I held her hand and hugged her close, a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time, who had just lost her father. We went to the house to pay a shiva call, the tradition of Jews to visit mourners in the days following the funeral of a loved one.
People bring food and eat food, they sit and talk and share memories. They hug and laugh and cry. In traditional homes, the mirrors are covered so that the focus is inward rather than on the superficial. This is the time for mourners to mourn, to wail and cry and let themselves miss their beloved, to feel the depths of despair.
And our tradition urges us to be part of someone else’s mourning. To comfort the mourners, to do for them so they don’t have to do for themselves, so they can simply be sad and forlorn.
There is a time for joy and a time for sadness, and if we don’t feel them fully, we never feel anything fully. I’ve learned that traditions create rituals for the meaningful moments, both good and bad, so that we can truly make something bigger out of this life than what would otherwise be apparent.
We mark the moments so they mean something. We let others in so we are not alone in the world. Ritual creates structure and community supports ritual.
Last night, we went to my cousin’s house for the brit milah of his baby. Setting aside various beliefs about circumcision, this ritual is long-held and important in the Jewish world, and we celebrate while we cry with the baby’s tears, welcoming him into the family, into the community, into millennia-old traditions, into a sense of belonging to generations of tradition.
We gather around the new parents, supporting them, loving them, and together as a community of friends and family, we provide a huge dose of love for this baby to know he is part of something memorable and important.
And then we eat together. There is food so that we don’t flit off to some other appointment but rather we sit and stay and talk and admire and share together this moment, adding meaning to what would otherwise be a regular Saturday night.
When I share details of my past, people often say they can’t picture me religious. Truth be told, I can’t picture it anymore either – the photos of me in my hats and long skirts feel like another person in another time.
And yet, I know exactly why I was drawn to a more religious lifestyle. In that decade of my life, I used to spend the days leading up to Friday preparing for the Sabbath. Planning, cooking, baking, making the table pretty.
And then, in the days following Saturday, I cleaned up from the Sabbath and thought about what creative dishes and observances we could offer for the next one to come.
My weeks were book-ended by meaningful events: Sabbath observance, ritual observances, even the prayers for such innocuous things like going to the bathroom or waking up in the morning.
What I loved about that lifestyle was that there is meaning in every step. First time you see the ocean? Say a prayer. First time you do anything in a long time, recite the blessing. Bless the moments so they mean something. So they matter.
So we matter.
For all the wars that have been waged on the basis of belief, I know deep in my soul that we observe rituals because they give our souls comfort, and make us a part of something.
We do what our ancestors did because we want to feel connected to something so much bigger than we can begin to imagine.
We stop and make a moment meaningful, and share it with those closest to us, so we will collectively remember, and appreciate, and love.
As much as we poo-poo religion, we should also hold it high for the way it changes us and lets us live deeper, better, more. I looked back on this week and realized that we observed two wildly different ends of the spectrum in our tradition – from the death of an elderly parent to the birth of a long-awaited sweet baby.
We marked both incredible events by coming together, with hugs, with food, with tears and smiles. It’s a fantastic way to live, isn’t it?