Death and Adolescence Don’t Mix

This week I did something I’ve been dreading for a long time: I buried a 17-year-old.

In this case, I didn’t perform the funeral (that was done by another rabbi in another state), but the family plot was here in Portland, and so they needed a rabbi for the interment. It meant I had less contact with the family than I usually do for a funeral, and was less clear on the relationships and the background. I thought that would make me feel less connected, but I don’t think it did.

As opposed to most people, I’m fairly familiar with the what it looks like when you bury a loved one. I know about how much crying there will usually be, or at least the range of crying to expect. I don’t mean to sound callous, and I certainly don’t feel immune to the sadness and grief that accompany a funeral, but having been to 30 or  so funerals, one develops a certain sense of what is regular. This wasn’t regular.

The entire family was crying. Not shedding a few tears, but really crying. Most of the other folks who were there to support the family had tears in their eyes. This was a pain that tore at the soul. This was a pain that tore at my soul.

I have written before about my views of God, and why bad things happen to good people. My view tends to boil down to the idea that God is not a controlling deity who can just “fix things.” but is rather that part of the universe that can cause us to do good. Or is the universe itself, but without a true volition. This is my intellectual, and often spiritual belief in God. Events like burying a 17-year-old challenge this.

At the graveside, I found myself asking God, “why?’ I found myself thinking that just as adolescents feel immortal, perhaps they should be immortal. That they should not die. I found myself asking the Holy for an explanation, and trying to hold the Divine responsible. These are not reactions born of intellectual reason. Even as I asked them, I knew they implied a theology which is not my own. Yet I couldn’t stop myself from asking them.

Sometimes, the pain of the day is too much, and I need God to be more than God is. And I cry out to  God, because even if God cannot act to change what is, at least God can hear my pain. And I, perhaps, can feel a little better.

If you have adolescents, hug them. Remind them to have fun, but that there are behaviors that are too risky, even if they feel immortal. Driving too fast can be deadly. There are drugs which can kill you. There are many risks which will turn out okay most of the time, but once in a while, will kill you. And even if your kids won’t change their behavior to protect their lives, ask them to do it to protect all those who love them from their death. Please. This is pain no one should suffer.

Time to Get Back on the Writing Horse

It’s been a bit of a while since I’ve blogged. When I’ve taken a bit of a break, it always feels like I need to have something relevant to say when I begin again. Which means I wait longer to write. Which means whatever I say has to have even more meaning. Well, I’m breaking that cycle. I’m blogging, whether I have anything profound to say or not.

For me, writing is a muscle. The more I use it, the stronger it gets, the easier it is to use. The more I do it, the more enjoyable it is. I hear people talk about exercise in a similar way, though that’s never been my experience of it (though I do hold out hope that one of these days I’ll discover that I love exercise, and I’ve just been doing it wrong all these years). Writing, for me, is not simply about self-expression, rather, it is about figuring out what it is I need to express. This is not as solipsistic as it may sound. . .I write a blog with a keen awareness that there is an audience for which I am writing, and I do hope to entertain that audience. But at the end of things, writing, for me,  is about the process, and about the discovery.

Writing is a giant Rorscharch test. I start with an idea of where I’m going, but as I write I figure out where I’m going. I figure out what is on my mind. The good news (for you all, and I suppose for me, too) is that there is usually something on my mind. Eventually, I tend to have a point. Usually, that point has some relationship to where I started. Rarely is it what I expected.

My sermons work in roughly the same manner. I almost never write out my sermons fully, but work from outline. Sometimes the outlines are fairly detailed, including points and sub-points I want to make, texts I want to quote, specific wording I want to use. More often, my outlines look a bit different, a bit more like this:

“I am that I am” (Ex. 3:14)

  • Says God
  • Says Popeye
  • Popeye =? God

And from there I’m off and running. When I give the sermon, I’ll probably wind up discussing mysticism, the Divine within each of us (as represented by Popeye), and asking what spinach represents (prayer? confidence?). The exact nature of the sermon will be based partly on what seems to be most interesting to those listening, partly on what I discover I have to say at that moment. This could be a 5 minute sermon or a twenty minute sermon (depending on the time I have to work with. . .I usually know in advance how long I will speak). For me, this moment of discovering what I have to say, and sometimes even the struggle to make sure I have something worthwhile to say, is a large part of the joy of giving a sermon. Ideally, by the end, I’ve come back around to where I started.

In this blog post, I started with a title, “Time to Get Back on the Writing Horse.” I assumed I would be writing about trying to mount a horse with a literary bent. But it turns out that wasn’t the case at all. It turns out, I had something to say about why I write.

Rabbinic Nightmares

Like everyone else, rabbis have nightmaes.  We do, however, have our own special twist on some of them.

