Pinchas: Honoring our grief without obsessing over loss


Numbers 25:10-30:1

Jeremiah 1:1-2:3

Not long ago, a bereaved person asked me an extraordinary question: "How do I honor my grief without letting it take over my life?" I was moved by the beautiful formulation of the question. And I was struck by how central a question this is for many people who experience loss, and for the Jewish people as a whole.

As a people, we find ourselves in the midst of a season of semi-mourning. We stand between Shiv'ah Asar B'Tammuz , the 17th of Tammuz, the day on which the Romans breached the walls encircling Jerusalem, and Tishah B'Av, the ninth of Av, on which both Temples were destroyed and, as tradition has it, many other tragedies befell our people through history. Between these two days of collective mourning is a period of three weeks, known by the rabbis as bein hametsarim, the time "between the narrow straits." This phrase recalls the expression in the biblical Book of Eicha or Lamentations, read on Tisha B'Av, "All her [Jerusalem's] pursuers overtook her bein hametsarim, in the narrow places" (Lamentations 1:3).

During the entire period of the three weeks, weddings and other celebrations are not held. When the month of Av begins, mourning practices intensify, including the custom of refraining from eating meat and drinking wine (except on Shabbat or at a mitzvah occasion). The haftarot, normally a source of comfort and inspiration, are carefully chosen during this period to remind us of the pain of our people's suffering and dispersion.

We Jews are masters at collective re-enactment of past sacred events. Every Pesach we gather round the seder table, imagining that we ourselves were being liberated from slavery. Each Shabbat morning, we re-enact the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, as we listen for every word of divine wisdom once again. And during the period of the bein hametsarim, we collectively re-enact a state of mourning. We remember, we feel our people's tragic moments, making them our own. We grieve our collective losses together.

Yet how do we keep these losses from taking over our life as a people? How do we remember, cultivate strong identification with the events of our people's history, teach our children that they are one with our ancestors — and still live lives filled with joy and blessing?

According to some commentators, this week's parashah models the answer to this question. Several commentators note that Parashat Pinchas is always read during the bein hametsarim period because it contains exactly what we need to hear during this sad time. The portion contains the descriptions of the sacrifices offered on all the Jewish holidays when the Temple stood.

For the rabbis, the recitation of these sacrificial menus was far from dry repetition. Hearing the account of how many animals would be offered, the ingredients of each meal offering, the components of the ritual libation — all of this detail was music to the ear. It was the music of sacred time. Just this week, in the midst of mourning, this portion brings to our ears the sound of celebration.

In fact, one commentator suggests that these echoes of holiday celebration hint at the ultimate time of redemption. Someday, it is said, this saddest period of the Jewish year, from Shivah Asar B'Tammuz till Tisha B'Av, will be one long festival, as Jeremiah promises, "I will turn their mourning into joy" (Jeremiah 31:13) (cited in Itturei Torah Vol. 5, Page 161).

The tradition guides us to feel our losses deeply. Jewish practice insists that we enter fully into the memories of our people's losses. And the liturgy gives us signs of hope, promises of redemption, fleeting hints of joyous times to come. Unlike contemporary culture, which trains us to think in binary, either/or categories, Jewish culture coaches us to do both: to honor our grief, to remember our losses deeply, to acknowledge the way in which the tragedies are part of our story, and also to hope, to sing, to celebrate whenever we can.

May this Shabbat, a joyful interlude in the midst of a sad time for our people, bring to us and to our people just the balance we need between grief and hope. Amen.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at