There is an often-used Jewish expression “Only simchas!” It is a wish — a blessing, really — that we should bump into one another only on happy occasions.
Folks use it as a parting phrase when they leave a wedding or a bris. They also offer it up as a balm upon hearing or sharing sad news, or when leaving a funeral or a shiva house.
I hope it isn’t heresy to say so, but this popular saying has always bewildered me.
The optimist in me wishes that our calendars were filled with nothing but happy occasions. But the realist in me knows better. It is just not the way of the world. “Only simchas!” can never be true.
We are mortals swept up in the circle of life. We don’t get to live forever. God willing, our time here on earth will grant us our share of joyous occasions and seasons of blessing, of success and reward. But the human experience also includes inevitable moments of loss, disappointment, failure, rejection, pain, and illness, times we would never refer to as happy ones.
So why set ourselves up for the impossible by uttering the phrase “Only simchas!” when we can mine the wonderful depths of the English language for something more apt?
And though we mean well, why do we wish a friend something none of us can ever hope to have?
These were among the many thoughts running through my head this past week while my husband sat shiva for his father. Luckily, I found an alternative to the old phrase in a quick look around our home.
Someone had brought over the Torah and prayer books to help me set up the shiva house. Men made minyan each day, both in the morning and at night. Friends, family, patients, and colleagues came from near and far to be menachem avel — to comfort the mourner through his pain and show us their love and support. They listened as my husband shared memories of his parents, now both gone. They offered meaningful words of Torah, dropped off meals, ran errands, and filled our pushkas with tzedakah that will be donated to help people in need.
Even if I were to try, I would not be able to count the remarkable number of mitzvot performed in that short period of time, all to help my husband grieve and buoy our family as we faced a monumental loss.
Rising from our sorrow was an enormous sense of gratitude for those many acts of kindness and the wisdom of the Jewish rituals of mourning, which carve out spaces in time, lines in the calendar that ease mourners through the process of grief. What a comfort it is to know that even when we feel most steeped in sadness, our community and our traditions remind us that we are not to bear it alone.
It is best, then, I would aver, to dispense with the saying “Only simchas!” altogether. On both happy occasions and during periods of sadness and mourning, let’s instead say, “I am here for you, whatever life brings.” Because life will, inevitably, bring at the very least a jumble of everything. And there is no greater joy, and no greater comfort, than knowing we have one another, come what may.
As we approach the start of the Jewish new year, my family has begun to regroup and return to what is our new normal, continuing to feel my father-in-law’s absence acutely and to nurse the wounds of our loss. But we look forward to the opportunity Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur provide for solemn reflection on what matters most and how to make the best of the time God gives us in this world with the ones we love.
May the year ahead recharge our minds, bodies, and souls. May it be a year of blessing, health, peace, and kindness. And may we have the strength to be there for one another, whatever life throws our way in 5780.
Merri Ukraincik of Edison is a regular contributor to NJJN. Follow her at merriukraincik.com.