You know that dream where you’re sitting down to take a final exam in a class you forgot you signed up for, and didn’t attend all semester? Rabbis have their own special version of that dream. We dream that the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) have snuck up on us without us noticing somehow, and we’re standing in front of the congregation with no sermon. (I’m pretty sure other rabbis have this dream also). Last night, I got a new twist on it.

Over time, I’ve discovered that I’m pretty good speaking extemporaneously. I may spend hours, or days, planning what I’ll say, but I can actually do most of the talking without notes. And I can, if desperate, usually come up with a fairly coherent sermon on the spot. Therefore, the idea of standing before a congregation unprepared does not fill me with appropriate terror anymore. At least, so says my subsconscious.

Side note: One of my professors in rabbinical school used to quote his wife, who wrote children’s books, as getting to a point in the plot and then saying, “let’s make it worse,” meaning, let’s get the protagonists into deeper trouble. My subconscious was apparently taking notes.

So if standing unprepared in front of a congregation  is not adequately terrifying, how is the situation made worse? Yom Kippur falls on the same day as Christmas (by the way, this can’t happen), which means I’m holding services in some hotel in a beach community. I had to fly to get there, and for some reason was bringing my cat, Artemis with me. Except I left her on the plane when I changed planes in Cincinatti. Which completely freaked me out. But I didn’t realize this until I reached the hotel. I spend hours on the phone trying to figure out where she is, and chasing around the airport, at which point I realize I’m hours late for the services I’m supposed to lead. Not only that, but I’ve forgotten it’s Yom Kippur and had 3 cups of coffee (Yom Kippur is a fast, no food, no drinks). So I finally get to the chapel at the hotel, to a bunch of somewhat displeased congregants, who were wondering if I’d ever show up.

The little chapel in the hotel has prayerbooks, but they are all a mishmash of various differnt ones, so page numbers and wording will all be different. But the congregation all seems okay with that. They tell me that’s how they do it every year: I sh0uld just pick my favorite prayerbook and they will follow along in theirs. And wonders of wonders, they have the prayerbook I’m most familiar with. I’m feeling better again, because I can fake my way through the service. So I open up the prayerbook, and begin the first Yom Kippur prayer before I find my place, because I know the beginnning. Except, as I flip through, I realize I’m having a little trouble reading the Hebrew…and it doesn’t seem to be laid out the way I expect. In fact, I realize this must have been a very early hand written copy of this prayerbook, when it was in draft state (this is a prayerbook, by the way, which was composed in the last 15 years, and was never handwritten, but a word-processed manuscript would not have served the needs of my subconscious). So I had a lot of trouble navigating, and only then discovered that in this draft of the prayerbook, the prayer I was singing had been left out for theological reasons, and I’d reached the limits of my memory. Not only that, but certain congregants were correcting me in ever more disapproving tones.

To make matters worse, the congregation was getting bored and wanted to go to the beach, so I was trying to lead services while on the bus to the beach, which was distracting because the bus driver wasn’t stopping at all the stops, and people were getting annoyed with him, and just started jumping out the rear door at whatever point they wanted to get  off, even though the bus was moving at 30 miles an hour.

Fortunately, at about this point, my alarm went off.

I’m hoping you find this as humorous as I do, in retrospect. Otherwise, this is deeply self-indulgent navel-gazing in public, which could be fodder for another nightmare.

Why Bad Things Happen to Good People

One of the toughest parts of being a rabbi is that people sometimes turn to me looking for an answer to the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”

I know the answer to this question, by the way. The answer is that bad things happen to all people–it’s part of being human. That, however, is not really the question being asked. 

The question being asked is why does it seem that more than my fair share of bad stuff is happening to me? For that, I truly don’t have a satisfying answer, except to listen to the questioner’s troubles. And that is what they need, nine times out of ten. 

Learning that the best thing I can do for someone who is having a hard time is to listen–really hear what they are saying–to them, without trying to “fix” the problem, without trying to make them feel better, just to listen, was tremendously hard. We are taught that value comes from doing, from fixing. Yet the person with the problems knows we cannot fix them. They aren’t asking me to fix them. They want to unburden. Simply telling me about their problems, sharing them with me, lightens the load on them.

The corrolary of this, of course, is that I do take some of the load. Not as much as they give up, but I need some time to recover from their sadness or anguish. But it is important, and work I love–even if not work I enjoy. 

The question “why do bad things happen to good people” is not so much about theology, as it is a request for listening and help. It is a request that we validate the questioner’s experience of life as hard. It is a request that we be there for the person asking the question. 

