Dealing with Loss

Question:

Recently, I lost a beloved son. I have struggled with grief and anger and somewhat made peace. I am writing to you because I heard a quotation, and I sense that this quotation has meaning for me. I was told that the Baal Shem Tov said, “In remembrance lies the secret of redemption.” Could you help me to understand the connection between remembrance and redemption in Jewish tradition, and what the Baal Shem Tov is suggesting? Thanks.

Response:

My sincere condolences on the loss of your son. May we all be reunited again very soon in the world to come.

This statement has been widely attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, but I have yet to find the source. Whoever it is from, it is so profound and deep, I doubt anyone could express a glimmer of its meaning in a hundred emails. But perhaps one small point:

Each moment of life, taken on its own, is imprisoned. It is a fragment, and as such, orphaned from its meaning, like torn pages of a book scattered by the wind. Remembrance creates a gestalt, a wholeness in which all things are redeemed and complete.

The most essential example: You probably have noticed that all the mitzvahs we do are zecher l’yitsiat mitzraim — “a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt”. It is this memory that takes a mitzvah out of its particular context and brings it into the larger drama of redemption. Each mitzvah becomes another step in an ongoing Exodus that began in Egypt and culminates in the final redemption.

To put it another way: On its own, a mitzvah is just another deed. In the context of remembrance, it becomes redemption: A redemption of that person at that moment. And another step in the redemption of the entire world.

In terms of your situation: The point at which your child was lost, I’m sure, was impossibly painful. Experiences such as these often become barriers between the present and the past. Memories are lost, or tainted by the pain.

But if you could see the entire picture as a whole, from beginning to end, the beauty would return to all of it.

I remember a music professor who would start the class by playing a chord on the piano and asking us to write down the notes. The chords became more and more sophisticated as the classes progressed: minor 9ths, suspended, augmented, 13ths… Then, one day, he played the ugliest chord imaginable — and this time, not only were we asked to write the notes, but to tell him the era and composer, as well.

All were convinced it was post-Wagnerian. Most placed it as “modern ugly — likely from the 1920s.” Several suggested Arnold Schönberg.

Then he played us the entire piece. It was a fugue from J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavichord. The voices of the fugue fought their way into a crescendo of complexity culminating in the agonizing tension of that chord…and then smoothly resolved back into the sweetest baroque harmony.

Of course, it was all beautiful. But the most beautiful was that which we had first heard as the most ugly.

May we all merit to hear the entire symphony fulfilled, sooner than we can imagine.

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