Aaron Alexander

Why We Shul Matters

We shake with joy, We shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.
~Mary Oliver

Today I’d like to explore a particular juxtaposition that occurs throughout rabbinic literature and Jewish ritual practice. We  find in the Talmud:

The Sages taught: One reroutes the funeral procession, to yield before the wedding procession of a bride. And both for the funeral procession, and that, the wedding procession, yield before a king of Israel. They said about King Agrippa that he rerouted his entourage before the wedding procession of a bride, and the Sages praised him for doing so. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ketubot, 17a)

Here we see a funeral and a wedding, sharing the same path, and needing direction as to which is prioritized if there is space for just one.

Here’s another, this time from a medieval code of Jewish law:

When a person is faced with either tending to a corpse or a bride, she should leave the bride and occupy herself with the corpse. Thus Ecclesiastes 7:4 states: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning.” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning, 14:8)

We again see again this juxtaposition of death and a wedding. But what’s the connection? Why these two?

It’s clearly a set-up. In other words, the Talmud and later codes are taking a situation that is rare, and using it to derive particular hierarchy of values.

Here’s another one based on the famous commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In Rambam’s Mishneh Torah he lists a number of obligations associated with this biblical obligation.

It is a positive commandment of Rabbinic origin to visit the sick, comfort mourners, to prepare for a funeral, prepare a bride, accompany guests, attend to all the needs of a burial, carry a corpse on one’s shoulders, walk before the bier, mourn, dig a grave, and bury the dead, and also to bring joy to a bride and groom and help them in all their needs. These are deeds of kindness that one carries out with his person that have no limit.

Notice the juxtaposition. After the obligation to visit the sick, each item listed refers to weddings and funerals. Gladdening the couple. Consoling the mourners. These things, in our tradition, become almost direct parallels. And until you notice it, you wouldn’t believe it to be true. The more we investigate the combination, the more striking it becomes.

Our tradition is not-so-subtly nudging us to think deeply about the space between life and death–the spaces in life and death, and what may lie between and beneath them.

But the proximity between these two life-cycle moments extends even further than explicit textual sources. It is embedded in ritual as well.

In the following passage, we learn that a wedding couple is to remain home for the seven days of their marriage.

And Rabbi Abba bar Zavda said that Rav said: The groom/bride and the wedding party and all who participated in the wedding celebration are exempt from sukkah for all seven days.  For what reason? They wish to rejoice. Well then let them eat in the sukkah and rejoice in the sukkah! Happiness [for a wedding] can only take place in a huppah (which is likely not the four poles and top structure, but they’re residence). So let them eat in the sukkah and rejoice in the huppah! Happiness only happens in the place where the meal takes place. (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sukkah, 25b)

At home, with a meal. That is where the joy emerges and remains. A medieval text shows how how far this practice extends:

One only recite the 7 blessings with 10 adult, free people… and they are said for 7 days after eating a meal…. (Arba’ah Turim Ha-Shalem, Even Ha-Ezer, 62)

To sum up, the couple remains at home for 7 days. Blessings are recited after food, and 10 people are required for the special blessings. Those people, the community, are to come to the couple to perform the obligation of m’sameach hatan ‘vekallah, providing enjoyment for the couple

And, the law goes on further to state that these 7 blessings may be said for up to 30 days. Furthermore, the wedding joy lasts, ritually, in total, for… guess how long? That’s right, a year. Some of you may know the tradition of pouring honey, not salt, on the challah at Shabbat for the first year of marriage.

And, an even more risqué part of the laws around weddings–just after the ceremony, until the first act of “love” has been completed, the couple is exempt from certain other requirements, like the Shema prayer. There’s just too much on the mind, the Sages say, to have intention for anything else but the upcoming events.

Does all this timing/ritual sound familiar?  Let’s compare it to mourning practices.

When a loved one dies, mourners are exempt from all positive commandments until after the buriel. For the first 7 days, mourners, traditionally, don’t leave home. The community’s obligation is to come to the home of the mourners, offer words of consolation (menachem aveilim), gather at least 10 adults, and recite customary prayers, like the mourner’s kaddish. People often share food together, right there, in the space of loss.

The primary mourning period lasts longer than 7 days. It’s actually 30 days, though the intensity of the mourning practices taper off after each period. And the tradition of recite kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, lasts for 11 or 12 months, depending on communal practice.

Even more, have you seen a Jewish wedding in which the groom wears a kittel, a white robe? I wore one at my wedding. What do we bury our dead in? That’s right. white shrouds. Or a kittel. Or a tallit.

The similarities, once noticed, are quite stunning. Our tradition is ever so deep and thoughtful.

