It’s All in the Family

Shy to begin with, I found it a little embarrassing when I first started going to Orthodox Jewish weddings; right off the bat, people seemed to mistake me for being related to the bride or groom. As soon as I would walk into the room, strangers would approach and genuinely wish me, “Mazel tov!” “Thanks,” I would mumble, “but um, I’m not related to the families. I’m just a guest.” If anything, I am underdressed for posh affairs; I own no formal clothes, and nothing in my closet remotely passes for glamorous. I would have to upgrade my attire if I were a close relative. So why did this case of mistaken identity persist?

Some of you may be laughing, as you understand the cause of my “newbie confusion.” You see, in Orthodox weddings and celebrations of any kind, everyone wishes everyone else “Mazel Tov” because the Jewish people are considered to be one big extended family. In my younger years, I experienced a sense of liberation and even personal power when I coined my definition of “family,” as those who felt pain if I were suffering and joy if I were happy. At celebrations, we remind each other (and ourselves) of this reality; your happiness is my happiness, and we share this collectively.

Life Cycles

Klal Yisrael literally means “all of Israel,” and as such, it refers to the Jewish people as a whole. However, its deeper meaning is that despite individual and group diversity, we share a communal identity and destiny, where we celebrate and mourn as one. In Israel, weddings are often open affairs. Here, we call them wedding crashers, but over there, it’s more like an “open tent” policy. At the same time, it’s just as common for “strangers” to show up at funerals and to offer condolences at houses of mourning. When my daughter spent a gap year studying in Israel, it was not unusual for girls from her seminary to go in large groups to pay their respects. “Mom,” my daughter simply said. “You just go.”

When I was visiting another family in mourning this week, one of the sons acknowledged that while the four siblings had their share of squabbles and issues over the years, at the time of their mother’s death, they were all united as one, gathered around her bedside, escorting her in song and prayers to the next world. After he spoke, his sister tearfully begged the family to stay as one—to comfort and support each other in the weeks and months to come as they had to come to grips with the loss of the matriarch of the family who held them as one.

When Unity Is Not the Real Deal

I have seen and experienced families, communities and the Jewish people rise to the occasion in solidarity, only to fall back into divisive and polarized factions. How can we hold onto the lofty ideals of unity and connection as operative principles in our daily lives? Just as peak emotional moments are not sustainable, the solidarity we may feel in times of crisis, disasters, terror attacks, etc., is situational and temporary. During calamities, we instinctively help our fellow neighbor without asking who he or she voted for. Afterwards, we go back to life as usual—the neighbor becomes the stranger, and we retreat into the proverbial “us and them.” Unity based on fear of hatred of a common enemy is not genuine, and when it’s situational (for good or bad), it’s not sustainable. How, then, does unity endure?

And When It Is ...

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, Jacob passes away. Surrounding him at his deathbed, are his sons—all of them, whom as we know, had some serious baggage. Jacob had received a prophetic vision in which he saw how the future would unfold, including the “end of days.” When Jacob wanted to relay revelation to his sons, however, the vision was no longer accessible to him.

Somewhat frightened, Jacob asked his sons whether there was any negativity within them, which was blocking the signal, so to speak, to which the sons replied in unison: Shema Yisrael, Hashem, Elokeinu, Hashem Echad—“Hear O Israel, the L‑rd our G‑d, the L‑rd is One.” And Jacob answered: Boruch Shem kavod malchuso, l’olam voed—“Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for all eternity.” This is the exact moment where the Torah teaches us the Shema—the “Jewish mantra” that we recite daily and, if we able, right before we die.

G‑d is One, the ultimate Unity. Created in G‑d’s image, our mission in life is to emulate our Creator, and it’s the struggle of a lifetime to unify ourselves in the service of G‑d. Just as Jacob gave each of his sons distinct and individual blessings, we are unique, and we are to serve G‑d in our singular capacities. That’s a tall order, but it’s not enough.

The next time we read the words of the Shema in the Torah is when Moses teaches them to the second generation shortly before his death and their crossing over into the Land of Israel. As the Jewish people were about to leave the cocoon of the desert and spread out over the land, Moses was exhorting them to remember that G‑d is One, and therefore, they must also strive to be as one—within themselves and within the nation, Klal Yisrael, as a whole.

The nature of the Jewish people is covenantal. United we stand, divided we fall. This requires a deep awareness of the unity and connection that at times requires self-sacrifice, displacing one’s ego and the open-hearted generosity of unconditional love.

When I was at a bris this week, a friend of mine introduced her adult son to me—a “newbie” unfamiliar with Orthodox Jewish customs. For fun, I greeted him with a hearty “Mazel Tov!” Unlike the way I used to respond, however, he didn’t correct me; he knew I wasn’t confused about his identity. But I could read the thought bubble above his head that was probably something like: “Seriously? What is it with this lady?” “It’s OK, kid,” I beamed back telepathically. “You’ll find out soon enough. Welcome to the family!