The Talmud tells us that if we are in shiva—the first seven days mourning an immediate family member’s death—and a major holiday arrives on the calendar, then our period of shiva is done. Caput. Over. This is pretty jarring. How is an individual who just lost a parent, sibling, spouse, or God-forbid, a child, supposed to abruptly end their mourning and enjoy a holiday? Why is it that the joy of the community takes precedence over the sorrow of a single person? This goes all the way back to the Torah, but it is all the more applicable to the complicated feelings we have as we approach the 4th of July this year. (Of course, the law is referring to Jewish holidays, but stick with me.)
Back in the Book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 16:14), God tells the Israelites that all the people are required to rejoice during festivals. No matter one’s status in the community, all are commanded to rejoice. This leads the rabbis of the Talmud to ask the question hundreds of years later, “what should someone do when they are obligated to mourn AND obligated to rejoice—which is more important?” I believe the rabbis here are faced with an impossible question. It is impossible to choose between mourning the loss of a dear family member AND trying to please God by rejoicing on a holiday. Still, the rabbis make a decision. The rabbis determine that when shiva and a major holiday collide, the communal festival takes precedence and shiva is ended early.
Our knee-jerk reaction might be to condemn the rabbis for making such a heartless decision. I don’t disagree, which is why many Reform communities may note this ruling but be lenient in enforcing it, as modern-day psychology tells us how important shiva is to the grieving process. However, I would caution us to think deeper about what they’re saying. The rabbis do NOT say, “Don’t be sad anymore; it’s time to be happy!” Rather they say, we have obligations that we must fulfill to our family, our community, AND to God. We ought to make time for all of it, but we’re going to have to make tough choices. The same can be said for this complicated and confusing time we are in as we prepare for the 244th anniversary of America’s founding.
We may be in mourning over the state of our country when it comes to systemic racism. We may be mourning the loss of loved ones who have died due to complications of COVID-19 or other illnesses. And, we may be sad because of the loss of our social freedoms to gather, travel, or be within 6 feet of one another. However, our tradition and our history ask us to hold both of these emotions together: our personal and communal sorrow AND the need to rejoice on a holiday. This is not a simple or easy task; rather, it asks us to make room for joy when all we might want to feel is sadness or anger or fear.
This July 4th, let us make room for rejoicing, a complicated act that is filled with all of the other feelings we carry in our lives. May our celebrations for this 4th of July garner pride in what we have accomplished as a nation. May we be inspired to act in a way that brings further equity and justice to all who call America home. And may we seek the hands of our fellow Americans to do this work together for us all.
 Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 14b