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The Stillness of Snowflakes and Sadness

Rabbi Sarah Marion
Parshat Bo ~ January 7, 2022
“The Stillness of Snowflakes and Sadness”

Scientists tell us that no two snowflakes are alike.
They tell us that every single
seemingly unremarkable white dot
that falls from the sky,
actually contains its own brilliantly elaborate constellation
of pattern, and design.

The same is true, they say, for tears.

Place a single tear-drop under a microscope,
and we see an intricate web of crystalized salt particles,
each tear embodying its own beautiful array
of microscopic slivers, and shards.

Even though the first…or second…or third…snowfall of the year
always causes the youngest – or even oldest – of us to squeal
with excitement and glee,
there is also something to be said, I think,
about snowflakes, and tears…
and about snowfall, and sadness.

Because with snow, everything suddenly looks and feels different.
The smooth blanket of white, several inches deep,
mutes and muffles
the regular hum and drum
of the outside world.
With freshly falling snow, there is stillness.
In the early morning hours after a night-long snowfall,
we awake to a sudden break, pause, rupture,
from the world that was.
Of course, we know that it will all eventually melt down,
and that the first springtime crocuses will eventually poke their way through…
But until then, snow is a liminal, transitional experience between what was,
and what will be. [1]

Sadness is like that, too.
The hushed, muted whispers of condolence.

I’m so sorry for your loss.
The stillness.
How am I supposed to go on, without him.
She was just here yesterday –
and now, without her,
the world is no longer the same.
Or, even, the immobilizing sadness and stillness that comes with illness.
Or injury.
Or job loss.
Or divorce.
Or a pandemic.
Everything now, is different.
The world looks and feels so different than it once was.
How am I supposed to go on.
And like freshly falling snow,
our teardrops cascade down our faces,
and we begin to see ourselves, and others,
and maybe even the world,
in a whole new way.

When the Israelites learned that they were leaving Egypt,
I always imagine that they were suddenly and unanimously
joyful and elated and ecstatic.

But it doesn’t really say that in our text…
in fact, it doesn’t really say anything.

In this week’s Torah Portion, Parshat Bo,
the 10th and final plague slays the first-born Egyptians
and the Israelites are finally released from Pharaoh’s grip.
Immediately after, the Israelites prepare to leave Egypt.
But what were they thinking?
What were they feeling?

And yet, in quick succession,
the text rushes from one detail to another.
The Egyptians wail with grief.
Pharaoh tells Moses and Aaron to take the people and go.
The Israelites take their dough before it is leavened.
And they leave.

Just like that.

Barely a moment to breathe.

The brilliant author Zora Neale Hurston
writes between the lines.
In her retelling of the Exodus story,
she imagines what the Israelites might have been thinking and feeling
at that moment,
and it is not what I would have expected.

She writes,
“When Moses told the Israelites that they were leaving Egypt,
the people cried.
He had expected wild clamor –
the sound of symbols and exultant singing and dancing.
But the people wept out of their eyes.
Goshen – their Egyptian land, their home, their whole world –
was very still.
No songs or shouts.
They just sat with centuries in their eyes,
and cried.”[2]

I read this passage and I imagine them sitting there,
silent and motionless,
as the tears blanketed their faces
and the space around them,
like quiet, freshly falling snow.

Tears for the grieving Egyptian mothers and fathers…
Tears of guilt and shame for the lives that were lost
so that they could be free.

Tears for all of their family members who didn’t make it…
Tears for the grandparents, parents, and spouses
who would never know the feeling of freedom.

Tears for the years of their lives that were lost to slavery.
Tears for everything that slavery took from them,
for everything that they would never be able to regain.

And they were still.

And they sat with centuries in their eyes, and cried.

But here is the thing about snow…and perhaps tears, too.

When snowflakes emerge from the atmosphere,
they link up with nitrogen atoms
as they make their way from the sky, to the ground.
Because nitrogen is essential to plant growth,
snow is often called “poor man’s fertilizer,”
because of the way that it helps to nourish and nurture,
even as it prolongs winter
and perpetuates stillness. [3]

Maybe tears have a similar function.

Maybe tears can also nourish, and nurture.

Maybe when the Israelites wept,
they looked around,
and saw themselves and one another
more clearly.

Maybe as they wept,
they recognized all of the emotional weight
they had been carrying –
centuries of emotional weight, in fact –
and as they wept together,
maybe each individual saw that he was not alone.

Maybe their collective weeping
legitimized and normalized
each one’s pain.

If my brother is sad,
it’s ok for me to be sad, too.

And maybe it was in that moment that they truly became a people,
a community,
a nation.

Maybe it wasn’t because of God’s outstretched arm and mighty hand
that they came together as one –
or because of Moses’ bold and brave leadership –
but, rather, maybe it was because of their tears.

Maybe it was because they stopped and they sat and they gave themselves
permission, to be sad.

In today’s world,
I’m not sure that we give ourselves enough permission to be sad.

In today’s world,
I think that we are actually quite uncomfortable with sadness,
and pain.

Because in today’s world,
we are conditioned, from a very young age,
with all kind of phrases and sayings and messages
that help us do everything we can
to avoid the pain
and circumvent
the sadness.

Just wipe your tears – you’ll be alright.
I have faith in you.
You’re stronger than you know.
Just keep going – one foot at a time.
Be strong – you can do this.
Keep fighting.

And, the worst:
Boys don’t cry.
Brush it off…and be a man.

It is no wonder that pharmaceutical companies
have profited so much from pain medications,
no wonder that opioids have taken such advantage in our society.

