief, what we’ve lost, what we miss. To try to advance, to cross this threshold without taking that time—at best we’d be faking it, which is exhausting. At worst, we would deny ourselves a path toward healing, toward becoming. We need to take time to grieve.
And right now, in Jewish time, we have just entered a designated period of mourning. Yesterday was Tzom, or the Fast, of Tammuz. It is the day that marks the moment that the Roman army breached the walls of Jerusalem. Three weeks later, they would destroy the Second Temple. The year was 70 CE and as you might imagine, the people hid in their homes, terrified and sad. Tzom Tammuz begins a three-week mourning period, which ends with Tisha B’Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple itself. We make space for this grieving, even though this loss was 2,000 years ago, even though we know we made it to the other side.
Because to skip over the grieving is false. It leaves us undone, our lives unexamined. Our broken hearts raw and laid bare and spilling out. It leaves us weeping for the ice cream truck that we miss so much, even as the next stage is beginning. It’s not that we can’t be whole again. We will put ourselves back together over time. It’s that the only way out, the only way across the next border, is to go through it. To sit with it. To acknowledge and honor our losses.
So, what are you grieving right now? Before September comes, what needs to be named?
Are you grieving your parent? Your child? Your friend? The loss of your own immortality? Your child’s social connections? Hugs? Your chance at a child or another child? A trip you had been so looking forward to and had to cancel? The loss of your job or economic stability? Of daily joys? Missed graduations or birthday parties or easy afternoon grandparent time? We’re looking at a combination with another congregation now. Is there grieving in that for you? The end of an era?
Are you grieving a loss of trust in our systems? What have we lost? It’s okay to name it.
Of course, there may be, there will be, more losses ahead. And our grieving doesn’t end when we cross into the next stage, but it softens and it does transform over time. Into memory. Into meaning. Into resilience. Into new dreams and new stories and new possibilities.
We need this Jewish time that asks us to pay attention to our mourning, to our grief.
What do you want to name and honor and cry and yell about? It’s unfair. All of it. So tell your story. Of how much you miss it. That will help us grieve it.
The daughters of Zelophechad have a last teaching for us. The text begins with: “vatikravna b’not Tzelophechad,” “The daughters of Zelophechad drew near to one another.” They don’t each go alone to plead their case and just handle it. Nah. They go together. They get close to one another, and they grieve and process and face it all deeply connected to each other. That is what we will do, too. In prayer, in conversation, in love. We will grieve. And then we will step forward across the threshold into what lies ahead.