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The Torah of Re-Opening: The Conflict Between Joy and Sadness

Mark S. Young

Throughout this pandemic, I have been fascinated that the most resistance to return regulations—testing requirements, mask-wearing, and the like—comes from adults, not from children. My two kids, 8 and 5, for example, rarely complain about these requirements and never have said, “We didn’t used to have to do this. Why now?” They, unlike many (but certainly not all) of their adult counterparts, seem to “get it.”

I recently studied in Hadar Institute’s Jewish Wisdom Fellowship, and one of our study texts in the Book of Ezra perhaps offers a window into some reasons for many adults’ behavior. The text announces the completion of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, which occurred approximately 60 years after the destruction of the First Temple and the initial exile of the Jews to Babylonia. Ezra and Nehemiah, prophets in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), led generations of Jews back to Jerusalem and the site of the newly constructed Second Temple.

This text describes the scene:

וְרַבִּ֡ים מֵהַכֹּהֲנִ֣ים וְהַלְוִיִּם֩ וְרָאשֵׁ֨י הָאָב֜וֹת הַזְּקֵנִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר רָא֜וּ אֶת־הַבַּ֤יִת הָֽרִאשׁוֹן֙ בְּיָסְד֔וֹ זֶ֤ה הַבַּ֙יִת֙ בְּעֵ֣ינֵיהֶ֔ם בֹּכִ֖ים בְּק֣וֹל גָּד֑וֹל וְרַבִּ֛ים בִּתְרוּעָ֥ה בְשִׂמְחָ֖ה לְהָרִ֥ים קֽוֹל׃ וְאֵ֣ין הָעָ֗ם מַכִּירִים֙ ק֚וֹל תְּרוּעַ֣ת הַשִּׂמְחָ֔ה לְק֖וֹל בְּכִ֣י הָעָ֑ם כִּ֣י הָעָ֗ם מְרִיעִים֙ תְּרוּעָ֣ה גְדוֹלָ֔ה וְהַקּ֥וֹל נִשְׁמַ֖ע עַד־לְמֵרָחֽוֹק׃

Many of the priests and Levites and the chiefs of the clans, the old men who had seen the first house, wept loudly at the sight of the founding of this house. Many others shouted joyously at the top of their voices. The people could not distinguish the shouts of joy from the people’s weeping, for the people raised a great teruah, the sound of which could be heard from afar. (Ezra 3:12-13)

In both chavruta (studying with a partner) and group discussions, members of our cohort inferred that the younger generation was happy to have a temple, perhaps because they didn’t remember or have an emotional connection to the original temple, or “what was.” The older generation, however, was sad that the Second Temple was not like the first one.

How might these reactions guide us as we establish a “new normal” at our JCC’s?

Like the generation returning to the Second Temple, some of us will feel sad that we are returning to a place that may not be what it was or what we hoped it would be. I experienced such emotions when I returned to JCC Association’s midtown office recently. My favorite lunch place on Eighth Avenue was boarded up, the office felt eerily quiet, and the commute wasn’t as romantic as I remembered it. Throughout, I was consumed with memories of what had been and how this new reality didn’t live up to my expectations about a return to the office. I missed the First Temple even though the Second Temple was beautiful in its own right.

Younger generations, by contrast, often don’t have this same frame of reference. For example, I initially was sad that my 8-year-old daughter, attending her first summer at sleepaway camp, would have to wear a mask and miss out on many of the normal camp activities I had experienced as part of camp life. In fact, she simply was overjoyed to be at camp and had a wonderful time! (Thank you, camp staff!) For her, there was no First Temple to miss; the Second Temple was all she knew and thus was free to be joyous about it.

When we sing Birkhat haMazon (grace after meals) on Shabbat, we begin with “Shir Hamalot,” that envisions a grand return of peace and joy:

שִׁ֗יר הַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת בְּשׁ֣וּב יְ֭הוָה אֶת־שִׁיבַ֣ת צִיּ֑וֹן הָ֝יִ֗ינוּ כְּחֹלְמִֽים׃ אָ֤ז יִמָּלֵ֪א שְׂח֡וֹק פִּינוּ֮ וּלְשׁוֹנֵ֪נוּ רִ֫נָּ֥ה אָ֭ז יֹאמְר֣וּ בַגּוֹיִ֑ם הִגְדִּ֥יל יְ֝הוָ֗ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִם־אֵֽלֶּה׃ הִגְדִּ֣יל יְ֭הוָה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִמָּ֗נוּ הָיִ֥ינוּ שְׂמֵחִֽים׃ שׁוּבָ֣ה יְ֭הוָה אֶת־שבותנו [שְׁבִיתֵ֑נוּ] כַּאֲפִיקִ֥ים בַּנֶּֽגֶב׃ הַזֹּרְעִ֥ים בְּדִמְעָ֗ה בְּרִנָּ֥ה יִקְצֹֽרוּ׃ הָ֘ל֤וֹךְ יֵלֵ֨ךְ ׀ וּבָכֹה֮ נֹשֵׂ֪א מֶֽשֶׁךְ־הַ֫זָּ֥רַע בֹּֽ֬א־יָב֥וֹא בְרִנָּ֑ה נֹ֝שֵׂ֗א אֲלֻמֹּתָֽיו׃

A song of ascents. When the Eternal restores the fortunes of Zion—we see it as in a dream—our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues, with songs of joy. Then shall they say among the nations, “The Eternal has done great things for them!” The Eternal will do great things for us and we shall rejoice. Restore our fortunes, O Eternal, like watercourses in the Negev. They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy. Although he goes along weeping, carrying the seed-bag, he shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves.

This text describes a perfect vision of return, and one about which we can dream. However, as we’ve seen,  our visions of return don’t always match our expectations, and, in fact, they often do not—especially if we have a frame of reference from the past that cannot be replicated.

So what can we do?

This question is one each of us must consider individually. As you do, I’ll leave you with one thought: Each response, whether joyful or sad, is legitimate and holy and reasonable in its own right. Even if the future is bright, it is not wrong to miss the past. Conversely, it is acceptable to

delight in the present and eagerly await the future, even as we recognize beautiful elements from the past that are no longer with us.

As I indicated in an earlier post, I suggest we continue to navigate re-opening—and the joy and sadness that come with it—by taking time to pause, reflect, check-in with ourselves and each other, and validate the emotions we and others are experiencing. Let us lend our ears to listen and our shoulders for others to cry upon, so we can be leaders for each other, whether from near or from afar, and for our communities. In partnership with others, l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation, let us create the best reality for ourselves now, even as we honor the parts of the past that we have lost. As we go forward, may we all be blessed with wisdom, courage, and compassion to support each other and lead our communities—with humility, vulnerability, and resolve.

Mark S. Young is director of JResponse®, a signature program of JCC Association of North America, and author of “Bless Our Workforce.”

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  1. The verse concludes “and she cried.” Her tears may have been tears of desperation, of relief or cleansing, or a combination. She is able to stop moving away from Ishmael and begin moving toward him only after expressing her fears about him dying. By acknowledging these fears she was able to re-emerge from inner conflict as an activist and caregiver. A few verses later the Torah describes, “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink” (Gen. 21:19). In the earlier story, Hagar had found the well by herself. During this instance, God helped her identify what she struggled to see.

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