We all grieve. Sometimes it’s an immense pain, following communal calamities or personal tragedies, and other times we grieve in small but significant ways when undergoing life transitions or learning to let go of old habits or expectations. We most naturally grieve when it happens on its own, perhaps unexpectedly but there are moments when we have to actively tap into a dormant grief. Only then can we process bygone losses, and, in turn, awaken our truest wishes, desires, and values from their slumber.
For alumni of Yahel – an organization that inspires individuals and organizations to take part in responsible and sustainable volunteering in Israel and globally – alongside all who deeply care about social change, we feel deep grief and frustration over the state of affairs in our cities, our countries, and our world.
Making social change amid feelings of deep grief and frustration
Following Tisha B’av, a Jewish day of mourning, Yahel alumni around the world and across the US embarked on our International Day of Service powered by Repair the World, and followed this day of grief with action in pursuit of a more just world. At Bushwick City Farm in Brooklyn, where I joined for the day of service, we packed food for asylum-seekers who lack basic provisions.
The social issue arena and Jewish learning are integral parts of Jewish service, so before we began, we learned that asylum-seekers have been placed by the City of New York in under-resourced respite centers. For some of them, places like the volunteer-run Bushwick City Farm are their only option for food, basic supplies, and a place to rest comfortably in the shade.
On Tisha B’av, the Jewish people grieve similar injustices: the implications of war, hunger, forced migration, and slavery (to name but a few) caused by the destruction of Jerusalem and the expulsion and worldwide scattering of communities that followed. To use the parlance of the Jewish mystical tradition, our contemporary grief is an experience of “shattered vessels;” likewise, it was the “vessel” for Divine presence, the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, that was shattered 2,000 years ago.
But grief does not, and should not, end there: if vessels shattered, it is incumbent upon us to pick up the pieces. We must act to repair the world, tikkun olam, transforming it into a sturdy vessel for justice. “Whoever mourns for Jerusalem will merit and see her [future] joy; and whoever does not mourn for Jerusalem will not see her [future] joy” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta‘anit 30b). Commenting on this adage, the 18th-19th-century Eastern European hassidic master and mystic Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev questions its seemingly exclusionary nature: if one is perfectly righteous, save for this act of mourning, why should they not merit to see Jerusalem rebuilt?
In his response, it becomes immediately apparent that the exclusionary language merely comes to emphasize the perils of apathy – we cannot lack sensitivity to the world’s wrongs. To be able to rebuild what was lost, an individual or community must, to begin with, have some awareness of the magnitude of that loss, to recognize that it is even worth grieving over.
So too, to be of service to the most underserved among us, we must be sensitive enough – pained enough – by injustice, to have a vision of how the lives of those in need could and should look. It is in this vein, as we pick up the pieces of shattered vessels, that I reflect on how service enables us to begin the process of awakening ourselves from our slumber to fulfill our desires, wishes, and values that we seek in the world to come.
The writer was born and raised in New York City and currently lives in Jerusalem. Having completed the Yahel Social Change Fellowship in the Jewish-Arab mixed city of Lod, he has continued to work in the Jewish-Arab civil society arena and is now pursuing a degree in clinical social work from Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work.