Note: Although it's not essential, I highly recommend that you play this music by Elaine Hagenberg(*) in the background while you read this essay. I will be quoting heavily from the underlying poem, by William Wordsworth(*), and discussing the music, which I've been singing with my chorus.
Like most Jewish holidays, Passover is a celebration of the human spirit in the face of loss and tragedy. (They say most Jewish holidays can be summarized in ten words: "They tried to kill us all. They failed. Let's eat.") Jews are told to remember times of happiness even when things are worst, and to remember times of sadness when we are happiest; a Jewish bridegroom traditionally breaks a glass at his wedding, to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2000 years ago.
Such melancholy subtleties don't generally sink in with children, of course. I remember the Passovers of my childhood as times of special foods and family gatherings, mostly happy but with the occasional blowout argument. I heard the tales of how our ancestors were liberated from slavery 3000 years ago, but didn't think much about the suffering that preceded the liberation. Getting together with the family, telling stories, eating traditional foods, and singing holiday songs -- it's hard for a child to see this as anything but joyous.
It was only when my father passed away on the eve of Passover in 2006 that the holiday developed a shade of sorrow for me. Jews traditionally remember departed loved ones annually on the anniversary of their death, known as the Yahrtzeit. Since 2006, my father's Yahrtzeit has taken place at the Passover Seder -- the meal and ceremony that begin the holiday -- and this adds just the right tinge of sadness for a Jewish celebration. The Seder chronicles the suffering and struggles of ancestors who died 3000 years ago, and is full of commentary from ancestors who died one to two thousand years ago. Taking a moment to mourn a parent who died a few years ago -- the kind of sadness that we grow up expecting to face some day -- fits the holiday perfectly, and didn't really change the tone for me substantially.
Then, in 2020, as the pandemic shut down the planet, my beautiful oldest daughter, Shana, suddenly dropped dead a few hours before the Seder.
Losing a child, at any age, is nothing like losing a parent at the end of a long life. It tears at the foundation of everything you have lived for.
The year that followed was the worst of my life. In addition to losing Shana suddenly, we lost my daughter Lea's husband, Mike, slowly to brain cancer, while my wife and I cared for our three young, soon to be fatherless granddaughters. The year included Mike's fourth and fifth brain surgeries, four minor surgeries for Lea herself, a miscarriage for my youngest daughter, and heart surgery for me, to implant a defibrillator. Along the way, my wife was suffering terrible back pain but postponing surgery to care for the rest of us. It was, in short, a dreadful year, and at Passover in 2021, just 3 months after Mike's death, Shana's Yahrtzeit felt like another blow, the reopening of a still raw wound, and not at all like the first step towards healing.
This year is very different. For starters, my life has been utterly transformed by a medical miracle, leaving me in the best physical and mental health of my entire life, and rather more inclined to embrace comfort, solace, and hope where I can find them.
Moreover, my physical and emotional rebirth was followed by a career change that enabled me to return, this spring, after 30 years of far too much travel, to one of my greatest loves, choral singing. And among the pieces I practiced for my first concert, to take place shortly after Passover, was Hagenberg's musical setting of Wordsworth's poem. Like most singers, I can enjoy singing almost anything, but particular moments can reward us with a powerful physical thrill not entirely unlike erotic ecstasy. For me there is such a moment -- at around 2:30 in the YouTube recording -- where we tenors briefly get to carry the melody, and I can think only of Shana:
The tenors are mostly alone as we conclude this phrase, making any errors excruciatingly obvious. It's not easy to sing this lovely line with a clear and steady voice through my tears. But I feel like a bridegroom stomping on a glass, determinedly embracing the possibility of joy without ever forgetting the saddest of times.
There is a part of me that feels guilty to have enjoyed the best year of my life so soon after losing a beloved daughter and son-in-law. But my world has been suddenly, as in Wordsworth's romantic youth, "apparelled in celestial light," a light that illluminates both the glory of today and the grief at the glory that is gone.
At the Passover Seder, we hear about the sufferings of our ancestors in slavery and the triumph of their liberation. We argue over words of wisdom from rabbis long gone, reminisce about more recently departed parents and grandparents, and I inevitably tell jokes about my father. The shadow of my departed daughter will loom over every Seder that remains to me, but I know I will find strength in what remains behind: my wife, daughters, grandchildren, and a much wider loving community of relatives and friends. It is not hard to find strength amid such gifts, only to muster the discipline to focus on what remains rather than what is lost.
Until these last two years, I'm not sure I ever had any thoughts "too deep for tears." The happiness that I have found in the last year is imperfect, but I can sense, in my bones, an inkling of a larger picture, in which the world may in fact make sense in a manner too big and glorious for my tiny brain to understand, but from which my slowly broadening heart can always hope to take comfort.
Music by Elaine Hagenberg, "There Was a Time"