The Cycle of Life, Interrupted

The life cycle moments are our bread and butter, what we do, what we help people with and how we interact with their lives and their families. The births and brises and baby namings, the weddings, the end of life moments and the funerals, the hospital visits. Religion contextualizes these moments and ritualizes them. We use religion to name a baby, to mark a life passage like a bat mitzvah, to sacralize the union of two people with a wedding, to bury with dignity and mourn the loss of a loved one. It is precisely at these moments that people turn to their faith and to their rabbi to help them figure out how to get from point A to point B.

They ask “How can we possibly do this? How can we possibly express the gratitude we feel for this child? How can we possibly honor this person’s life? How can we possibly formalize this love, that means more to us than anything else?”

And we say “There is a way. Let us show you.”

But the virus is playing havoc with these moments and the traditional ways we mark them. We can move study online with relative ease. Meetings? Not a problem. Services are more difficult, and holding them online is not ideal, but it can be done, it is working. But life cycle events? Almost impossible, because those moments are predicated on gathering, on a group coming together, in the same space, to celebrate or mourn. And so it is that weddings are being postponed, unveilings cancelled, that families are in many cases rescheduling b’nai mitzvah, that brises are on hold or being done with just a few family members, most likely just the mother and father, present.

Funerals are the most challenging. This is the moment when we most want to be with others. It is in the company of others that we laugh and share stories, and it is only with others that we can hug and hold and cry. One of the most painful moments of my rabbinate was a funeral a few days ago. The deceased had died of COVID19, and some family members had been exposed, while others had not. So within the immediate family there was a need to social distance. A young woman, the daughter of the deceased, stood sobbing, alone, some fifteen feet from the grave. No one came to her, no one hugged her or held her or stroked her hair or whispered to her that one day things would be OK.

In a normal time, in another world, she would have been surrounded by love, hugged and kissed; she would have been standing shoulder to shoulder with her siblings, with her surviving parent. But this is not a normal time, and it is not the world we lived in before. Will it ever be again?

These lines come from the 130th Psalm, a profound expressions of fear, longing, and hope: “Out of the depths I call to You Adonai, listen to my cry, let Your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy. I hope for God, my soul waits for God’s word more eagerly than the night watchman waits for the dawn, than the night watchman waits for the dawn.”

Author: Steve Schwartz

Husband, father of three, Deadhead, and rabbi. I am now in my 22nd year of serving a large congregation in the Baltimore area.

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