A Coming of Age Ritual

Somehow, I’ve been running pretty hard recently, and though, on paper, I should be getting enough sleep, I’m exhausted. But there’s a bat mitzvah coming up tonight, and I’m getting ready.

A bar or bat mitzvah is always a somewhat strange sort of Shabbat. The service is led mainly by the kids, but somehow that feels more stressful for me as the rabbi, rather than actually a day off. They always do fine (and I’m completely confident in the young lady who will be leading this evening), but I’m always sort of holding my breath through the entire service.

The coming of age ritual is celebratory, and it’s wonderful for the young adult, the congregation, and myself as rabbi and teacher. It’s a privilege to be part of it, but it’s not so much relaxing, and not spiritual as a prayer experience. It’s inspiring in terms of seeing a young man or woman taking their place in community, but I’m too aware of the performance aspect of prayer to pray with intention.

Nonetheless, I’m deeply excited, and will enjoy it. I will also enjoy getting home tomorrow afternoon, at which point I get to collapse.

Life’s Not Fair

As part of my rabbinic work, I collaborate (using the term somewhat loosely) with students who are about to become bar or bat mitzvah. They are approaching the age of 13, which means one of the phrases I hear relatively frequently is, “that’s not fair.” This group of kids (of whom I am very fond) is particularly sharp, but also very strong willed. Thus, I am occasionally informed that something is unfair at times that a more timid individual might refrain.

Case in point: I have the students up on the bima with me during services, to help them learn how to lead. This week, I asked them to individually begin to read sections on their own, or to lead the congregation in reading. And I was informed, in the middle of services, nay, in the middle of a specific prayer, that I was unfairly distributing the parts, and that the student who felt this discrimination had already read more than some of her compatriots. My response at the time was, “life’s not fair.”

In thinking about it later, I realized just how true my statement was.

Life’s not fair. My students, and I, are, by virtue of having been born in the United States at the end of the 20th century, afforded a standard of living higher than almost anyone born in any other time or place. We do not need to fear famine. Most disease is treatable. We live in outrageous luxury. Which gives us time to complain about the fairness of life–or the lack thereof.

I fully recognize that this is not the answer to my students’ complaint. Nonetheless, the realization that life isn’t fair, and that I am the beneficiary of the unfairness is uncomfortable for me. It is something to struggle with. It is somehow much more comfortable to say, “life’s not fair” when one is being disadvantaged by that unfairness than when one is benefiting from it. While I am benefiting from the unfairness, I somehow feel obliged to make the world more fair. . .though I am no more to “blame” for my advantage than I would be for my disadvantage. But being advantaged does give me some responsibility.

Because I am unfairly born with a larger proportion of resources than are my due, I do have the ability to effect more change than one born without those resources. I have the education to make my voice heard. I have the opportunity to teach my students that they are in fact, correct, that life isn’t fair, and we all need to work to change that.

Talking about People

 Three times in the last week I’ve had the occasion to speak about people. During a wedding, I described the relationship between the couple: what made them special as a couple, and unique as individuals. During a funeral, I gave a eulogy, describing the life of the deceased and what gave meaning to his life. During a bar mitzvah, I described the special gifts of the young men, focusing on how those gifts may serve them and others in the future. In each case, at least one person came up afterwards and informed me that I’d gotten that description just perfect.

When someone tells me I’ve gotten that right, it feels great. I work hard to try to find the heart of the people I’m working with, and sometimes I’m not sure how well I’m succeeding. I see what I think is the important parts, but do others see them as important? Is it even a side of them that they show to people other than the rabbi? Almost always the answer is, “yes,” but I am nervous enough about it that I find it wonderful to be told I got it right.

What I love most about the process is the ability to reflect  back at people a vision of their loved ones. This is a vision which they recognize, but which highlights people’s best, and hopefully, most central qualities. I help all involved see the person or people I’m describing in a way that is both true and meaningful. I’ve captured the essence of the person, and put it into a context which makes that essence good and important. When I get it right, it is a powerful experience for all involved, especially including me.

What I’ve realized in the last week is that all three of these lifecycle events, wedding, funeral, bar mitzvah, are  fundamentally about love. Wedding is obviously about love of the couple for each other, but it is also about the love of those gathered for the couple. And that is the part of love that is present in all the events. A funeral is largely about the love of the survivors for the deceased (and of the deceased for the survivors). A bar mitzvah is about a family’s love for the young adult. Love tends to be the central aspect of lifecycle events, and part of why they are so much fun, so rewarding and so stressful.

On another topic entirely: Daylight Savings.
I feel like I’m really getting the first morning of daylight savings time experience. I got up this morning at 7 and it was still dark. A beautiful drive down to Salem. Pretty much clear skies, with an occasionally stunning view of Mount Hood in the distance. Very nice sunrise. As I got closer to Salem, there was some scattered low fog (really more like a ground hugging mist), until I was in Salem, and then hit some true fog. A very pretty morning.

I’m getting ready for a full day, teaching Sunday school, teaching adult Hebrew, meeting with some folks about a wedding. I definitely feel like there’s a little less pressure on my schedule now that the Bar Mitzvah is done.

Is this Shabbat?

