This week, for maybe the first time in my adult life, I attended a Hachnasat Sefer Torah that affected me deeply, in ways I could not have imagined beforehand. To write a Torah scroll is a huge mitzvah; to participate in the unveiling of the new Torah is also a huge mitzvah. The Torah, which is compared to a bride of G‑d, is carried under a chuppah (wedding canopy) to its new home in the ark of the synagogue amid much singing and dancing. It is a time of tremendous celebration.

This Torah procession that I was privileged to be a part of was being dedicated by a family who attends my shul; its course was to head out from the house of the family who had sponsored it to the shul. Most of the community I am part of attended the celebration; it was truly an exciting and momentous occasion.

Leading up to the day, I didn’t give the event much thought. On Sunday morning, I got my girls dressed, and my husband and I headed out to the family’s home.

The atmosphere was beautiful. The father of the family, who spearheaded the Torah campaign in memory of his dear wife, was greeting well-wishers with warmth and genuine happiness. A small crowd of people had formed, most of them in line to write a letter in the Torah before it was rolled up and placed in its new home.

Together with our girls, we joined the line I didn’t give the event much thought and watched in fascination as the scribe etched a few letters for our family. We socialized, milled about and followed the program closely.

As the final letters were left to dry, a member of the community began to lead the men in song.

That’s when the first stirrings of emotion welled up. The Chabad niggunim evoked powerful, deep introspection, and the soulfulness brought me to the stark realization that this was an event commemorating the life of an individual. Suddenly, the photos on the walls and the frames sitting on the fireplace mantle had me choking back tears. A mother, a wife, a daughter—taken in her prime. Grandchildren ran around the house—grandchildren she had never even met.

If I’m honest, perhaps the reason none of these immense feelings had shown their face earlier was quite simple. I had never met the woman in whose honor the Torah was being dedicated. She passed away before I moved to the city and I had only heard about her—her kindness, her way with people, her gentleness. Suddenly, being in the home she once lived in and seeing her smiling face looking down from the walls, she became much more than other people’s memories. She became a person I had never had the privilege to meet.

This internal surge of feelings only intensified when the rabbi of the shul announced that in honor of the momentous occasion, the husband and father of the family would say the Shehechiyanu: Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.

The author's husband and older daughter take part as well.
The author's husband and older daughter take part as well.

It seemed a cruel paradox. To bless the One Above for sustaining life at a time when a death is being commemorated. To thank Him for sustaining us at a time when the presence of an invaluable being is absent, a black void and yawning chasm in her wake. To express gratitude for reaching an occasion that although is impactful in so many ways, holds so much sadness and emotion.

I blinked through a vision now blurry with tears.

The procession began. Music started playing from an open-backed truck. The Torah was held aloft under a canopy borne on four poles. Torches were lit, the singing intensified, feet started dancing to the beat.

Slowly, I felt the joy. A Torah! A new Torah! A crisp parchment filled with holy words! Age-old stories and laws that bind us as a nation to each other, as a nation to G‑d. This procession is preserving history; it is the link in the chain for the children I hold in my arms.

I wiped away a stray tear and hummed to the music. This is a happy time, I reminded myself. A joyous event. Feel it. Focus.

And for a few minutes, I did.

I saw a friend a few feet ahead and quickened my pace to join her. I saw her shoulders shaking and knew that she, too, felt the same sentiments. I reached out to hug her, and her crying made me start all over again.

“I didn’t even know her,” she choked through tears. “I didn’t ... even . . . know . . . her!”

“Neither did I,” I managed.

I couldn’t say much more through the fresh wave of tears that consumed me. The roller coaster of joy to sadness and back again had me gasping for air. I slowed my breathing and tuned in to the music, and marched behind the chuppah, waving to my daughter who sat high and proud on her father’s shoulders. Again, I took in the energy, the vitality, the life.

I didn’t have too much time to ponder itA wave of tears consumed me all or even the luxury of crying again. Rain began to fall, so I hurried to cover myself and my baby with an umbrella. The procession reached the shelter of the shul and I got busy drying off, keeping an eye on the kids and then making sure they were fed.

Now, in the stillness of the night, I sit and rehash the day’s events and try to make sense of an experience that had shaken and touched and thrown me in a way something hasn’t really done in a while. I think about life and what it means, and about death and what it signifies. I think about time and place, and tears of joy and of happiness.

It’s OK, I tell myself. It is OK to tap into an event like this, where something beautiful was being done to glorify the beautiful life of a beautiful person. It’s OK to feel sadness in the space she has left behind. It’s also OK to look towards the future, and try to turn the sadness into a symbol of strength and hope. To channel her beauty into the beauty of a Torah scroll that lights up darkness, and provides guidance and warmth and stability to the Jewish people.

There is a time to weep and a time to laugh. And sometimes, there is a time for both at the same time.