To Laugh and Cry with the Same Eyes
March 20, 2021
Author(s): Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz,
March 20, 2021 — 7 Nisan 5781
To Laugh and Cry with the Same Eyes
by Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA
This week a member of our community told me something that was so interesting, so unexpected, so profound, and so previously unknown to me, that I have been thinking about it pretty much non-stop ever since.
The context was that I was teaching a group of couples from the Temple in anticipation of Passover. The Passover story as told in the Haggadah has this happy trajectory. God takes us from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, from darkness to light.
I asked the class: is that our arc? Do we get to go from a bad binary to a good binary? And if not, what vocabulary, what language, would you use?
One participant argued that the language of this moment is moral awakening. The past year has revealed the economic, social, racial disparities that have real consequences for the health, wealth and longevity of American citizens. We are in a state of moral awakening, particularly among the rising generation of Americans—talk to your college-age children or grandchildren—who are determined to make our nation more just, more decent, more equitable.
But another participant argued that a moral awakening is not where our nation is headed. That is when he shared the observation that I have been thinking about all week. He said he went back to his high school American history textbook to see what was written about the flu pandemic of 1918. The answer is: nothing. He reread Jonathan Sarna’s magnificent work of American Jewish history to see what was written about the flu pandemic of 1918. The answer is: nothing. His comments inspired me to reexamine my own high school and college American history textbooks. What did they say about the flu pandemic of 1918 that claimed the lives of 650,000 Americans and between 20 to 50 million human beings world-wide? The answer is: nothing. In fact, what gets the attention in textbooks, and what had energy in life, was the Roaring 20s. The words of Barbara Streisand’s song The Way We Were come to mind. What’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget. So it’s the laughter we’ll remember whenever we remember the way we were. This participant argued that, based on the weightless legacy of the pandemic of 1918 on American society in the years thereafter, stasis is a likelier outcome than moral awakening. After this is over, what will happen? We will go back to where we were. We will get busy with our lives. We will travel. We will eat out. Equilibrium. Not a moral awakening.
Of course both of these voices are right. The one who argued that the aftermath of the pandemic should be a moral awakening is right. There should be a moral awakening. We should put this tragedy to good use by evolving into a better and more just nation. But the one who argued that that’s not happening, just look at history, we’re going back to stasis, is also right.
Which means that the language of the Haggadah, the language of trajectory, the language
of a happy arc where we move from a bad binary like slavery to good binary like freedom, is not our reality. We need a different way to conceptualize this moment.
I was talking to Michelle about this conundrum, when her eyes lit up, her face brightened, she smiled a big smile, and she blurted out: Kohelet was wrong! What did you just say, I asked? She said Kohelet was wrong! Then she explained that the line “Kohelet was wrong” is a line in one of her favorite poems, entitled A Man in His Life by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai.
What did Kohelet say, and why does Yehuda Amichai think Kohelet was wrong? What Kohelet says, that Yehuda Amichai disagrees with, is that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” There is a time to laugh and a time to cry. The message of
Kohelet is that we do one or the other at a time. We laugh. Or we cry. We are happy. Or we are
sad. But not at the same time.
That is the backdrop for Yehuda Amichai’s line: Kohelet was wrong. Amichai writes that we “laugh and cry with the same eyes.” We can be, we are, happy and sad in the same moment.
Everything about this year makes Amichai’s poetry our reality. Virtually every day I laugh and cry with the same eyes.
My 92 and a half year old father in Jerusalem is alive, lucid, and fully vaccinated. I laugh. But he has endured a long, lonely year of living in a small apartment all by himself, and he just fell and broke his hip, and is dealing with post-surgical pain, and we are so far away. I cry.
I am not alone in feeling this amalgam of conflicting emotions. Virtually every person I talk to tells me some version of the same thing. I had a new grandson a year ago. I laugh. But I have literally never held him. Not even once in a year. I cry. Now that I am vaccinated, I will hold him for the first time at the Seder. I laugh and cry at the same time.
I had not seen my parents in a year. Now that I am vaccinated, last weekend I got on a plane, and flew out to see them. I laugh. But when I finally do see them, in person, not on zoom, I see how they have aged in a year. You can’t pick up the aging on zoom. But you see the aging in person. I cry. When I said goodbye at the end of the trip, on my way to the airport, I hugged them, aging, vulnerable, fragile. When will I see them again? I cry.
I’m really looking forward to our zoom seder. I’ll have relatives from so many places on the zoom call that I otherwise would not have done seder with. I laugh. But around the table there will be 3 people. There used to be 33. I cry.
Everybody has their own version of I laugh and cry with the same eyes.
What does that mean for how we live our lives? Seeing the Yehuda Amichai model of holding conflicting emotions at the same time, rather than the Haggadah model of a happy
trajectory from a bad arc to a good arc, confers two big advantages.
We will have much more realistic expectations. So much pain in life comes from the discrepancy between expectations and reality. If we really think we leave darkness and sadness behind on our way towards light and happiness, then we are sure to be disappointed by the complexities of life. But if we know that those complexities come with life, darkness comes with light, sadness comes with happiness, suffering comes with celebrating, we won’t be disappointed. Our mixed experience will confirm our mixed expectations.
And that mixed bag that is our life can inspire us to make our life better. If we get that the human condition, especially now, is that we laugh and cry with the same eyes, that is a call to action. What can we do to laugh more, and to cry less? We have some agency here. We cannot manufacture a perfect life, but we can tweak a better life. What would better look like, and what do we now to make better happen?
Kohelet was wrong. There is not a time to laugh, and a time to cry. There is a time to laugh and cry with the same eyes, and at the same time, to work with the same hands on building a better life and a better world. That time is now. Shabbat shalom.