In Kabbalah joy and grief are inextricably intertwined. Our rituals teach us that both are parts of life that must be lived fully. We laugh and dance at weddings, cry with joy at births, , and grieve deeply at funerals. We honor those who have passed by promising to joyfully remember them, but not until after we grieve. Each ritual helps us affirm that there is life beyond our daily experience. We assure each other that the spirits of those who have passed will be with us at our joyous occasions so that we will continue to laugh together.
But be clear, in the Jewish tradition we encourage the mourners to grieve the reality of loss. The death of a loved one makes us wonder how the world can keep moving when we when we are filled with pain. I remember looking at the LA freeway on the way to bury my father wondering how all these people could be going somewhere when I had such a hole in my heart.
Mourners are not expected to talk. They rip their clothes, the sound of which often helps them cry. The community brings food and joins in prayers, creating a sacred space for grief. The family will often sit “shiva” for seven days, staying home and not venturing out into the world, tended to by friends and family. Mourners are immersed in the sacredness of mourning.
At the funeral of my beloved mentor his son read a poem that started: He was my north my south, my east, my west. My heart opened and called out to my father who passed away over 30 years ago, the same way the young man before me was calling out in pain to his father. I watched the two brothers acting as pall-bearers and remembered keeping my tears in as I helped carry my father’s casket.
We as a community left the sanctuary and drove to the graveside where mournful prayers are sung as the plain pine casket was lowered into the ground. And then the mourners perform a last act of kindness for the deceased, an act that can never be repaid. We each shoveled dirt into the grave starting with the immediate family, followed by all the mourners. This is not just a ritualistic clod of dirt; we as a community bury our loved one.
When that first shovelful of dirt hit the flat top of the pine box, my solar plexus imploded. I had to wrap my arms around my body to keep the pain contained. But the shoveling continued and as the pain grew too big to be held tightly it started to leak out of my eyes. I heard pain spill from the throats of those around me. We all started to weep as we lined up to help bury our friend.
After the tearing of the mourners’ clothes, a final act to symbolize their pain and to help them weep, we formed a corridor for the family to walk through so they could feel our love as they returned to the dark black silent limo. I walked back to my car with tears streaming down my face wishing I could call my dad. He was my north and south and east and west.
After keeping my tears in check at my father’s and my brother’s and mother’s and husband’s graveside, I allowed myself to weep and sob over a man who was larger than life. I am sure he is already telling jokes to G-d. And with this image I am able to laugh and cry for all those we have lost. I intend to cry at funerals the same way I laugh and dance at weddings. I intend to let my emotions flow without holding them “appropriately” in check. I want to live and model a life worth examining and singing about. From grief to joy, from tears to laughter, from funerals to weddings, I intend live in the fullness of life.