I’m getting ready for my weekend, which includes shabbat. In this case, that includes a double bar mitzvah at services tonight and Saturday morning. You might think this would mean less work for the rabbi, since the bar mitzvah boys will be leading much of the service. Somehow, however, the anxiety of being the cheerleader for those leading the service outweighs the reduction in workload from actually leading the service.  I know they’ll do fine, but it always is a little bit stressy for everyone involved.

The preparation is largely done, though I am still polishing the two sections of Torah I’ll be reading tomorrow morning. I have my “sermons” (really more like speeches to the young men) ready for tonight.

For Sunday, I’m beginning an adult Hebrew class.  I’m putting together my own curriculum and materials for the class.  This will either work really well or really poorly (or something in between). The basic idea is that I’m going to be teaching vocabulary in a less systematic way than formal language instruction normally would, with the emphasis on words that come up frequently in prayers. This week will largely be about separating out the prefixes and suffixes from words, and a few very basic words.

Even on a shabbat when I’m working, I prefer to head into it with a feeling of mindfulness, that I feel like is missing this week. Somehow, this feels more like, “once more into the breach…” than focusing on each moment and aspect as it arrives. However, shabbat is still a good 6 hours off or so, and perhaps I’ll have transformed by then.

In the meantime, a photo from yesterday:  driving-dog.jpg

Back in the Swing

I am beginning to be recovered from last weekend. I feel significantly more functional than I had been, which is good because tomorrow begins another full weekend. This time, a bar mitzvah Friday night and Saturday, followed by religious school and adult education on Sunday. But it’s not nearly as draining as it was.

Things are adequately back to normal that I’ve had some time to do some knitting. My primary project at the moment is working on Eva’s socks, which  are good, but a little bit fussy. I’m working from the toe up, and the top of the foot as a k6p3 ribbing pattern that I’m going to turn into a spiral once I hit the leg. At this point I’m about half way up the foot or a little more.

These socks have taken a while because I had to rip them  out the first time once I was about 3″ in because I didn’t like the fabric: it was a bit too tight, and thought it might stand up on its own without a foot in it. That seemed bad.  So I upped my needle size from 00 to 0, and I like this fabric much better.

This pattern is basically my own, and once I have it a bit better established, I will probably go ahead and post it (assuming I like it once it’s done).

In other news, I’m distinctly pleased to be feeling human again, to have a little bit of time for knitting again, and to have the brain power to be knitting something other than straight stockinette.  I’m even back to using polysyllabic words.

I’m Toast

I’ve been running too hard the last week. Over the course of the weekend I led 2 shabbat services for the congregation, performed a marriage, taught Sunday school, had a ritual practices committee meeting, tutored folks for a bar mitzvah next week, conducted a funeral, led a shiva minyan and drove about 400 miles in the process. I’m tired.

On the other hand, I feel very fulfilled as a rabbi. This isn’t a pace I can keep up, but I feel like I’m really making a difference in people’s lives, which is why I became a rabbi.

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A photo of the driving this weekend, which for the most part was pretty bad. Lots of rain, some incredibly thick fog, lots of darkness. Have I mentioned I’m tired?

A Whirlwind Tour Through Life

There are weeks when my attention is more on CubeSpace, and there are weeks when my attention is more on the congregation (there are also weeks when my focus is more on knitting, but we won’t talk about that now). This is very much a “rabbinic week.” I am simultaneously preparing for the death of a congregant, a bar mitzvah and a wedding (the wedding isn’t actually members of the congregation, but definitely falls into the category of rabbinic work).

Moving between these three lifecycle events is a bit of a challenge. They, needless to say (and yet I’m going to say it anyway), have three very different moods, and the rabbinic role is different in all three. For a family awaiting a death, the rabbi is present to offer solace and comfort. For boys becoming bar mitzvah (it would also be true for girls, but in this case it happens to be boys), my role is more that of coach and teacher. For a couple about to be married, I serve as counselor and master of ceremonies, helping ensure that the wedding comes off as they want it to and that they are able to be focused on what matters when the day arrives.

Each of these three events are enormously important occasions in the history of their respective families. These are, literally, once in a lifetime events. It is vital that I bring an awareness of that to my conversations with families. At the same time, part of my role is to be able to say, “what you are feeling is normal,” based on the fact that I am in close contact with each of these events several times a year. I attend 5 – 10 weddings a year. Perhaps half as many funerals, and a far more variable number of bar or bat mitzvah celebrations. My role at these events is not that of the mourner, or the bride or groom, nor the young adult entering the Jewish community, but to be deeply empathetic with those people, and to lead them through it.

Which brings me back to this week. Trying to shift gears so quickly between joy and sadness is confusing. The one constant between events is that they are stressful. But I feel like I’m beginning to experience some emotional disjuntion. Not necessarily in a bad way, but in a way that highlights the emotions of each events.

Being present at lifecyle events is one of the reasons I became a rabbi. It is one of the most rewarding parts of what I do. When multiple events coincide, as they have this week, the rewards are highlighted, but I’m also much more aware of the potential for becoming emotionally drained. I am not yet running on empty. I cannot imagine officiating at a funeral without grieving with the family, or a wedding without celebrating. The real question is, what do I look like the day after. I guess we’ll find out next week.