The celebrated Czech novelist Milan Kundera, who died this week, wrote a celebrated novel back in 1984 with an especially evocative title: The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I have always loved this title because it so aptly captures an essential element of the condition of being human. Among other awards, he received a The Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society, a biennial literary award given to writers whose works have dealt with themes of human freedom in society.
The story is based on the premise that each person has only one life to live, and that which occurs in life occurs only once and never again – thus the “lightness” of being which also signifies freedom. The characters in the novel display either an almost angelic lightness, or by contrast, the sense of being weighed down by life.
“The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness? … When we want to give expression to a dramatic situation in our lives, we tend to use metaphors of heaviness. We say that something has become a great burden to us. We either bear the burden or fail and go down with it, we struggle with it, win or lose…”
In other words, there’s a joy and wonder to life, those times when we feel elated and are flying high; but it’s not sustainable and that’s why it’s beautiful but unbearable. There’s also the inevitable heaviness of life; those occasions we feel burdened and challenged. King Solomon (Ecclesiastes 3:4) expressed it well when he said: There’s a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.
The Jewish calendar encapsulates the lightness and the heaviness. There are days like Purim which remind us that time can be as joyful and playful as a little child. There are days weighed down by pain like Holocaust Day. We are presently in a dark period on the Jewish calendar recalling the narrow, constricting and suffocating Three Weeks of Mourning in which we remember centuries of Jewish suffering, from the destruction of Jerusalem and Jewish independence to the Expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, and the eviction from the Warsaw Ghetto.
The Fast of Ninth of Av, coming up in a fortnight, recalls that time can be heavy with pain; the stones of Jerusalem (it is said ) have hearts that contain centuries of our anguish and persecution, and a reminder that human hearts can be as hard as stones.
There is one day on the Jewish calendar that is about the weight and the lightness. It’s The Day of Atonement known in Hebrew as Yom Kippur. In the Torah it is also called Yom Kippurim which you will notice has the word Purim embedded in it. Yom Kippur is a heavy day of fasting, atonement and seeking forgiveness from God and our fellow human beings. But it is also a day of lightness, we float like the angels on a diet of spirit and prayer, we rejoice in being freed from our sins and flaws and the fabulous gift of forgiveness.
We have only one life so let’s live it fully, bearing the heaviness with resolve and equanimity, and embracing the lightness with zest and zeal!