By Rabbi-Cantor Cheri Weiss
“The people of Israel compose a single soul. Only the bodies are separate.”
—Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi
In the past year, in my position as rabbi-cantor of Temple Emanu-El in Honolulu, I have had the privilege of officiating at a myriad of life cycle events. Some were joyful, such as weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, and baby namings. As is the nature of the cycle of life, sadly there were also funerals, unveilings, memorial services, as well as many pastoral visits to the sick and dying.
Several weeks ago, I was delighted to officiate at the wedding of a lovely couple, who have been together for nearly two decades. It was a sweet and modest event held in the backyard of the home they share with their three beautiful children and two adorable dogs. A few close friends and family members gathered to celebrate this joyous occasion. As they stood under the chuppah held up by four of their friends, their joy was palpable as they exchanged vows and rings. Everyone said “Amen!” enthusiastically at the end of each of the Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings), which evoke themes such as creation, redemption, and paradise. In these blessings, we thank God for creating the world, humanity, peace and harmony and the joy of the bride and groom.
The following day, our congregation celebrated the Bar and Bat Mitzvah of twins (brother and sister), rejoicing in their being called to the Torah as young Jewish adults. These thoughtful, intelligent siblings had eagerly embraced the life lessons that were offered to them during their preparation for this sacred celebration. It is my hope that they—as well as all of our B’nei Mitzvah students—view this moment in time not as an ending, but as the beginning of a new chapter in their lives, one in which they commit themselves to embodying the spirit of the Torah and living lives immersed in Jewish values.
Yet it is not solely in joy that we gather around those we cherish. Jewish tradition holds us responsible as a community to also comfort those facing times of grief. The day following the twins’ B’nei Mitzvah, we gathered in this same Sanctuary for a memorial service to honor one of our temple’s long-time members. In the years before age began to take its toll, she had been a devoted and active member of the Temple’s Sisterhood, devoting hours upon hours to help ensure the congregation’s continued existence for generations to come.
A few days later, I was called in to one of the local hospitals to recite the Viddui (Confessional) prayer for someone whose all-too-brief life was tragically coming to an end. This prayer serves symbolically as a final reconciliation with God while acknowledging a person’s imperfections. That same week, I also received calls from people whose loved ones were either facing serious illness or nearing end of life. Navigating these challenges is among life’s most difficult tasks. Supporting others who are experiencing such heartache is a mitzvah we must all perform when we have the opportunity to do so.
Regardless of our personal affiliation, being part of a Jewish community provides us with many opportunities to share in both the joys and sorrows of people who consider the synagogue to be their spiritual home. Supporting each other is both a blessing and an obligation. It is my hope that we will all continue to honor this sacred aspect of our Jewish heritage.