Reflections From 12 Years After a Spouse’s Death

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a couple holds hands on a couch next to a box of tissues
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By Rabbi Cynthia Kravitz

Parshat Shelach Lecha

The Torah is a prism through which we see our lives and, like a prism, it has many facets.

Twelve years ago, I penned a Torah study for the Jewish Exponent’s Board of Rabbis Torah column for this week’s portion, Shelach Lecha from the book of Bamidbar (Numbers). As I explained, my husband, Cantor Nathaniel Entin, z”l, passed away on the week as that portion began. I became a widow at the age of 52 and the course of my life was changed. As a student of Torah, I instantly went to this text for wisdom on how to face “the rest of my life.”

My message in that original article was one of optimism coming from the story of Moses sending out 12 spies representing each of the Tribes of Israel to scout out the land. Joshua and Caleb returned, optimistically reporting that “it is a land flowing with milk and honey.” The remaining 10 tribal representatives fearfully reported that “it is a land that devours its settlers … we looked like grasshoppers in their eyes.” Moses embraced the words of the two optimists, Joshua and Caleb, and forward we went into the land of Israel.

I, too, entered a new land upon my husband’s death, and was given the message by the Torah to face the unknown with optimism and faith. This was my message 12 years ago to all those facing a new life path due to trauma, the death of a life partner being so common and an inevitable part of the life cycle of any couple.

Two years ago, then a widow of 12 years, I revisited this parshah to see where I had gone on my journey and if it could be of help to others. My observations then were that the optimism embedded in this Torah portion is expressed in our lives by having faith, observance and community as integral parts of how we live, fueling our courage and strength as we negotiate the path of “going it alone in this world without our life partner.”

Today, on the 14th anniversary of my husband’s passing, I wanted to invite you to rejoin me as I reexamine this parshah to see where it has taken me with regard to my living my life. My hope is that it will be of help to all of you facing this trauma and as important, illustrate how the words of the Torah can be a lens for bringing clarity and meaning to our lives.

With that I begin …

In my study of Shelach Lecha, I was struck by the fact that Moses designated scouts from each of the tribes to spy out the land. Certainly, Moses our teacher knew the character and nature of each of these men. I am certain that he knew who was going to be the optimist and who the pessimist. And yet, he sent them all, which on some level might have been simply a wise political decision. No one could complain that his tribe was excluded in assessing the land.

Moses then made the decision to follow the minority opinion of optimism instead of the majority opinion of pessimism, which tells you that on some level, he may have been prone to being an optimist, amazing indeed after having spent so much time with this “stiff necked people.”

But perhaps, it was not that simple. It may be that we are being taught something very sound and healthy by hearing and acknowledging the darker opinions from the 10 other tribes.

It seems to me that similar to the idea about the four children of the Passover seder actually being four aspects of each of us, so, too, the 12 Tribes of Israel may also serve as 12 different aspects of each of us, teaching that in our personal complexities, we each carry the competing struggle of positivity and negativity.

It is in that encounter and struggle between optimism and pessimism, that we discover who we are and who we want to become. It is perhaps both necessary and healthy to have that struggle in order to grow and blossom as human beings, especially in the face of the trauma of death of a loved one.

The message then is to embrace it all and be unafraid to face each and every aspect of the happiness, the sadness, the loneliness and tender touching points of facing life “after,” be it due to the death of a life partner or anyone who carries “half of our soul.”

New doors open only after we learn to lovingly make closure with the past, always remembering that there is always a little peephole in that door behind us allowing us to look at what came before. But Moses taught this to us first in parshat Shelach Lecha by making sure that all 12 scouts were told “to scout out the land” and were heard by him. Very wise indeed!

That then, is my report now, Shelach Lecha, 14 years later. I hope that it is helpful. l

Rabbi Cynthia Kravitz is departing this month after 22 years as education director of Kesher Israel Congregation. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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