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Why did(n’t) the Funeral Procession Cross the Road?

I brought my hand to my heart and took a deep breath. The voicemail was from David, at Levine’s Chapel in Brookline, MA, one of the most thoughtful funeral home directors I have the somewhat unusual privilege to know. As a rabbi, it is not unusual to get a call from a funeral home director; the rabbinate is a vocation where you make plans with friends with the caveat that you’ll show up as long as no one dies. 

“Rabbi,” David said, “It’s a social call only. I heard you have big doings coming up on Sunday, and I wanted to wish you Mazel Tov!”

I breathed out and smiled. Loss and grief, joy and gladness: a Jewish sandwich that has somehow sustained us across the ages.

We never planned to get married in the Hebrew month of Av. My partner Matan and I were to be married at the end of May. It was a date specifically chosen because it was Rosh Chodesh, the first day of a new Hebrew month of Sivan, and represented my love for how our Judaism lives by the cycles of the moon. But perhaps more importantly, we chose this day because it wouldn’t conflict with my rabbinic duties. It would have arrived at a time where I had more chances to slow down and breathe.

We never planned to get married in the Hebrew month that commemorates and collates our collective loss and grief, historic and modern. From the tragic loss of the Temples in Jerusalem through centuries of expulsions, the nine days before Tisha b’Av are not days for joy or dancing the horah. They are days of wailing, and fasting.

Nonetheless, no thanks to Covid-19, our Ketubah wedding contract reads as such. “ באחד בשבת, חמישה יום לחודש אב /On the 5th day of the Month of Av…”  It was on that day, July 26th, that we created our very own little Garden of Eden in the middle of Jamaica Plain, Boston. Some of our siblings and 12 of our closest friends were present, masked and physically distanced. Our parents and all other friends and family joined via Zoom. 

Rabbinic sages debated what to do when loss and grief and joy and gladness meet. The Talmud offers a scenario where a funeral procession and a wedding processing meet in the center of town. Idiomatically explained best by 11th century Rashi, “When the bride comes out from her father’s home to the wedding hall at the same time [as] those accompanying a dead body for burial and both groups will be shouting – one group with joy and the other in mourning and we don’t want to mix the two, we reroute those accompanying the deceased…”

So, when a funeral procession––or, universally for our time, a pandemic taking a global toll on human life––and a wedding party meet in the rather narrow streets of Boston, who gets to go first? The grief and the loss? Or the joy and the gladness? Jewish sages teach us that when the two meet, we reroute our grief and we don’t postpone our celebration, because joy and gladness get the right of way. 

But why did the sages believe this? Tractate Semachot, also known as Evel Rabbati, a minor tractate that deals with mourning, suggests that “the honor of the living takes precedence over the deceased.” I didn’t find this answer satiating.

There are a few other classical commentaries about this text, most of which suggest that we do not postpone joy because Jews are a people invested in hope. So the wedding takes precedence, because a funeral is a reflection on all that was while a wedding is a reflection on all that is yet to be. This idea prioritizing one over the other was too difficult for me, because they actually share so much in common.

Were it up to me, I would rewrite the Talmudic text and do some construction work to widen the way so that when a wedding and a funeral meet on the streets, the two processionals could share the road. For when I stand with congregants at a funeral there is so much loss and grief, but there is often also joy and gladness. There is often laughter mixed with tears, a deep sense of gratitude and celebration of life. When I stand with congregants at a wedding, there is so much joy and gladness, but there is also often loss and grief.  Grief for those whose absence is palpably felt, sorrow for letting go of children who have grown, and I can’t help but notice the smiles of those who witness with joy but long for a love of their own.

The liturgy and belief behind weddings and funerals manifest the idea of Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden, for which many cemeteries are named and which emerges in the Sheva Brachot, the seven wedding blessings, evincing a life with many stops, held in eternal safety and peace. In historic pandemics, weddings sometimes even occurred in a cemetery. Such is this sacred mixture of loss and laughter, of gladness and grief.

So our Ketubah says Av. And honestly, it has felt like we’ve been in the month of Av for 5 months now, so why postpone joy any longer?

What the rabbis of the Talmud nudge us to imagine is this: As the beloveds cross the road to their chuppah, and the mourners in the funeral procession look out from their sadness through the car window, for a split second they see one another and look each other in the eye. The mourners witness as joy proceeds, the beloveds witness the fragility of life, and neither one’s existence can steal from the other’s truth. Because loss and grief and joy and gladness are deeply intertwined at every moment of being human. So maybe we need the reminder to push ourselves, especially when the world is offering us more grief than gladness, to witness them both, but not to postpone the joy. Rather, let us allow joy to lead the way.