By Rabbi Andrea Steinberger
I am sitting at my computer on a Zoom call with a colleague, who is a rabbi at another Hillel. He is sharing that his mother-in-law has died. He has led the funeral, and they have finished the seven days of shiva. It has been the hardest experience of his life. I am sitting in a room at the front of our house as I speak with him. I am looking out a window as a grandfather and his tiny granddaughter make their daily walk past our house. She always stops at our house to look in at me. I am looking at her even as I am hearing about the sadness of my colleague. In the next room, my husband is on a call with other Hillel directors, talking about how to prepare to serve the thousands of Jewish students who are about to make their way back to Madison in the next weeks. In our dining room, our oldest daughter works away remotely at her summer internship. Another daughter is doing the same from upstairs in her bedroom. And a third daughter is practicing her TikTok moves in our living room. We have been going this way for so many months, existing in our home, living with the opposing feelings of utter boredom, constant worry of illness, loneliness of missing our dear friends and family, and worrying about the brokenness of our country.
Indeed, this world is full of some truly terrible and chaotic moments right now. Some of us are living alone, feeling more isolated than we have ever felt in our lives. Others are living with young children, finding no breaks, feeling tremendous worry about how to keep our jobs with little or no childcare lined up for fall. Some of us are missing hugs from children or grandchildren so palpably that we are just desperate to connect with them in a physical way. We have each lost so much in these past months. We are living in the questions: Will it be safe to return to school or work? What does the future hold for us? Will we be ok – financially, physically, spiritually?
These questions coincide with a particular time of year on the Jewish calendar. Just a few weeks ago, the Jewish people observed Tisha B’Av, the remembrance of some of the darkest moments of Jewish history: of destruction and of the exile of the Jewish people. The seven weeks that follow mark a path until the new year of Rosh Hashana, and are a time for each of us to consider our spiritual low points and find some consolation as we prepare for a new year.
For many of us, we too are at a spiritual low point right now. It is summer. We have been in isolation for five months. We do not see a quick end to this pandemic. We have likely lost people – relatives or friends – to COVID 19 or other illnesses in these past months. We feel so low. These weeks of consolation on the Jewish calendar remind us that we can use these summer days to begin to prepare ourselves spiritually for some feelings of renewal that we want to achieve when we get to Rosh Hashana on September 18.
In order to prepare for some spiritual renewal in these weeks, we might ask ourselves: what do I need to feel better than I do today? Who can I reach out to? What do I need to think about? And what do I need for my heart? How do I want to feel? What steps can I take to feel the way I want to – about myself? My family? My community? My world?
In these seven weeks of consolation, I wish for each of us to be gentle with ourselves. I hope we will be compassionate with ourselves. May we take some time to think about what we need. And may we start working to heal our own selves first, so we will have the strength to bring healing to this world.
I wish each of us a good and thorough healing during these weeks of consolation. May it be so.
Andrea Steinberger is a rabbi at the Hillel at the University of Wisconsin, teaching, learning, questioning and helping students create and expand their Jewish lives and practices during their college years.