By Larry Gordon
There seems to be a cross between the natural, inevitable, unavoidable lifecycle occurrences and the fast and sometimes even shocking fashion in which these events are occurring.
As a youngster, my recollection is that my parents attended an occasional wedding and even more infrequently a funeral or other type of cyclical event. When things of that nature took place they were actually momentous — big news or something really special to look forward to.
My theory on that count is that in the 1960s and 70s, the 15–20-year period that I am focusing on here, our population was smaller. In those days maybe it was also that families were smaller and that communication was obviously less developed, so perhaps these things took place at the same pace that they happen today, but those outside a certain social or familial circle just didn’t know about it.
Today, such events come around fast and furiously—to the point where it’s hard to even keep track of them. The real issue, though, is not the number of events — b’rissim, bar and bat mitzvah parties, aufrufs, weddings, and sheva berachos — that are taking place, but rather the way in which they are naturally and unpredictably juxtaposed with levayahs, shivah visits, and shloshim observances.
The idea of being able to intellectually deal with these contrasting and even contradictory situations actually occurred to me two weeks ago while walking around in an outdoor mall in Aventura, Florida.
It was warm outside, close to 80 degrees, but the next day we were scheduled to return to New York where the forecast predicted cold and windy days ahead with even a hint of snow (which did not materialize yet).
Somehow, those who travel to warmer environs at this time of year manage to escape from cold weather to sometimes hot weather and then a week or so later nonchalantly return to the cold again.
While we were away, a neighbor lost his elderly mother and a friend who lives in Brooklyn lost her husband. So we had those two shivah calls when we returned last week, but also on the schedule was a bar mitzvah, an aufruf followed by a wedding, and then two different days of sheva berachos.
So how do we do this — bounce from dancing at simchas and sharing in the joy with relatives, friends, and neighbors, and then, without skipping a beat, sit with solemnity at funerals and in shivah houses, empathizing and commiserating with friends who lost a spouse, parent, or other relative?
I am trying to dip into my treasure trove of recollections to figure out how my parents handled these contrasts and contradictions that are so very much a part of life’s routine, especially in this day and age. So I am thinking into it, and with the exception of when my grandparents passed away I do not recall my parents saying, or at least not making it known to us, their children, that they were going to a funeral or to visit a shivah house.
Last Saturday night, after a marathon aufruf in Brooklyn, we took the opportunity before heading home to visit our friend whose husband passed away last week after a long illness.
When we walked in about a half-hour or so after Havdallah, the first comment we heard was along the lines of, “Wow, you made it fast; you must have left home within a minute after Shabbos ended.” No, we explained, we were here in Brooklyn just a few blocks away over Shabbos and that is why we were one of the first to arrive and be menachem the aveilim after Shabbos.
But then another couple from the Five Towns walked in just minutes after us, and they explained that they were also in the borough over Shabbos, at a bar mitzvah. A few moments later, another couple from the Five Towns walked in to say that they, too, were in Brooklyn at a sheva berachos.
But that odd circumstance or even coincidence, if you will, is not the point. The topic here is the emotional anomaly and incongruity that somehow we are able to deal with on a daily basis.
If you take a cursory look into this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, you can conceivably conclude that the fledgling Jewish nation was, in effect, dealing with similar circumstances.
Over all these years, the story of the new Jewish people leaving Egypt is shared almost exclusively from the vantage point of the leaders.
We study and review the entire Exodus narrative from the point of view of Moshe, Aharon, or Pharaoh. The question that requires consideration is how the regular man or woman who lived through the Exodus felt about and dealt with what was taking place.
Let’s examine those speculative feelings and attitudes for a moment here. They were people just like us who davened each morning and were involved in chesed. Looking back though a few thousand years, we have to wonder what it was like to have looked back at your family history and have seen two centuries of servitude in Egypt.
Then an Egyptian-raised prince tells the people, “You are out of here” — except for the fact that from that moment forward, things became worse for the Jewish people.
So you are the average guy — one of a few million of the population — and all of a sudden there is blood and frogs, lice and hail, darkness, but only in the non-Jewish homes, and then the death of all the Egyptian firstborn.
The Jewish people have great cause to celebrate. They are headed toward the sea and on their way to the Promised Land. But then on the horizon there is once again cause for serious concern as the Egyptian army is headed in their direction with just miles of ocean between them and the enemy’s military onslaught.
Their leaders step into the Red Sea and it wildly and miraculously splits in half and they are once again saved. How do they deal with these very diverse and extreme experiences? Here they are on their way out to freedom, then they are trapped, and then they are free again. They are down and then up and being moved from side to side.
Arguably, the experience of the average man or woman is not that different from what we deal with today. Many of us are the children of Holocaust survivors so we do not have to stretch our imaginations too far to identify with what that ancient experience was like.
In our generation, we tend to downgrade our historical standing in the overview of the history of the Jews. In our own unique way, we go to weddings and stand online waiting for carved meats or sushi. The next day, without so much as a twitch of the eye, we are sitting and comforting mourners. Last night, we were dancing and laughing; today we are sitting and commiserating in someone’s loss. Then there is a shalom zachor and a few days later a b’ris, and on and on it goes.
We are sad and festive almost simultaneously. We are waiting for the sea to split one more time, so to speak, and for that great celebration to begin and never end. May it be sooner than later.