A dead body found outside city limits with no witnesses and no one to blame. It means no government is taking responsibility for the crime and no one is attending to the body. No CSI team is sent and no police tape will cordon off the crime scene. In a very short time, the animals will claim the area and the victim will be forgotten forever. A crime with a suffering victim and no closure in sight.
And now you have the picture painted in part of this week’s parshah, Shoftim.
Ok, I’m being a bit Hollywood dramatic, but only a bit. The problem mentioned in the Torah is, in fact, a dead body between cities and no one owning the problem. But whenever there is suffering involved, the Torah has made it clear that it cannot go unanswered – it must come to a close.
And so we arrive at discussing closure in our lives. It’s nice when things tie into neat parcels with beginnings and endings. Whenever something new occurs in our lives, we say a ‘shehecheyanu’, the blessing that acknowledges our gratitude for arriving at that new moment. But, we don’t say ‘shehecheyanu’ for new things that don’t have endings. For instance, we don’t say a ‘shehecheyanu’ when we get married or at our first intimacies because we intend those relationships to last unendingly. The blessing is for those moments that have closure: like the beginning of a holiday that will end in a week.
And though we know some things end, that doesn’t mean we’ll find closure. Closure involves picking up the loose thread and tying it to something.
But it’s not that simple, because if the loose thread involved our getting hurt, then we might revert to that primal element within ourselves that wants the person who hurt us to be hurt back.
I saw this play out years ago when I was waiting for a flight at the airport. I watched two kids playing at the gate. They were clearly brother and sister, around 6 or 7 years old. The longer we waited, the less they got along (shocker). After about an hour, their now aggressive playing ended with the little boy crying and running to his mother. Through his tears he told his mother that his sister hit him. “So now I have to hit her back, right? And I have to hit her HARDER, right?”
His words were brilliant. Of course, she should feel what he felt, so he should hit her back. But isn’t there a price to be paid for initiating the violence, and shouldn’t there be a deterrent built in to prevent future preemptive hitting – so he should hit her harder.
His point was driven home to his mother when she told him she would talk to his sister about it immediately. His response: “TALK to her??? Aren’t you going to YELL at her?!?!”
And there it is: the moment we confuse closure with justice.
And now it’s helpful to go back to that dead body in the Torah. There will be no justice because there are no witnesses and no possible way to solve the crime. But having no justice does not mean we cannot have closure. The Torah instructs the two closest cities to measure their distance to the body and the closest one assumes jurisdiction. Then there is a ceremony performed to symbolically punish the guilty party and bury the dead. It is symbolic justice but effective closure.
But not everything can tie up so meaningfully. Most of our moments are complex relationships with other people involved. We feel the loose thread of conversations we didn’t have or injustices that were left unaddressed. How can we find closure when the other person doesn’t know how wrong they were? If they only realized we were right, then we could finally close the matter. And, again, we confuse closure with our fantasy of justice and so we go round and round.
How to break the cycle?
I think about the Torah’s statement of symbolic closure. Once we realize we are not the ultimate Judge and therefore justice alludes us, we can begin to entertain symbolic closures. There’s a great Yiddish saying that translates as: ‘not everything I think needs to be said; not everything I say needs to be written; not everything I write needs to be sent’. There are stages of expression and I can choose one for closure.
So, maybe we go somewhere private and say what needs saying, or maybe we write a letter and destroy it when we’re done. Closure means we acknowledged our ‘jurisdiction’ and finish the loose thread.
A dead body found outside city limits with no witnesses and no one to blame but no longer a hanging thread and now it’s a model for the unfinished moments we all carry.