I would not suggest that it was a typical weekend. It is true that many Shabbatot and Sundays are jam-packed for rabbis, but this particular weekend was unusually busy. Here was the schedule: Shabbat morning, a bar mitzvah. Saturday night after Shabbat, a wedding. Sunday morning, a funeral. And Sunday afternoon, a brit milah and baby naming (twins!).
In each emotionally charged hour, I experienced the privilege of intimacy with families. I participated in the flow of life from birth through death. I practiced mindfulness to transition from one celebration to another and from a joyful time to a sorrowful one.
And, I admit, with a deadline looming, I thought that any one of these topics would make a wonderful op ed!
Perhaps you will read about these themes another day. For today, I have decided to focus on the gratitude that filled my heart through it all: gratitude for the wisdom of Jewish ritual. Each one of the families was anchored in a tradition, ancient and also innovative, that instructed and guided them through their particular lifecycle event.
Rabbi Eliezer Diamond of Teaneck, one of my treasured teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary, explains that ritual is powerful because it bypasses the intellect and enters directly into the heart. Time after time, family after family, I have found his words to be infallible. We cannot explain the emotions that arise when we light Shabbat candles, put on tefillin, or lift up the matzah and recite “Ha lachma anya.” We just know that we feel something deeply when participating in ritual. Without rational explanation, our hearts open.
I will illustrate the power of Jewish ritual by describing the 48 hours of life cycle events during my hectic weekend. On Shabbat morning, the bar mitzvah boy held the Torah in his arms at the beginning of the Torah service, chanting loudly the words of Sh’ma. Both his father and mother cried as they joined with the congregation to repeat the Sh’ma. Why did they cry? (Why do parents almost always cry at this moment?) Technically, this 13-year-old boy was stating for the community that he is now of age to be counted legally in a minyan, and therefore can lead us in prayer. I doubt very much that is what his mom and dad were experiencing as tears flowed down their faces. In that moment, they were remembering the day of his birth, or what he looked like as a 3-year-old, or the many months of practice in preparation for this day. A young teen holding the Torah in his or her arms as family and community looks on is a Jewish ritual that causes us to acknowledge the passage of time.
At the wedding on Saturday night, after the Sheva Berachot, just before smashing the glass, I enwrapped the bride and groom in her tallit and his tallit. With my hands resting gently on their shoulders, I blessed them according to the words of the Priestly Benediction. The bride and groom looked deeply into each other’s tear-filled eyes. The words I chanted are recited traditionally by parents to their children every Friday night. She had grown up with these blessings, and for him they were new, but they had both embraced this ritual as we planned their chuppah together. I blessed them, two children now adults, who were ready to begin a Jewish life of their own creation. One day, if they choose to raise children, they might sing these words on Friday nights. But I do not think that is what they were thinking about in the middle of the ritual. I don’t think that they were thinking at all. They were simply feeling the love in the room, the blessings coming in their direction, and the fruition of their chuppah dreams after almost a year of meeting together to plan every detail.
On Sunday at the cemetery, after the burial was complete and Kaddish had been recited, the gathering of friends and extended family formed two lines facing in, creating a path through which the mourners would walk. Before stepping forward, one of the daughters looked at all the faces ahead of her and said, “Oh my, how perfect.” The community acknowledges the mourners and stands as a sacred escort for them as they return to their home to sit down into their shiva. In that moment, the daughter expressed what the ritual was conveying to her heart. She and her family will not be alone. People’s words do not have the power to make the pain go away, but people’s steadfast presence will bring comfort. The path from the graveside into shiva is a little less lonely.
And finally, on Sunday afternoon, twins, just eight days old, received their Hebrew names. The baby boy was circumcised. The baby girl was wrapped in the tallit of her great-grandfather, for whom her brother was named. Both rituals, the brit milah and the enwrapping in tallit, symbolize the entrance of the new babies into the covenant of the Jewish people. When they received their Hebrew names, their parents spoke about the cherished grandparents for whom they were named. The ritual of naming newcomers of the next generation opens our hearts to a deep truth of the human condition: one generation goes and another generation arrives. Our loved ones are remembered in the names of their descendants. We are anchored to the past even as we see proof of the future.
Moments of change in the life cycle occur whether we acknowledge them or not. Babies are born, children come of age, people choose partners and our loved ones die. The wisdom of Jewish ritual is that it insists that we pay attention. Judaism punctuates our lives with holy moments, giving shape and structure to time, asking us to stop long enough to feel what our ever-busy minds might ignore. A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven (Kohellet 3:1).
Time is illusive, fleeting, and therefore precious. Jewish ritual empowers us to value the true worth of time. We name it sacred, and it is so. We ask it to open our hearts to something greater, and it does. We assign meaning to it, and it stays with us long after the moment. As a rabbi who is dedicated to helping families experience the sacred, heart-opening meaning of time’s passage, I am grateful to the wisdom of Judaism.
Paula Mack Drill is a rabbi at the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg. She also has been a social worker at Daughters of Israel Geriatric Center and Golda Och Academy, both in West Orange, and the assistant director of Ramah Day Camp in Nyack.