I learned the painful but true saying above from a collection of sayings called Yiddish Wisdom, produced by Chronicle Books. I also learned how to say, "You can't sit on two horses with one behind" and "If your grandmother had a beard, she's be your grandfather" in Yiddish but haven't figured out the right context in which to use them.
I turned to this small collection because Yiddish has a rich and creative vocabulary for expressing pain. There is something appealingly inelegant about it that feels authentic to the way real people live and think. This is in contrast to many biblical texts that we read this season in a liturgical context to mark the Three Weeks of mourning over the loss of the two holy Temples and other tragedies of Jewish history commemorated during these days of ancient heartbreak. The prophets offered us their literary prose, their complicated metaphors and their daring antics to get the attention of a misbehaving people. Yiddish gives us a simple "OY."
OY is also the last two letters of the word JOY, perhaps a linguistic wordplay that makes no sense other than to communicate that one cannot experience deep and true happiness without an active range of emotions. "Az men ken not iberhalten dos shlechteh, ken men dos guteh nit derleben." If you can't endure the bad, you'll not live to witness the good, says this Yiddish aphorism. No one wants bad news. No one opts for sadness, but it shows up as a constant friend anyway. And maybe, as the saying recommends, we must invite in that sadness and not push it away because it holds the key to emotional depth that will also allow us to experience joy more completely.
I've always been taken by several lines in Rumi's poem, "The Guesthouse" that majestically express this conundrum: that deep pain is related to deep joy.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all...
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
Because each has been sent
As a guide from beyond.
Pain also inspires, which may explain why our prophets had so much to say about destruction and redemption. "A shver hartz redt a sach." A heavy heart talks a lot. The release of words unburdens us and frees up more space for other emotions, for slivers of positive thinking and optimism.
Sometimes, however, grieving does not easily let up its hold on us. "Altsding lozt zich oi smit a gevain." Everything ends in weeping. Our mortality is close by always, even if we create multiple mechanisms of distance. There are times when the veil that separates us from our mortality is perilously thin. The historic chronology of loss we experienced thousands of years ago which we encapsulate in the time frame of three weeks can feel long and onerous, but precisely because of that, we are put in a narrow tunnel that we need to walk through slowly to see the light. That mortality signals an urgency for meaning, for connection, for closeness and joy.
This relationship is not obvious to most...
The happiness expectation
That marks every summer vacation,
Leaves no room for mourning
For Jeremiah's scorning,
Or a day of thoughtful grieving
About our ancient disbelieving.
Our many infidelities
Were washed away with charities
In the hopes of consolation
At the failures of our nation.
Now so few really mark these days
In soulful or demanding ways.
Perhaps we can make room for sadness
Amidst the chaos and the madness,
Because our incapacity to welcome pain
Has become itself a human stain.
Yet when our hearts can court disaster,
They're wide enough to hold our laughter.
"Men zol nit gepruft verren tsu vos me ken gevoint verren." Pray that you may never have to endure all that you can learn to bear, says the saying above. Yet if you do and survive it, you just planted the seeds of resilience.