May 21, 2019

Finding Light Through the Darkness After Pittsburgh

Photo from Pinterest

On a picture-perfect Sunday afternoon, the waitstaff were proffering trays of vegetarian egg rolls, mini hamburgers and other hors-d’oeuvres. The wedding guests were sipping flutes of champagne, served with a split strawberry nestled on the glass. It was exactly 24 hours after I had learned, late Shabbat afternoon, of the horrific massacre in Pittsburgh. I had to park my grief to the side. I was there to celebrate the wedding of my nephew Josh to his beautiful bride, Sammie. 

I had been jittery all day. I was reeling from the news of the slaughter, unable to absorb its horror. I thought about how exposed we Jews are in most shuls and schools, including the shuls I attend, and wondered what added security measures would be taken. And that morning my husband woke up feeling suddenly quite ill, and I was worried. I tended to him as I rethought our plans for the day. Someone in the family would need to stay home with him, for my own sense of reassurance, while the rest of us went to the wedding. With all that, I also tried to hold on to the focus of the day — the joy of a family wedding.   

The rustic beauty of the wedding venue and the lively spirits of the 150 guests worked its magic. Secure in the knowledge that my husband was feeling better and was tended to by our daughter-in-law (a registered nurse), and cheered up by the company of our 4-year-old granddaughter, who is a never-ending fount of hilarious observations about life, I was able to feel present in the simcha. I felt so grateful to be with three of our children and two children-in-law, and I happily socialized with my sister’s lifelong friends, some of whom I had not seen since we were young. Now, some of us were grandparents. 

Against the musical backdrop of the song “Perfect,” I watched Josh walk down the aisle holding my sister’s hand, his other hand resting on the arm of his father in his wheelchair. At that moment, my emotional bank overflowed. During this precious moment, I felt the weight of history behind it, both on a personal and on a larger, macro level.   

“Against the backdrop of violent anti-Semitism, thousands of couples had stood under thousands of chuppahs in every country where the scourge had festered.”

I felt the presence of my parents and grandparents, whom I imagined shepping nachas from Heaven from seeing their grandson and great-grandson marry a lovely Jewish woman under a chuppah. I felt the years of struggle, of raw emotional upheavals, that Josh had endured due to his parents’ divorce, and felt a surge of pride at the hard work he had done to find himself and to thrive in every way. I felt the joy of my sister, Sharon, whose own life has been so difficult in many ways, now enjoying one of the happiest days of her life. My tears flowed freely.   

I also felt the sweeping arc of Jewish history, where, against the backdrop of violent anti-Semitism, thousands of couples had stood under thousands of chuppahs in every country where the scourge had festered. This, I thought, is what a Jewish wedding always is: a symbol of our people’s irrepressible, unquenchable commitment to life; of our belief that the light of our hope and the strength of our faith will always somehow overpower the darkness of hatred. 

When Josh stomped on the glass at the end of the ceremony, symbolizing our awareness of the tragedies of our past, I was thinking of Pittsburgh. 

The Gemara says that a wedding represents the rebuilding (binyan) of the destruction  (churban) of Jerusalem. In other words, the only answer to churban is binyan. Our answer to darkness is to bring the light. 

May Josh and Sammie, through their new marriage, help rebuild what has been lost. May their love, self-sacrifice, acts of kindness and giving help extinguish the darkness with their light.

Judy Gruen is the author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith.”