I didn’t become a rabbi when I finished seminary. I became a real rabbi after my first eulogy. Nothing can totally prepare you for the task of comforting mourners and making sense of death.
And nothing better teaches us what makes for a meaningful and well-lived life.
At its best, a eulogy is a work of art. It takes the events of a person’s life and reveals its beauty and meaning. It gives us a glimpse of the holy amidst the commonplace.
America is the most religious diverse nation in the world. We have witnessed some of that diversity in the range of responses to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. At these times, we need an even greater focus on what ties us together. Toward that end, I share the following written after a recent speaking engagement at a mega-church in Michigan.
Jews don’t tend to have mega-churches. First of all, we’re a small population. The Sunday attendance at one mega-church could well be greater than the entire Jewish population of a mid-sized city.
That was true when I spoke at a mega-church in May in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The Jewish population of the city does not match the more than 2,000 people gathered there that morning.
I was at the church to talk about my book on Passover for Christians. But I was also there to build bridges. (The video of the sermon is here.)
It has been said that the task of a rabbi is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Today we are all afflicted.
We are afflicted by the horrific murder of nine people gathered for a Bible study at a church in South Carolina. We are afflicted by the plague of violent racism rearing its ugly head in a House of God.
All of victims were black. All were members of an historic black church. All of them had family, friends, loved ones grieving in shock and horror. Four of them were ministers.
I was on the phone recently with a woman whose husband had passed away. She was telling me about his life, and I began to look down at my cell phone. We had spoken for a long time, and I wanted to finish the call and get to work on another project.
But I was afraid. I was afraid because I knew the widow needed to talk. I did not want to let her down. Yet, I had all the information I needed to lead the funeral service. I was afraid of not getting work done on another project.
These two fears reveal both empathy and impatience. I was sensitive to the widow’s state of mind yet focused on what was next.
We should pay attention to our fears because of what they reveal about us. They give us insight into what matters most. They are rarely simplistic. The opposite of fear is not always courage. It is a fear of something else.
I recently came across an article offering advice to this year’s graduates. One beautiful insight stuck out. It came from my friend Rabbi Lizzi Heydeman.
She noted that God’s first words in the Bible are “Let there be light.” We typically think of these words solely in terms of the creation of the universe. God creates light, then the waters, then the plants and animals and so forth.
Yet, we are not meant to read the Bible solely for information. We also read it for inspiration. These words are not just about the creation of the universe. They are about the creation of ourselves.
“Let there be light” is God’s call to each of us. “Let there be light” inside of you. Let that light shine into the universe.
100 years ago my great-grandfather took a ship from Poland to New York. He eventually made his way to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He soon sent for his two brothers and sister, who made their way there as well.
I don’t think he ever told them, as the saying goes, that the streets in America were “paved with gold.” But he did tell them life was much better here. Economic opportunities abounded. Antisemitism was minimal. The future brimmed with possibility.
History proved him right. Those Jews who came to American survived and prospered. Their fate contrasted sharply with those who stayed in Europe. 90 percent of Europe’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust and the Second World War.
After the war ended, Jewish Americans continued to thrive. Thousands of synagogues were constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. Jews moved into the middle and upper middle classes. Our population also grew, and by the mid 1960s Jews were five percent of American population. As this timeline of American Jewish history shows, Jews have succeeded in America.
In Jewish tradition 30 days marks the end of a formal period of mourning knowing as sheloshim. 30 days ago, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg lost her 47-year-old husband Dave Goldberg. Her children lost their father. The world lost a mensch.
Yesterday Sheryl took this opportunity to reflect on her experience. She wrote a lengthy, searing message. They moved me deeply. Here are some of its highlights and lessons:
1. Make Meaning: “When tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning…when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.”
2. Don’t Sugarcoat: “A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was ‘It is going to be okay.’
I just returned from a day of literary speed-dating. About 50 authors gathered in New York City, and each had two minutes to explain their book.
The ultimate goal was invitations to Jewish book festivals. While nervously waiting for my own presentation, I got to hear two-minute summaries of dozens of books. I loved it.
In listening to the different authors speak, I noticed two major trends.
In a recent article I referred frequently to the “Old Testament.” Someone immediately wrote and asked why I was using that “offensive” phrase.
“Old Testament,” he said, “implies that a New Testament supersedes and surpasses it.”
Some research revealed my reader is not alone in his thinking. The respected rabbi James Rudin has written, “I abhor the term Old Testament,” because it suggests “Judaism has been replaced by Christianity and that the New Testament is superior to the Old Testament.”
Is he right? Is “Old Testament” an abhorrent and offensive phrase? I don’t think so. The phrase Old Testament is not ideal. Yet, it is better than any of the alternatives.
This poem never fails to move me to tears. Written by Rabbi Jack Riemer and Sylvan Kamens, it has been translated into multiple languages and is often read at Jewish funeral services.
At the rising sun and at its going down, we remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn, we remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.
As long as we live, they too will shall live. For they are now a part of us, as we remember them.