Monday, April 23, 2018

A Year of Mourning - An Overwhleming Amen

So here I am at the Rabbinical Assembly convention. It’s something to which I look forward; spending time with colleagues; learning; simply being, if only for a few days.

This year the experience is just a little different. This year I am saying Kaddish. Saying Kaddish in a minyan is often a moving experience, but a small one. Even on Shabbat I am surrounded by a relatively small crowd, sometimes spread out across a large room, with many reciting Kaddish together. The experience here is different. Hundreds of rabbis in a small room, crowded, standing together, but only a few of us are saying Kaddish. Our individual voices can clearly be heard across the room. In many ways it is so much lonelier than what I have been experiencing. 

But then... there is the response... A hundred strong voices booming out to answer our words. I feel it in my heart, in my sternum, it vibrates through me in answer to my pain. Then I realize friends and colleagues are turning towards me. They smile. Their expressions reaching out in support. Tears fill my eyes. I strengthen my voice. 

After minyan people check in. Those further from me in the room come over. “Did I hear you saying Kaddish? Who died? When?” There are questions about memories. Some remember my dad from our JTS years. There are hugs. Hands on my shoulders. More smiles. More tears almost leaking from my eyes, but, for the moment at least, staying put.

And I wonder, after this, how do I return to my regular minyan?

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

I'm a Realist AND I Believe In Miracles - Happy Birthday Israel

I will bring you out... and save you... I will redeem you... I will take you to be My people... I will bring you to the land which I swore to give, and I will give it to you as an inheritance. (Shemot 6:6-8)

These verses are the five promises God made to Israel. They are most familiar to those reading the Hagaddah. The number four abounds during Pesach- cups, children, questions, promises. God tells the Israelites, "I will bring you out. I will save you. I will redeem you. I will take you as My people." For each of these we drink a cup of wine. But there is a fifth promise. It is the promise represented by Elijah's cup and the question of whether we should drink a fifth cup of wine at the seder. "I will bring you [back] into the land I have promised you."

While Jews have never fully left the land of Israel, 70 years ago we returned as the governing majority, a first move towards fulfilling Herzl's dream. Just over 40 years earlier, 120 years ago, Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in  Basle, Switzerland, dreaming first of a refuge, and then of building an ideal society. We still have much to do. Israel is not perfect. With our support, expectations, and effort it will continue on that path. As in the words of Rabbi Tarfon, "It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free from it."

Tomorrow, when we celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, we will recite Hallel, the songs of praise added to our t'fillot to celebrate God's miracles. There is some debate over whether this Hallel is recited with or without a bracha to begin and whether we should also recite Al HaNissim (For Miracles) in the Amidah. Though Israel is certainly not a utopia; though we are brought to the heights of ecstasy and the lows of despair by news, though daily life in Israel continues for many to be a struggle, and for too many of us aliyah is not a realistic option, the creation and development of Israel over the past 70 years is nothing short of miraculous. In the words of David Ben Gurion, "To be a realist in Israel you have to believe in miracles." I drank that fifth cup, and when I recite Hallel this Thursday, I will say that bracha. How about you?

Thursday, April 12, 2018

A Year of Mourning - A Punch to the Gut

You never know. When it’s going to hit you. All is well. You’re dealing with the death day to day. Things seem normal... Then... Wow! A punch to the gut.

What causes it? No one knows. It could be a moment, a smile, a song. Maybe tonight I brought it on myself. I gave a drash about Aaron reacting to the death of two of his sons. And then it was time to read the yahrtzeit list. And so I did, caught up in the names, wanting to make sure I pronounced the correctly. And then it hit me. As I said t’hei nafshoteihem tzrurah b’tzrur chayim. May their souls be bound in eternal life. Bam. I stumbled. My stomach reeling. I thought, “Dad never did get to see me in this roll as a rabbi.” And I cracked. Holding in the emotions, but stumbling on the words, the words I wanted to recite, the words that usually bring me comfort, the words of Kaddish

A Year of Mourning - A Tale of Two Yizkors

(Yizkor is the memorial service recited four times a year during holidays. It is traditionally recited for first degree relatives: parents, siblings, children, and spouses, and many whose relatives are still living avoid it for superstitious reasons. But there are also prayers for other relatives, those who died in the Holocaust, and others that can be recited by all. )

I sat through my first Yizkor last week. Of course it’s not really my first. I stay for Yizkor all of he time. I have for a decade now. But it was the first since Daddy died, the first time I had someone for whom to say it beyond the general prayers. 

It was also the first since I started my new job. (Another first— the first time I’m a pulpit rabbi.) I sat in the pews with a friend, both of us remembering our loved ones together, laughing a little, crying a little. I was remembering my last Yizkor at Beth Tzedec. Almost nine years ago on Shavuot. I sat there, towards the front, on the right. Rav Baruch spoke, and I cried. I cried for what I knew was coming. I sat there thinking about my father; wondering how much longer He would be there. How much longer until I read the prayer for a parent. I thought, “Next year I may be saying this for him.” I began planning, secretly, in my heart. Where would I sit shiva? Where would I say Kaddish? But he stayed. He was Superpapa, the man the angel of death scared away. Too many times he’d been so ill. Too many times There’d been angina or other medical issues. Each time he rallied, coming back. We got used to it. Even when his kidneys failed due to an antibiotic . We held hope, as people do  that he’d once again heal. We accepted a new normal, accepting his declining health, his growing frustration. He would say, “This is no way to live. It’s not a life.” But he was a fighter, and he fought on. He was never easy, but he was tough. In the end he was bitter, but he was loving underneath it all. And it was fitting that his last words were, “Thank you.”

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Year of Mourning - Dreams of My Father

Never before have I dreamed of my father. But, as we approached Pesach, twice I woke with thoughts of Daddy from dreams the night before. Too soon the images faded leaving the dreams unknown, but the images remain. Daddy- strong and healthy. Before illness and frustration took his vibrance.

Pesach was not our holiday. My parents stopped coming to our sedarim long ago. We were too busy, they said. There were too many days of Yom Tov and Shabbat for which to prepare. Too much shopping to do. There was no time to spend together. Thanksgiving and Purim. Those were better days, filled with fun and celebration. For those days we had time off from work without other distractions. It made seders easier. I didn’t miss my father at seder. My brother and I could laugh over the things Daddy would say, remarks about what was nonsense and what he liked, without missing his presence. But now, as my first yizkor without him looms my stomach clenches. At t’fillot the first night of Pesach I found myself in tears. Thoughts of a colleague, Rabbi Charni Selch-Rudnick, had come up. Rabbi Selch, a vibrant, dynamic rabbi, died of complications from the flu on March 5, 2018. Charni was not a close friend, but one could not know her and not be touched by her - by her passion, by her energy. Though greatly saddened and shocked, I had not cried when I heard the news of her death, but Friday I cried.

Now, almost on the eve of Yizkor, in a new position where I am the rabbi, the role model, I know that I will be crying. I will be crying for my father and my colleague. I’ll be crying for those left behind and those who will never know them. I’ll be crying not just as myself, but as the rabbi and the role model. Because we all need to know it’s alright to cry.

Moadim l’simcha (Hagim, uzmanim l’sasson).

It’s Alright to Cry