This back and forth exists in Parashat Hayyei Sarah as well. It begins with Sarah’s death, Abraham’s mourning and weeping, and the plans for her burial. It ends, however, with two marriages. Isaac and Rebekah, and then Abraham’s next marriage, to Keturah.

From grief to joy. Pain to promise. Darkness to light. And back again.

But this has to be about more than weddings and funerals. They are but paradigms for something more broad, more expansive. Our tradition joins them in this way, I think, to help us understand our parallel emotions, and the elegant rituals that hold them. They were chosen because, emotioanlly speaking, because they are two sides of the same coin.

We shake with joy, We shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

This week we celebrate a Bar Mitzvah. It is joy. In some ways, pure joy. But the intensity of the joy you are experiencing is in many ways connected to the considerable (and sometimes challenging) effort it took to get to to this moment.

Is this not the authentic ebb and flow of life?

This week I still met with two couples to be married–to plan, in the midst of communal mourning. We didn’t ignore reality. The office was as thick as ever, overflowing with joy and sadness.

There’s a reason why we spend so much time tinkering with ways in which we feel joy in this synagogue. There’s a reason we have opened the doors more widely to experiences unheard of a generation ago. Here or elsewhere. There’s a reason sounds that were previously distant, like the voices of laughing and crying children, likely mine, are now here and part of our prayers. Welcome additions to this holy space. There’s a reason the music and tunes are so carefully and thoughtfully chosen by our Cantor to match the emotions present in the room in any given moment.

Because, Eitz Hayyim Hee Le-Makhazikim Bah. It is a Tree of Life, this Torah. This tradition. This people. And we are all its branches. God, its roots.

And joy and sadness are the tendons that hold it all together. “Joy is connection, simple as that,” George Vaillant writes in his book Spiritual Evolution.

And, we are consistently reminded that joy’s potency is relative to its parallel measure of pain. You know this, because your heart has been broken. That began with love. The fiercer the love, more heightened the pain. Loss is amplified by the depth of the relationship. And our palpable vulnerability today, one week after Pittsburgh, is directly related to the measure of safety we may have felt just a week ago, or two years ago.

But these conflicting emotions, they need not push the other out. What we learn from the funeral/wedding juxtaposition and the way our tradition ritualized them, what we learn also from Mary Oliver, is that they need not compete with each other, belong they belong together.

We shake with joy, We shake with grief.
What a time they have, these two
housed as they are in the same body.

The world pushes us to different sides, a binary equation. Today I’m happy. Yesterday I was sad. But life is more complicated than that. Today is proof.

This space, religious Jewish space, is at its best when it is inclusive of all of us and what it is we bring when we are here. It is most powerful when it captures–tangibly, gently, and warmly–that which lies beneath the skin, inside of the heart. If Jewish ritual is speaking to the human soul, it is speaking to all of it, and giving it voice where deeply buried sounds are suppressed.

The human heart is always creating space for the weddings and funerals of life, of being alive.

This week I also met with two conversion students to discuss their progress. I remarked to each that in antiquity and likely throughout medieval Jewry–at least as far as our texts witness–the conversion process for somebody who chooses to join this people was considerably simpler and more streamlined than it is today.

Basically, somebody comes and says: Hey – I’d like to be Jewish. The rabbi responds: Cool. Couple questions. 1) You know about this thing called Shabbat? That we demand periodic breaks?  2) How about kashrut, keeping kosher? Intentional eating is a big part of this tradition. Good?  And I often add: 3) Oh, by the way — we pray a lot. And it ain’t short. You good? Yes. Great.

One more thing: You do realize that we have always been, and will likely always be, hated by many others. Persecuted, in some way or or another. It is inescapable.

That’s it. Ritual and Recogition. One of the students said to me: “Well, I may not have understood that last one before this week. But I certainly understand it now, after this week.”

Surprisingly, I heard myself say: Me too. I’ve experienced some anti-semitism, micro aggressions, throughout my life. But this new reality, life post-Pittsburgh, we experience it together.

And… here’s the thing, and this is a message for all of us. I’m still more concerned that you fall in love with Shabbat, Kashrut, and a Jewishly-inspired prayerfulness. And acts of loving kindness. And Jewishly inspired justice. And all the other magnificent rituals and obligations of this religion. That’s more important to us than internalizing the fear of what may happen when you officially join us.

The joy and pain you experience, and this room’s ability to hold it, all of it, this precious heart that nestles within it infinite hearts–IT is what will bring you back,  so that you may to consume as much as you can of this rich tradition as possible.

But fear as a primary motivation, it will consume you, even if it keeps you somewhat safe.

Friends, we’re glad you are here. We need each other. And, see you next week.

About the Author
Rabbi Aaron Alexander is Co-Senior Rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. He previously served as Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.