Accompanying Others on Their Sacred Journeys-The Life of a Rabbi

Birth is a beginning, 

And death a destination;

But life is a journey,

A going – a growing

From stage to stage. (by Alvin Fine)

“Death is a destination….” My text message ‘pinged’ at 2:30 am: “I just received a call from hospice that mother has passed.” I quickly woke up. If my friend and congregant was sending me a text at 2:30 am, it was ok to phone her back right away.

J’s mother was 97 years old. She had lived a long life. J was an only child and now it was up to her and her husband to make all the arrangements. We talked about what she wanted and needed to do. And we made plans to get together the next day.

Hands from a well-lived life.
Hands from a well-lived life.

The funeral was a graveside service with only family and close friends present. But the shiva was filled with family, friends and so many loved ones who came to support J, to share memories, stories and offer condolences. The house was filled to overflowing until almost 1:00 am.

It was truly a cathartic process for J, who felt embraced, strengthened and loved by her community and family.

“Birth is a beginning…” While I was planning the funeral for J’s mother, my good friends were anxiously awaiting the arrival of their baby who was one week overdue. He finally made his appearance as his friends and family rejoiced from around the world!

New mom, new dad and new baby feet. (Photo credit: G. Carimi).
New mom, new dad and new baby feet. (Photo credit: G. Carimi).

I was invited to officiate at his “Naming Ceremony” to be held at his grandparent’s home in Madison, Wisconsin (I am also friends with the baby’s grandparents). The family’s cantor, who officiated at the new dad’s Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation and I – who am the new dad’s first rabbi as an adult – were to co-officiate together. The baby’s aunt participated in the ceremony from Israel via Skype.

One day after the Shiva for J’s mother, I drove to Madison and we welcomed baby A into the Covenant of the Jewish people. His parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and aunt promised to love and nurture him and raise him in the traditions of our people. They wished him a life of Torah (learning), Chuppah (loving relationships) and Ma’asim Tovim (deeds of lovingkindness) as we bestowed upon him his Hebrew name, surrounded by friends, family and community from near and far.

From childhood to maturity

And youth to age.

From innocence to

awareness

And ignorance to knowing;

From foolishness to discretion

And then perhaps to wisdom.

From weakness to

strength

Or strength to

weakness –

And, often, back again.

From health to sickness

And back, we pray, to health again. (Alvin Fine)

“From health to sickness…” My text message ‘pinged’ again in the middle of the night at 1:41 am in between the death of J’s mother and the birth of G’s baby boy. “I have sad news to tell you. My mother-in-law had a stroke and then was quickly diagnosed with leukaemia. That’s not the worst part. She has bleeding in the brain and they don’t know if they can save her.”

 ….”and back, we pray, to health again.” The family didn’t want me to visit, because as she became lucid, they thought it would scare her if she saw me – her rabbi – at the hospital. She didn’t know how bad it was. She has now – thankfully – turned a corner and the worst is over. They are thinking that she will get through the immediate crisis. I am staying in touch several times a day by text and phone. As soon as the family is ready, I will visit. (I also have bronchitis, so a hospital visit at this time is not advisable).

..Life is a journey

A sacred pilgrimage 

Made stage by stage

From birth to death

to life everlasting. (Alvin Fine)

Such is the life of a rabbi. As each of us makes our own journey along the path of life, our Jewish tradition teaches us that it is our obligation to be present for each other on this journey: supporting each other, guiding each other and caring for each other.

My many years of rabbinical experience have taught me that the greatest privilege and weightiest challenges of the rabbinate are multifold: to help every individual find meaning and comfort at times of joy and sadness, to enable people to find a sense of k’dusha ­– the sacred – in the everyday, ordinary acts in which we participate, and finally to work to make our synagogues places of meaning, connection and purpose. It has always been my hope that I can point to the sacred potential in each moment that we experience along our life’s journey.

Whenever I visit a patient in a hospital, help parents welcome a new child into our Jewish tradition, connect with our Jewish youth and engage them in words of Torah, share in the joy of a wedding and hold the hand of someone who has suffered a loss – I am affirming why I chose to become a rabbi.

Life is a journey

A sacred pilgrimage