As I write this, [Cue: “We are the Champions” by Queen], I am completing a very profound weekend of rabbi-ing. From Friday morning through Monday afternoon, I took part in a number of major lifecycle events, ranging from birth to death. I am frequently the officiant for at least one lifecycle event on any given weekend, but rarely do I have a weekend such as this:
Baby Naming? Check.
B’nai Mitzvah? Check.
Yes, this past weekend, I experienced, in the most profound way, the entirety of the Jewish lifecycle. As a friend suggested, I should have had a small trio playing “Sunrise, Sunset” behind me as I went from event to event. These days provided a condensed view of the beautiful roller coaster of life that we all experience – the incredible, celebratory highs, and the terrible, gut-wrenching lows.
As I moved from ceremony to ceremony, I observed a few “truths” that seemed to encapsulate what being Jewish, and being human, are about.
- Ritual is meaningful. In our more skeptical moments, we may want to shrug off the prescribed parts of any given ceremony. I occasionally hear: “Eh, it doesn’t matter” or “It doesn’t really mean anything to me, I’m just doing it for my (mother, grandmother, brother, etc.)” or “Can we just keep it short and sweet?” Our busy lives may make us feel that rituals are no longer relevant or meaningful, but I see, time and time again, the power of prayer and tradition. Chanting the “Shehehcheyanu,” breaking the glass, hearing “El Male Rachamim” or reciting the Mourners’ Kaddish – all have a place in our lives at the appropriate times, and, as we remember or learn what each act means, each carries with it hundreds of years of wisdom, stories, laughter, and tears. Ritual also allows us the opportunity to connect with God, to invite God into our lives, and to make room for God to commemorate the moment with us.
- We need family and friends. Human beings are social creatures, and, as Jews, we are even more home- and community-focused. I watched the families at each event as they held each other, hugged each other, smiled or cried together. Whether the families were related by blood or created out of love, having these important people around at our lifecycle milestones is crucial. We may want to keep events small, or think that no one wants to be there to mark the event with us, but having our loved ones around enhances the sweetness of the joyous events, and lessens the pain of the challenging ones.
- We must be role models for the next generation. Children attended each event over the weekend, and I could see the interest, questions, and fascination in their eyes. It is one thing to teach about the Jewish lifecycle as an abstract concept in religious school, but it is another to help them experience the events themselves. We should encourage our family members to bring their children (at the appropriate ages, given the circumstances) to our lifecycle events. This will help our children to not just know the ritual itself, but to understand why we do what we do. A family may worry about children being too loud, or too distracting, or that they will get bored, but how else will the children learn about beauty of Jewish living?
- We need to eat. Yes, this one is a bit more tongue-in-cheek (the tongue ordered from a respectable Jewish deli, naturally), but food brings us all together. Our families may be Ashkenazic or Sephardic in origin, but we all figure out what we’re serving at our events as one of the very first items on the list. Food offers an opportunity to rejoice, to break bread together, or even to begin the healing process after a loss. As I like to say, “Feed the Jews, fill the pews.” If you feed them, they will come.
As the new week began, I met with a group of congregants, and I asked them to reflect on which lifecycle events in their lives were most meaningful. A number of the folks shared large events (birth of a grandchild, wedding of a daughter, loss of a good friend), and some shared simpler moments (sitting at the edge of a pond with an ill neighbor).
I hope that we all live with our eyes open to the beautiful moments around us – even the difficult and painful ones. This is the precious life we’ve been given by God, and we are lucky enough to be part of a tradition that encourages us to mark milestones along the way. Maybe this week, you’ll find yourself recognizing the importance of ritual, family, children, or even food, in a new way. May we appreciate the events, both large and small, that weave together to create the mosaics of our lives.