Tammuz: A Gaping Hole

Yesterday my daughter and I held our beloved cat as his doctor administered a lethal dose of anesthetic. Rascal was our Kitty companion for 15 years. He grew up with Jen, who was seven when he arrived- a feral kitty, quite frightened by our attentions. But he soon sought out our affection. He came to love people, and whenever I had parties, Rascal sat straight and proud in the middle of the action, soaking in all of the excitement. He was my receptionist. When my therapy or spiritual direction clients arrived, he met them at their cars, walked them to my office, and waited outside during their sessions. Then he would walk them back to their cars, roll over on his back and await a farewell rub. When I was bed-ridden, during cancer treatment in 2006, he never left my side.

Rabbi Ann Brener, LCSW
Rabbi Ann Brener, LCSW

The last six weeks he had suffered a perfect storm of “aging cat syndromes” which included lymphoma, kidney failure, thyroid dysfunction and more. As he withdrew from food, struggled to maintain his usually meticulous hygiene, and finally could not stand, it became clear that our life together needed to end. He was loving throughout, as Jen and I held him, and he slipped into a permanent sleep. The house and our lives feel very empty.

Tammuz is a month for mourning. This first of the hot summer months is named for Tammuz, the Babylonian Sun-God, who was the stellar performer in the Babylonian cult of the death and rebirth of the sun god, which is played out each year in the cycle of the seasons. In this month, following the summer solstice, it was believed that Tammuz died and began his descent to the underworld. Because of the death of Tammuz, the Babylonians felt that this was an unlucky month.  They called it “the month of the curse” and they wailed for Tammuz or, in essence, for the vegetation that dries up this month  when the sun has hit its zenith.

Sumerian scripture describes this month of wailing and lamentation:

…  there is wailing..[Tammuz]…has been taken away, …the wailing is for the plants, they grow not…the wailing is for the great river, it brings the flood no more.  The wailing is for the fishponds…

This wailing and weeping (particularly among the women) was the principal practice during this hot, dry month.  The Babylonians observed funeral feasts at which this weeping and wailing took place. This practice actually took place in the Temple in Jerusalem, where the women were described, by the prophet, Jeremiah, as worshipping the Queen of Heaven and wailing at the death of Tammuz.

Judaism continues to observe the month of Tammuz as a time of mourning. There is a fast on the 17th day, which remembers the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar in the year 586 BCE.  That was also the day that daily sacrifice was abandoned.  It is believed that it was in Tammuz that Moses broke the tablets that were engraved with the Ten Commandments, upon descending Mt. Sinai to discover the people worshipping the Golden Calf. Other calamities are associated with this day which begins a 21 day period of mourning know as “bein ha-metzarim,” which ends with the ninth of Av, the day on which the temple is believed to have been destroyed.

Wailing and weeping certainly suit my current mood. The breach in the wall of the Temple is a fitting metaphor for my emotional experience following Rascal’s loss.  I feel like there is a hole in my world. Familiar feelings come pouring through. This is because new losses open the window on previous grief. So the breach left by the loss of my cat has left me with a melancholy that recalls other, more significant losses: my mother, my sister, my father, other human friends, my marriage…

At age 61, I have had more than my share of grief. However by this age, most people have stared into the hole left by the breaching of the walls of certainty and comfort. Loss has forced them to rearrange their understanding of the universe to include the reality of death and loss. By midlife we have all, most likely, been initiated into the recognition that life is a lot more complicated that our pediatric expectation that there are always happy endings.

But a breach is an opening and so each initiation holds possibility.  In the Song of Songs there is speculation about the status of a young woman:

We have a little sister, and she has no breasts: what shall we do for our sister on the day when she shall be spoken for?  If she is a wall, we will build upon her a palace of silver: and if she is a door, we will enclose her with boards of cedar.                                               Song of Songs 8:8-9

Like the sister in question, all breaches in our lives have the potential to be construed as either walls or doors. After the wailing and weeping of Tammuz, what new chapter will open in the wake of this loss? Of course, it is almost impossible to greet loss with curiosity and expectation. It is just too painful to say goodbye. But what if we brought this consciousness of possibility to our challenges? Albert Camus said that no matter how loving, nurturing, healthy and appropriate a relationship is, the mere act of connection obscures a piece of the sky. When there is loss, that obscured piece of the sky is returned to us and we have the opportunity to see with eyes that are uniquely our own.  After we have loved, however, none of us wants to embrace that uniqueness. Sigh. I miss my kitty.

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