Mourning and Joy — at the Same Time


By Rabbi Erez Sherman

There are passages of the Talmud that you learn in the sacred books and are purely theoretical, and then there are pieces of Torah that become your reality in the blink of an eye.

The famous teaching from Masechet Ketubot, for example, instructs, “If a funeral procession and a wedding procession meet at an intersection, the wedding procession goes first.”
Last Wednesday, this teaching was not rabbinic advice, but the reality I lived. My beloved aunt, Rachel Durlacher (z”l), passed away in Israel. At 16, she made aliyah from Philadelphia, met her husband on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu and had 10 children and 37 grandchildren. She truly loved the land and the Jewish people.
If you have ever traveled to Israel with me, personally or professionally, there was a 100% chance you met Aunt Rachel.

Rachel never left home without her chalil, a simple wooden flute, which she used to serenade God’s world with her voice, with her songs, with her heart and with her soul. She never left home without a paintbrush and canvas, putting the beauty of God’s world on paper for all of us to witness. And she never left home without something to give to someone in need: a shekel, a gift, a snack, a piece of Torah.

With the miracle of Zoom, our family gathered from the four corners of the earth — at 4:30 a.m. in Los Angeles and 1:30 p.m. in Israel — to remember her sacred life. But just hours later, we were scheduled, also with the miracle of technology, to celebrate my sister’s wedding. Nitza and her fiancé Jamie had waited patiently as COVID-19 postponed the original chupa date.
As they watched world circumstances deteriorate, they rescheduled the wedding, providing us with a moment to find joy in challenging times.

And we did. For life must continue, and joy must be recognized and not delayed. Seven different family members around the world recited sheva brachot, toasts and speeches through a screen. At the end of the evening, a bride and groom rejoiced uvchutzot yerushalayim, in the streets of Jerusalem.

As I laid my head to sleep on Wednesday night, I could not help but marvel at the wisdom of our tradition. Every morning, we recite the Psalm, hafachta mispdi lmachol li, pitachta saki vatazreni simcha — God, You turn my mourning into dancing, You change my sackcloth into robes of joy. And that Wednesday, as one part of my family sat shiva, the other part recited sheva brachot.

At each wedding I officiate, I explain the significance of the number seven, a number of wholeness and holiness. Shabbat is on the seventh day, a number of peace and of completeness. And yet, as we uttered the sheva brachot in a moment of completeness, my family across the world was also broken.

When we conclude a Jewish wedding with the smashing of the glass, we are reminded of the broken souls who yet wait for a day of celebration and joy. At the same time our cousins tore their garments for keriah in Israel, we broke a glass in Los Angeles. Two symbols of brokenness, and yet two rituals of rebuilding.

Our extended family has a WhatsApp group. It is constantly in action, with family members around the world, 10 hours apart, talking. These last seven days have been particularly active, with memories that created our present and recent pictures that will create our future together.

This year has been a challenge for each one of us. There has been mourning and joy all at once, too many times to count. As a rabbi, I have learned to officiate Zoom baby namings, b’nai mitzvah, funerals and weddings. From Zoom room to Zoom room, families stare at me over a screen in preparation for these life cycle events, skeptical that any meaning can come without physical touch.

But then I receive letters, week after week, of grateful members of our community, who now do not need to imagine a grandparent across the country having an aliyah at a bar mitzvah or a cousin sharing a story they have never heard at a shiva. Community works, despite physical distance, because of social and spiritual closeness.

Twelve hours: a funeral and a wedding; sheva brachot and shiva; tears of mourning, tears of joy; a soul remembered and two souls. It is who we are, and who we must be.

Rabbi Erez Sherman is a rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the son of Rabbi Charles Sherman of Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park. This piece was originally published in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and is reprinted with permission.


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