Patience, Not Platitudes: What Not to Say to Those Celebrating or Mourning During Corona

Usually, when I get a call before speaking at a Chuppah, it is to remind me what to say, whom to acknowledge and remember, the qualities of the chassan and kallah to recognize.  This week, I got a phone call requesting what to not say at an upcoming wedding. “Rabbi,” the kallah said respectfully, “please don’t mention that Covid is great, giving us opportunities, and this wedding is exactly what Hashem wanted, isn’t this amazing.  Please don’t say that because it isn’t true.  I am so grateful to be getting married, but this isn’t the wedding I had been anticipating.” (Shared with permission)

I never would have said such a thing, of course, but it is telling that she was concerned I might.  This wonderful kallah is among many celebrating simchas during this time who have heard the platitudes from people telling them why this version of their simcha is so much better, is so much more beautiful, is exactly what Hashem wants them to have, and how happy they should be about it.

This week, countless young people are celebrating graduations, some over Zoom, some with a drive-by, and some in person but substantially modified.  Our school administrators, teachers, and community members have been nothing short of heroic in making the most and the best of a difficult year. But while these efforts must be appreciated and recognized, we still need to be honest with ourselves and with our students: these are not the graduations they pictured and looked forward to for four or eight years or more while they worked towards their milestone. 

Over the last three months, many people have lost loved ones.  I personally have three family members whom I was close with and loved, who have passed away during this time. They deserved large funerals and robust shivas, yet their neshamas were denied this kavod and their loved ones were deprived of the brilliant formula for grieving prescribed by the Torah and Chazal. 

To be clear, if a person chooses to process their own simcha or personal loss by reflecting on the positive opportunities presented, how they feel better off and grateful for diverting from the norm, that is their prerogative.  For one to have that attitude about themselves is not only a coping mechanism, but admirable.  By contrast, explaining to people who are disappointed or disheartened why they shouldn’t be is unlikely to change their feelings, and more likely to just make them feel guilty for having them. 

I think we can convey a different message to those struggling with feelings of frustration and grief from unrealized dreams and hopes.

Nine years ago, Yocheved and I attended a spectacular 50th anniversary party that was as beautiful as a wedding. I remember thinking the venue, music, food and drinks were magnificent but frankly, it felt like a little much for an anniversary party.  And then our host Mike spoke. He is a survivor who had been separated from his parents for parts of the war, and though reunited with them afterwards, had lost most of his family.  His family had next to nothing when he married Barbara.  When they got married at the Young Israel of Cleveland, the shmorg consisted of potato chips, pretzels, and ginger ale.  Mike explained that he told her then, “Barbara, this is all we can afford now, but you deserve the wedding of your dreams.  One day I will make it for you.” And so fifty years later, they invited family, friends and the rabbis from all the communities they had ever lived to a beautiful anniversary party. 

Not having the wedding, Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or graduation of your dreams is not fantastic, it’s unfortunate and it’s frustrating.  Not being surrounded by friends and family to provide support and love when you lose a loved one feels unfair and even cruel.  Our response must not be to give unsolicited perspective, to offer empty platitudes, to provide explanations and reasons, or to encourage them to find a silver lining.  Our response must be to validate, acknowledge and encourage patience.

It took fifty years for Mike and Barbara to celebrate the wedding of their dreams. Perhaps those getting married during this period can mark a future anniversary by filling in what they felt is missing now. With patience and time, perhaps graduates will mark other graduations or class reunions more fully to compensate what is missing this year.  Perhaps time will allow sheloshim or yahrzeit observances to more fully memorialize with friends and family.

After Miriam spoke lashon hara about her brother Moshe and was struck with tzara’as, she was quarantined for seven days.  While she was not part of the camp during that time, the camp stood still. They did not travel, they did not move forward without her.  Out of love and respect for Miriam, the people refused to leave without her.  Why?  Wasn’t it dangerous to stand still in the desert baking in the sun, depleting resources?  Why did three million people stand still, waiting for one person?

The Mishna in Sota tells us that in the merit of Miriam waiting to see what would happen to Moshe’s basket floating in the Nile, the entire nation waited for her for seven days. When things looked hopeless and her parents felt like giving up on bringing more Jewish children into the world, Miriam had faith and convinced her parents to believe in a brighter future.  When once again things looked bad, the Jewish future literally sailing down the Nile River, again Miriam stood and watched with great faith and hope.  Miriam was rewarded, not just for standing on the bank of the river that day, but for her tenacity, faith and hope and for her patience. 

Nobody has more patience than the Jew. For 2,000 years we longed to return to Israel and Yerushalayim, and we have been rewarded by coming home. 

Once again we are being asked to wait. To wait to celebrate fully, to wait to mourn fully, to wait to return to normal life.  But we are the progeny of Miriam. She waited for Moshe, our ancestors waited for her, and they both imbued within us the capacity and fortitude to wait for Moshiach. B’chol yom achakeh lo, every day for millenia we have been practicing waiting. 

Like Miriam was rewarded for her waiting, may every graduate, bride and groom be rewarded for their patience with celebrations that are truly the fulfillment of their dreams.