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.

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Reprinted with permission from Teaching Jewish Life Cycle: Insights and Activities (A.R.E. Publishing, Inc.).

I have two calendars on my desk. The first one is a Day Timer, a thick, loose-leaf volume that details my existence into the foreseeable future. The second, sitting next to its leather-bound colleague, is a Jewish calendar, detailing Hebrew dates, dates of festivals, candle lighting times, and Torah portions. I travel back and forth between those two calendars. One tells me about my life, and the other tells me how to live that life—the story and meaning that makes the days that are detailed in the Day Timer into days of value and substance. 

Truth be told, Judaism also has two calendars—the public and the personal. The public Jewish calendar is the festival cycle. It chronicles the story of the Jewish people, our encounter with God, with nature, with history, and with ourselves. It contains moments of joy, of introspection, of gratitude, of serious contemplation of the Jewish past and future, of anger, and of sorrow. We celebrate those moments both in the privacy of our homes and in the public realm of the synagogue and the community.

communal jewish eventsThe private Jewish calendar is the lifecycle—birth, maturity, marriage, and death. We celebrate those moments in the public realm and in the private realm—both in family contexts and with other Jews in community (which deepens and enriches and contextualizes those celebrations).

But note: There has been an interesting and significant shift in the way that Jews live their lives. With the exception of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (which remind us of the patterns of life and our own fragility), the spirituality of most modern Jews has usually shifted from the festival calendar to the life cycle—from the public to the private.

When Jews tell the stories of their lives, when the talk about the moments of holiness and transcendence, the stories they tell, invariably, are of brit milah [circumcision ceremony], baby namings, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations, weddings, and funerals. Those are the times when we awaken from our spiritual slumber and realize that there is a God in the world.

There are all sorts of reasons why this has happened. We live in a very self-oriented time. People tend to think less in terms of group and more in terms of self. We live in a time that has seen the triumph of individualism. Sometimes, the only community that we know well is our family. The synagogue may be a public space, with publicly owned ritual items such as prayer books and tallitot [prayer shawls] and yarmulkes [head coverings], but the meanings that we bring to it are often very private—and often take precedence over the public meanings.

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…

As the Jewish people grows and evolves, we sense that there are all sorts of moments—getting a driver's license, aging, etc.—that need sacred reminders, that could use the ancient and new poetry of our experience to bring meaning to our lives. And there are other, sadder times in life which have always had rituals associated with them, e.g., divorce. Those rituals can be reconsidered, redrawn, re-imagined—and they, too, can have their healing power. May God bless all your moments of passage with holiness, with depth, and with joy.

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Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the Senior Rabbi of The Community Synagogue in Port Washington, New York; the Co-chair of the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach.