Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Another Cyber Siyyum: Masechet Moed Katan

Several days ago I completed my learning (this time around, as we all hope to return and learn more at a later date from all of the texts we explore and interact with) of Masechet Moed Katan. This ended up being particularly meaningful for me for very personal reasons.

Those of us who are Halachically observant (living according to Jewish law) are often asked if there are things that bother us about this system as it is articulated and in how it developed. Even as we look at where we are presently in the Jewish calendar, there are those who have issues with Purim, which we just celebrated with great merriment, due to the mass killing that is carried out at the end of the narrative by the Jews and its sometimes troubling message of destroying Amalek and who Amalek may be taken to be in various generations. Further, as we are presently learning Parshat Shemini (the third portion of Torah reading of the book of BaYikra/Leviticus) and read the narrative about Aaron’s sons who are killed for showing their love for G-d in an original and unscripted manner as well as laws of dietary restrictions that too many people do not understand, this quandary is clear and present.

I am reasonably sure that most, if not all religiously observant Jews must have some area of law that troubles them, usually connected to personal experiences, where perhaps, if I can be so bold, they feel let down by this system that dictates our lives. For me it has always been in the area of the laws of Avelut, or mourning. I remember many years ago, when I had just lost a pregnancy a bit more than mid-way into gestation, I did not listen to the rules about bed rest and went with my husband to a class given by an area Rabbi. I will always remember his reference to the teaching that “to mourn is public and can be dictated; to grieve is private and one has to do what is needed for themselves.” This always stuck with me and the more I engage in my learning of Talmud, the more I see that this kindness and compassion is clearly present.

As I have learned in Moed Katan, there is a great deal to be taught and learned about mourning and what we do when we lose someone in our lives. So one of the set of rules and regulations about mourning is that if you lose one of your primary relatives (parent, spouse, child, sibling and assorted associated others according to some of the voices in the Talmud and elsewhere), the seven days of staying at home to be consoled by others is canceled if the death occurs within a set period before a Yom Tov/Holiday. Further, if such a death occurs within a certain window, say before Yom Kippur and thus a set number of days before Sukkot which occurs five days later, then the Sheloshim – the thirty days of restrictive practices that the mourner observes is also cancelled. I just lived through this with the death of my mother on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat immediately before Yom Kippur. When my dad died on Rosh Hodesh Elul, just five weeks before, we observed all of the various periods of restrictions, coming slowly out into full public life. It made sense. When my mom died, I had a hard time making sense out of the loss of these periods of time to share with others, to think and just adjust, especially having lost both parents in five weeks. I ended up doing most of my processing by myself and with one cousin with whom I am particularly close. It felt more solitary and at times that was challenging for me.

Enter my study of Moed Katan and the explanations. Why does the observance of these community celebrations trump the restrictive isolation of the mourner? Is this fair? As I continued to go through the arguments and the back and forth discussion so characteristic of the Talmud and the many voices it contains, I finally and slowly got it. The community comes to the mourner to console the one who is bereft of a loved one. However, the public festivals are important for all to follow and to rejoice together. The thinking is suggested that perhaps the mourner will actually be helped along in their process more by being part of the public than continuing their isolation while everyone else observes these special holidays. Before Sukkot, we had a lot of scheduled guests for all of our meals, as is always our practice. I had indicated to my husband, Ken, that I did not think I would feel up to it this time around and perhaps we should cancel all of our plans. He promised to do all of the work to make these meals happen if I could not do so and that it would be better for me to participate in these celebrations as I always do. I am always the planner and just did not want to have to disinvite people at the last minute if I could not handle being with people. Lo and behold, a mere eight days after burying my mom, people were in our home – lots of people. Yes, actually it was quite okay and I did feel better. I may very well have felt worse if I had been isolated from all of this community interaction.

The more I engage in my daily learning of Gemara (Talmud), the more I appreciate the principles that guide our lives and provide for a consistency that may (and often does) elude us when looking at various practices in isolation. I always teach that Halacha and life as informed by it is a giant jigsaw puzzle in which there is an interdependence and interfacing between the various pieces and in which the sum total is so much greater than the arithmetric sum of the parts. Here my own teaching was put to the test as I was a bit lost in the intersection of the coming of Sukkot after Yom Kippur, so close to my mom’s death, coming a mere 30 days after my dad could no longer stay in this world. But as I often teach, in driver’s education, you are taught that when the car skids, DO NOT turn against the direction of the skid, but into it and you have a better chance of a good result. I guess I sort of turned into the skid of Halacha and let it guide me, and it did! Thank you for the explanation, Moed Katan. I will return to learn from you again at some future point.

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