Should we celebrate when the pandemic is over? As the vaccinations ramp up, there is finally a sense of optimism. After more than a year of anxiety and isolation, we can reasonably predict the end of this pandemic and expect life to return to normal. But is it appropriate to celebrate our triumph over the coronavirus?
The coronavirus has caused exceptional suffering. There have been millions of deaths worldwide, and many more have been impacted by the psychological and financial effects of the pandemic. However, the impact of the pandemic has been uneven. The metaphor used, that we are all in the same storm but not in the same boat, is very accurate. Some have suffered greatly, and others have actually had a very good year. But that makes the moral foundation of this question even more profound: Is it appropriate for anyone to rejoice while so many people are still heartbroken?
Halacha makes a sharp separation between mourning and celebration. The Bible tells us that “there is a time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for wailing and a time for dancing”; and Halacha codifies this into practice. When a holiday arrives, we cancel the seven-day mourning period of shiva; and when a burial occurs during a holiday, the shiva is deferred until after the conclusion of the holiday. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains that these two emotions of joy and mourning are in direct contradiction with each other; for this reason Halacha separates mourning from joy, and gives each their own stage. Ideally, we should experience joy and mourning separately, each in their proper times.
But we cannot always disentangle the moments of joy and grief. A child who loses a parent and inherits an estate makes two blessings: one to reflect their heartbreaking loss, and the other thanking God for their good fortune. On the holidays, we recite the Yizkor prayer, which remembers family and friends who have passed away.
Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Epstein asks the obvious question: how is it permissible to say Yizkor on the holidays, which are meant to be joyous? The answer he says, lies in a deeper understanding of human emotions. There is permission given for mourners to cry on the holidays if it will give them comfort. It is unreasonable to expect a person to seal off their grief, even on a day of joy; and the tears of a mourner can bring them a sense of relief. For this reason, Yizkor has a role to play during the holiday, even though reciting this prayer will bring us to tears.
Joy and sadness are frequently intertwined. The abundance of joy at a Passover Seder will never fill the empty chair of a beloved grandparent. The abundance of grief at a shiva will never erase joyous memories; and when the family brings out old photo albums, there is a mixture of laughter and tears, as joy and grief sit side by side. And this is true of life in general; to live an authentic life is to carry sorrows and joys together, with both sharing space within the same heart.
YIZKOR IS always filled with mixed emotions, a painful pause embedded in a day of celebration. Right now, those mixed emotions are more jarring than usual. It is Passover, the festival of redemption; and this year, it is truly filled with hope for a better future. Seats in the synagogue are filling up, and people are happy to return now that they have been vaccinated. But there are some seats that will remain empty, and good friends who will never return. And during Yizkor, we will be remembering all of those who will never come back to our synagogue. And then we will have to return to our celebration. This is an emotional roller coaster.
Israel has always had to navigate this clash of emotions throughout its history. On June 7, 1967, the Israeli army captured the Temple Mount, returning Jewish sovereignty to the holiest place in Judaism for the first time in nearly 1,900 years. The paratroopers joyously shouted recited the shehecheyanu prayer, and Rabbi Shlomo Goren sounded the shofar; audio of both are replayed in Israeli media every year. But when you listen to the full recording of that you hear something else: Rabbi Goren reciting a memorial prayer for the soldiers who had fallen in battle. And as he does so, you can hear the sound of weeping in the background, the victorious paratroopers crying for their fallen brethren. Even the greatest of miracles arrives with tears and heartbreak.
For this reason, Israel has placed its memorial day, Yom Hazikaron, on the day before its Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzma’ut. Without the courage, bravery and sacrifice of its soldiers, Israel would not exist. At the same time, the greatest way of honoring the legacy of those who have fallen is by building a vibrant country, one worth celebrating. Putting a day of mourning right before a day of rejoicing certainly brings out mixed emotions; but that is as it should be, because carrying both of those emotions is our responsibility.
The Israeli paradigm is an appropriate one for the end of this pandemic. Life includes both the honey and the sting, the bitter and the sweet; and we must embrace them both, because we cannot edit reality. Israel recognizes both, and even puts them together. And so it should be for us, as we celebrate our triumph over the coronavirus.
Yes, we will celebrate when the pandemic is over, but we will not forget the pain, suffering and loss. Every holiday has its Yizkor. Every Seder has its empty seat. And when we celebrate the reopening, we will say Yizkor for those we have lost as well, because the celebration would be incomplete without it.
The writer is the rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City.