Grief as Spiritual Seeking

Empire of Lights, 1954 by Magritte


I am a university student, returning to my residence (dorm) after an evening party. A kind security guard welcomes every student. He asks me, “Whom should I contact to let them know you came home safely?” “No one,” I say, “There is no one to contact. I don’t have any parents or aunts or uncles.” 

Walking home at night, I turn off the main street into my residential neighbourhood. Gradually, I notice how dark it is. No streetlights shine through the trees and I realize there is a power outage. Still, I continue towards my home on Sophia Street. Only one light is on anywhere. It’s in our home, lighting up the whole house, shining through the big front window. My son is home, feeding our cats.

No surprises in these dreams. I miss my late parents and their siblings; I miss my son, who is traveling. I am sad. I’ve lost the past and not yet found the future.

Yes, I resonate with the Biblical story of Avram.

We meet Avram in Genesis 11:27-32, and we learn: Avram’s brother died. Their father organized the family to move to Canaan, but he, too, died along the way. Avram and his wife Sarai tried to have children, but could not conceive.

No past, no future. Avram must have been sad, very sad.

Until he met God.

God said to Avram: Go! Go! from your land, from your birthplace and from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)

And things began to change. The facts of Avram’s life remained the same, but he felt them differently. Once he was a drifter; now he was a seeker. He had been empty; now he was free. His future was unknown; now it was an open adventure.

Many rabbinic commentators have asked, “Why did God suddenly speak to Avram?” And most have answered, “Avram spoke first.”

R. Yitzchak said: “This may be compared to one who was passing from place to place and saw a fortress lit up.” He said, “Will you say this fortress has no manager?” The owner of the fortress peeked out at him. He said to him, “I am the owner of the fortress.” (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 39:1)

Avram, says R. Yitzchak, was like someone passing from place to place. His feelings were restless.

Avram was like someone who saw a fortress lit up by a raging fire. Seeing suffering, he cried, “Someone needs to be in charge here!” He was like someone who saw a fortress lit up with magnificent lights. Seeing beauty, he cried, “How could anyone think there’s no coordinator?” Sometimes he cried about suffering and sometimes about beauty.

Unnerved by his own emotional roller-coaster, Avram asked to see the manager. Someone peeked out and said, “I am the owner.” And maybe added, “The position of manager is vacant. Are you looking for a job?”

And maybe, just at that moment, Avram was finally ready for the job.

Grief is a kind of spiritual searching. A walking in the dark with a few glimpses of light. When I am ready, I can ask, “What is this light?” And someone can answer, “Are you ready to manage it? Because it’s waiting for you.”


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Inspiration: Bonnelle Strickling, Dreaming About the Divine; Simi Peters, Learning to Read Midrash. Image: Rene Magritte, Empire of Lights,

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