What goes up must come down. But sometimes, what goes down can rise up higher than before.
You could call it the rubber ball effect, although in Judaism it’s called descent for the sake of ascent. It is a Talmudic idea that posits we sometimes must sink to rock bottom before we can rise even higher than before.
The idea isn’t unique to Judaism; for example, there’s the myth of Persephone descending into the underworld to enable spring to arise. A Franciscan priest named Richard Rohr wrote an entire book about it, called Falling Upward, in which he said, “The loss and renewal pattern is… constant and ubiquitous.”
I think we’ve given the idea of going down a bad name. It’s not always negative. Lewis Carrol imagined Alice falling down a rabbit hole and discovering strange new creatures, and herself in the process. Falling in love is one of the best feelings in the world.
The story in the Talmud about descent for the sake of ascent tells of a person who sees another faltering, and steps down to be with them. It’s like the modern story of a person stuck in a pit. A friend comes along and jumps in, and says, “don’t worry, I’ve been here before and I know the way out.” When we want to comfort someone, we sit down beside them. We don’t try to lift them up — that’s their task. Ours is to accompany them on the journey.
The summer that I studied the passage from the Talmud I worked through it with a study partner. I had almost finished rabbinical school but I was feeling low. I had told my favorite teacher that I knew I could be a good congregational rabbi but despaired of ever being a scholar.
Another pair of students were struggling with the passage, and I pulled my chair over to help them. Rabbi Ginsburg pulled me aside and said, “See? You told me you’d never be a scholar.”
I shook my head. “I’m not,” I protested.
“True,” he replied. “But you’re a teacher and we need those too.”
Sometimes, if we’re very lucky, we learn that going down is the way up.
May you be blessed to find someone who will journey alongside you when you need companionship and uplift. And may we all be blessed to do the same for those around us.
Barbara Shagrin said:
Really lovely, Jennifer. And helpful.
I know I haven’t yet responded to your retirement announcement. We have been in Boston and traveling to kids and relatives ; leaving again tomorrow. I want to be able to think about what I’ll write when things lighten up. Bottom line, I totally understand but I’m sad.
Melvyn Bloom said:
And how are you doing?
Shabbat shalom! Mel