(Delivered at the Jewish Community Center of Harrison on the last morning of NY-based Shloshim, February 11, 2020)
Ecclesiastes teaches us that:
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven
A time for dancing, and a time for crying.
A time for birthing and a time for dying.
A time for speaking… and a time for silence.
And, I will add, a time to be a rabbi and a time to be a mourner, and, sometimes, a time to be a rabbi who is also a mourner.
You all well know that I am more accustomed – and you are more accustomed – to me standing on this side of the Bimah. And maybe that’s why one of the first things that I decided to do in these topsy-turvy weeks was to relocate myself. I couldn’t lead the Kaddish from where I normally lead it. I had to change my seat and I even found myself, and felt myself, and saw myself, and heard myself change my voice — from the RABBI VOICE to my actualy voice, Eytan’s voice. These were weeks for me to be a mourner, first and foremost, and, if I was a mourner-rabbi, it was simply modeling how I, as a Jew and a son and a brother – was using the Jewish mourning customs that I have studied and taught others, using these customs now, for myself, for all they are worth – to see how and if they can provide me the comfort that I had always promised others that they would provide.
I know that I am not the first person – in fact, I might be the very last person in this room – to have suffered the loss of one of the closest levels of relatives – a parent, a child, a spouse, a sibling. But, as this was the first time that I had suffered a loss, all of this was new and different and jarring – to be on the other side of the table – this actual table!; to be on the other side of the pre-funeral meeting with a rabbi, to be on the other side of the procession into the sanctuary, to be on the other side of the shovel at the cemetery. This was all new.
When it became clear that Leah – after three-plus years of fighting lung cancer, with many, many good days and trips and birthdays and holidays during those years – when it became clear that Leah’s fight was nearly over, a member of the congrega-tion asked me the sweetest and simplest question: You take care of all of us, rabbi, who is going to take care of you?
I didn’t know at the time just how right my answer would be. I said, “Well, when I take care of you, there is still only one of me! When you take care of me, there are so very many of you. So how lucky am I?”
And, indeed, I was spot-on in my answer. I used the following analogy with our Hebrew School kids, the analogy of the person who jumps high in the air, off the stage, at the rock concert. Gravity is taking hold; he is going to come down and the question is only what happens next. What happens? Hundreds of hands pop up and prop up that person and keep them afloat and don’t let them fall, and share, altogether, in the burden.
From the moment that I told members of this synagogue, that I told close friends, three-plus years ago, that my sister was sick… the regular inquiries began – how was she doing? The help came in all-forms. The shiva day here that I will never forget for the rest of my life; the daily minyan each day this month, which you well-know that we do not usually have. The kind words and the tearful steps into my office each day including just yesterday and the eyes that are asking, really, “How are you?”
Rabbi Jack Bloom wrote a book that he said was for rabbis, for other clergy and for the synagogue members who care about them and their sacred work. He called the book The Rabbi As Symbolic Exemplar. His idea is that rabbis are people but they are also, at the very same time, symbols – of our past and of our tradition. As hip and modern and accessible as we rabbis try to be, this symbolic exemplar-hood is what enables rabbis to be taken seriously in the first place, to touch individual lives and to direct the future of the Jewish community.
So, these weeks, I was a mourner, but I was still a rabbi. Did I learn anything during these weeks that I would be able to teach some day, to help families in the future, whom I will have the honor, one day, of standing beside? This is what I’ve learned:
I learned just how important Shiva days are, a long shiva day – the hour of tefila, when services are held, but also the quiet-er times during the day. I’ve learned how meaningful it is when someone comes simply to sit beside me, me in my low chair, the comfort-er in their higher chair – just being by my side.
I learned how shiva should be maximally observed. That you want to be sick of Shiva and ready to move on; but you are only ready to move on when you have given Shiva the chance it deserves.
I learned that, since we don’t all live in the same village any more, it is perfectly okay for Shiva to travel, to take place in multiple locations, to move around during the week, to let communities do the comforting that they are so eager to do. That symbolic walk out of the house, around the block, still felt like the end of Shiva – even if we had traveled some miles during the week.
I learned how grateful I was as a mourner for every note or card or email or even text message. What would our grandpar-ents think, a text message to comfort a mourner!? But, yes, condolence-by-text is still condolence.
I learned just how powerful social media is – that Facebook, for all of the damage it can do and time it can fritter away, how it can magically and instantaneously connect people across distance and years; that sad news can be shared and then com-fort can come racing in, from across the entire globe; that we can be magically reunited with old friends and even older friends. That our oldest friends and cousins can be the best of friends; that we should do what we can to stay in touch.
How many times have I said that shiva is important? I don’t know. How many times have I had the honor of leading a fu-neral service? I’m not sure. How many eulogies have I delivered? I can’t say. How many shiva visits have I paid?
Whatever these numbers are, the right answer is — too, too many – for each one represents sadness and loss and broken hearts. We wrote nearly a month ago now that our hearts were broken. Indeed, they are and remain so – but the space left by that break has also been filled to overflowing by more love than we have ever experienced. As a Rabbi, as a Jew, but, really, as a person, I pledge to pay it forward in the months and years ahead.
A friend – who also suffered a loss recently – taught me that Rambam, Maimonidies, suggested that comforting mourners is one way to fulfill the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
May we have many, many more things to celebrate in the months and years ahead. But when sad things happen, may we also lovingly comfort one another in the ways that I was so fortunate to experience in these past, sad weeks.
And if you need to be comforted someday, I can promise you that the way to do it is to be comforted b’toch she-ar avlei tzion v’yerushalayim – together with all of the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. Amen.