The Personal is Communal
Events in the "calendar" of the lifecycle are private, yet connect us to the "unseen presences" of missing family members and our entire people throughout history.
I have always believed that the reclamation of the life cycle is a suitable spiritual project for modern Jews. At their best, when the poetry works and the magic does its stuff, life cycle celebrations keep Jews connected to the Jews people, to God, and to Torah. There are so many moments when we might feel personally adrift—when a new baby enters our lives, when we struggle with the meaning of adolescence, when we are going from being a non-Jew to being a Jew, when we are going from single existence to married existence, when we look into the abyss and confront the meaning of death. In each of those cases, Judaism with its wisdom is there for us, with all its potential anchoring and healing power.
Ideally, how does life cycle do its magic? By helping us feel the unseen presences. We feel the presences of our beloved departed (there is no life cycle ceremony without those presences). But there are historical and even mythical presences as well. And those presences have much potential power.
At a brit milah ceremony, the mohel recites the words that God spoke to Abraham: "hithalaych lifanai veheyay tamim" (walk before Me and be perfect). Pointing to an empty chair, the mohel says, "Zeh kisay shel Eliyahu HaNavi" (this is the chair of Elijah, the prophet). Abraham is "there" as the first covenanted Jew. Elijah is "there" to ensure that the covenant lives. Abraham is the first Jew. Elijah, the harbinger of the Messiah, is the last Jew. Who knows? The newborn infant may be the Messiah, or may help usher in the Messianic Age. What potential this child has!
The same thing is true at Bar and Bat Mitzvah. The no-longer child/newly emerging adult is not alone. Yes, he/she is surrounded by clergy and friends and family. But in a powerful sense, every Jew who has ever lived and will ever live is there as well. The covenant is re-affirmed. The sanctuary may be visibly half full. It is invisibly very full. That's what parents understand as well: I am not the last Jew in the world.
The same thing is true at conversion. At that moment, the new Jew feels the presence of Abraham, the first Jew and the first convert; and Ruth, the classic Jew-by-Choice; and all the departed and living teachers of our tradition.
The same thing is true at the wedding. The Jewish wedding is more than two people celebrating and confirming their love. it is the reprise of the covenant between God and Israel. The bride and groom are no longer themselves. The seven wedding blessings urge the couple to imagine themselves as Adam and Eve, back in the Garden of Eden.
And the same thing is true at death. The service ends with the community saying to the mourners: "HaMakom y'nachaym etchem b'toch sh'ar aveylay Tzion ViYerushalayim" (May God comfort you among those who are mourners for Zion and Jerusalem). The message is clear: You are not alone. The entire Jewish people is with you…
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