Even at the earliest, most simplest level –
and I have definitely been guilty of this –
think about what happens when a child gets a boo boo:
“You’re ok, my love, it’s no big deal…
it will be alright.”

But maybe, sometimes,
to a little three year-old,
that boo boo really is a big deal….
and maybe, sometimes,
that little three year-old just wants us to know that.

Of course, there are moments when “it will be alright” is entirely necessary
and utterly appropriate.

But as easily as “you’ll be alright” slips off our tongue,
what if we also learned to say:
“Tell me about your pain.”

Because sometimes,
what we really need,
is simply the permission to cry…
and the permission to just be,
in that snow-like stillness,
of sadness.

Rabbi Naomi Levy relates a story
about a time that she was in a supermarket with her son,
who was having a tantrum.
When she handed him a tissue
and tried to calm him down,
he refused, saying,
“No, mommy, I want to wear my tears.”[4]

What happens when go against everything that we have been taught…
what happens when we give ourselves permission,
and when we give others permission,
to wear our tears?

Representative Jamie Raskin wore his tears,
when he testified on the Senate floor
about his horrific experiences on January 6, 2021.[5]

“Distinguished members of the Senate,” he said on February 9th,
at the start of the Trump impeachment trial:
“My youngest daughter Tabitha was there, with me,
on Wednesday January 6th,
along with my son-in-law, Hank….
(As the mob barged in), my chief of staff was with Tabitha and Hank,
locked and barricaded in an office,
the kids hiding under the desk,
placing what they thought were their final texts
and whispered phone calls
to say their good byes.
They thought they were going to die.
My son-in-law had never even been to the Capital before…
and when they were finally rescued,
over an hour later,
I hugged them and I apologized
and I told my daughter Tabitha
how sorry I was,
and I promised her it would not be like this again
the next time she came to the Capital with me.”

And then, as Congressman Raskin relayed his daughter’s response,
his voice broke.

“Dad,” she said,
“I do not want to come back to the Capital.”

His voice broke.

At the sheer sadness of it all.

At the sheer awfulness of it all.

Which is what made his words quite possibly the most profound
and the most moving,
of all.

Congressman Raskin’s tears brought up the tears
that I had been holding down,
and holding back.
Tears of sadness,
that our leaders were in such fear for their lives.
Tears of anger, that there could be such partisan divide
about the simple existence of a hateful, murderous mob
on the Capital.

I think actually, that if we are not still crying
about what happened on January 6…
If we are not still sitting and grappling
with the pain and sadness and horror of that day…
and if we are, instead,
mitigating or lessening or downplaying what happened,
then there is something very, very wrong.

Because pain and sadness and tears
must always be a part of the story that we tell
about January 6th.
Now and forever more.
Pain and sadness must always be part of that story.
There is simply no other way.

And what of our Exodus story?

Every year at Passover,
I know that we have our small bowls of Seder-table saltwater.
And I know that the saltwater tears
get their own small bit
in the Haggadah.

But imagine, if the part about the saltwater also included something like this:

“Mommy, what is the meaning of this Saltwater?”

“Oh sweetie, after the Israelites were freed,
they sat together and they cried –
for all that had happened
and all that they had been through.
For all the painful memories
that would stay with them,
And they told each other that it was ok to be sad.
They told each other that what they were feeling,
was normal.
And after seeing one another cry, they felt better.
They felt less alone.
They saw that even when good things happen,
it’s still ok to feel a sad, too.
And so, my sweet child,
you, too, always have permission to feel sad.
Just like our ancestors.
And when you want to cry,
when you need to be sad,
I will be here,
and I will hold you.
Whenever you need, and for as long…as you need.”

I know that it is not so easy for adults to wear our tears.

And so I will start.

I am so sad for all of the experiences
that my children were supposed to have
that the this pandemic has so cruelly taken away.

And I am so sad that we are back in this Covid shutdown insanity, again.

And I am so sad for our country.
I am so sad,
that a year after January 6,
we still haven’t emerged any stronger or any more unified
than we were one year ago.

And I am so sad for the devastating erosion of our rights in this country.
And I am so sad that we are knowingly destroying our planet.
And I am so sad for the poor, marginalized communities
who will continue to bear brunt, of it all.

And so with my sadness,
I give you permission to be sad for whatever it is
that you need to be sad about.

During these cold, dormant, winter months,
I give you permission,
to enter into a snow-like stillness,
from the grief and the weight of it all.

And if means anything or if it helps you at all,
I give you permission, to cry.

A few months ago, during another Covid surge,
I found my daughter in her bed, sobbing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
I couldn’t remember any recent scuffle with her brother
that would have sent her to her room in tears.
“I just want to see my cousins,”
she sobbed to me, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“And I miss my friends in Baltimore.”

In that moment, my heart broke open, too.
And it took every ounce of my being not to try
to diminish her pain,
not to say or offer something
that I wasn’t sure that I could make come true.

“I know,” I said.
“I wish you could see your cousins too,
and I miss our friends in Baltimore, too.
I’m so sorry that we can’t see them right now.
I wish things were different.”

And we sat there together for a little while.

And then, she got up,
and went back to her toys,
and I could hear her happy, giddy voice with her dolls,
as if nothing had happened.

And for some reason,
that I can’t quite pinpoint
and can’t quite explain –
I started to feel a little bit better, too.


[1] Inspired by the January 21, 2021 podcast episode of “On Being” with English writer Katherine May on “How Wintering Replenishes”

[2] Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain

[3] The Benefits and Drawbacks of Snow in the Garden –

[4] Rabbi Naomi Levy, To Begin Again

[5] WATCH:  Raskin emotionally describes witnessing the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack with his daughter – Bing video