When bad things happen to good people, good people are given the opportunity to be better people to those experiencing bad things. But in the end, bad things happen because we are human, and that’s what life is about. It’s also why good things happen to good people. It’s how we share these things with each other that really matters.

A Guest Post From Eva, about ME!!!

I wanted an outside view of the service on Friday night, and asked Eva to write a guest post about it. She, instead, focused on me. So, without further ado, here it is:

Normally I leave my thoughts in the comments section where they really belong, but this time I took advantage of David’s exhaustion to hijack his actual blog. The occasion is two-fold. The first is that David and I celebrated 10 years together. The second is that David just finished his first post-rabbinical school stint at a congregation. The combination has led me to reflect on the evolution of David into the person he is today.

I first met David in 1989 when he was a young, immature, and very argumentative freshman. We reconnected in 1998 when he had matured considerably (although he remains argumentative—which is alternatively both one of his strengths as well as a weakness). At that point in time he was heading off to rabbinical school and while I knew he had the intellectual chops to thrive, I did wonder a bit about how well he would connect with congregants.

At the end of David’s first year of rabbinical school I attended the school’s graduation ceremony and was incredibly impressed with the rabbis who were graduating. I assumed it was an exemplary class and left it at that. But I was wrong. Over the course of 5 graduations, I learned that rabbinical school was a transformational experience and that rabbinical school somehow turned people into rabbis.

By the time David reached his final year of rabbinical school, he too had gone through an impressive transformation. Part of it was through trial-by-fire with his student congregations, part of it was the self-reflection and personal development he gained through his education. By the time of his ordination, David was a rabbi for all intents and purposes. Well, except to himself.

When David graduated from rabbinical school, the congregational opportunities were pretty slim and we were really homesick for Portland. So we made the choice to return home with David picking up weddings, funerals and other life-cycle events as opportunities arose. David went through the identity crisis that every recent rabbinical graduate seems to go through, but he had the added challenge of being a freelance rabbi and therefore lacked the inherent validation that comes from being a congregation rabbi.

Fast forward 2 years. David was offered an opportunity to serve as interim rabbi for a congregation in Salem. He had already done some sub work for them previously and had liked them as a congregation, so he eagerly accepted the position. The position was fraught with challenges. David was facing a 55 mile commute to Salem (each way) 2-5 days a week, we had just started a business together and our schedules were now completely opposite each other.

Not too long after he started his new position, it became very clear that he had made the right decision. He would often come home and tell me about great conversations he had had or the progress of one of his students or even how a challenging meeting had reached a reasonable conclusion. When I made the (all too infrequent) trip to Salem with David, everyone was eager to tell me how much they loved having David as their rabbi and I enjoyed getting to respond that the feeling was mutual.

Unlike rabbinical school where I was able to attend David’s services regularly, I rarely made it to Salem because I was either completely exhausted and/or working. That made David’s farewell service all the more remarkable because this time I had missed the transformational process. What I saw on Friday night was that David had truly become a rabbi. At his ordination he had become a rabbi because the dean of the college said so. Over the past year David has become a rabbi because he can now recognize that is who he is. And there is a world of difference between the two.

I have watched David grow through three very challenging transitional periods in his life. He has used each one as an opportunity to grow and build on his strengths and try to address some of his weaknesses. You might say that given my love for David I am giving you a biased perspective.Given the tears on Friday night (both from David as well as many of his congregants), David’s transformational experience has been meaningful for everyone involved.

Sad Goodbyes: Leaving a Pulpit

Tonight is my “farewell service” with Temple Beth Sholom in Salem. I’ll be co-leading services with my successor and there is an Oneg Shabbat (dessert after the services) in my honor. I’ll be giving the sermon this evening, though it will be more a “thank you” than a sermon.

I’ve only been with the congregation for a year, but in that time I’ve come to feel so much a part of the community. I’ve been with community members in the hospital and at funerals. I’ve been with them at bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. I’ve counseled people looking for spiritual meaning, and people where the best I could do for them was tell them to go see a psychiatrist (and was later thanked for changing their lives). I’ve given sermons about Torah, and sermons about my life. I’ve become a part of the congregational community, and gained deep satisfaction from it.

I’ve also put 20,000 miles on the car, and I don’t know how much wear and tear on my body. I’ve been tired much of the year, trying to do two jobs at the same time. But being a pulpit rabbi this year has been a privelege and an opportunity for me to learn so much about myself.

Going into this year, I didn’t know whether I’d be a good congregational rabbi. Having done it, I know that I am good at it. I didn’t know if I’d like it: now I know that I do. It doesn’t mean I’ll be looking for another pulpit right away: that’s not the path of my life right now. But I do know that it’s an option I would look at seriously in the future.

It’s been a year, and it feels both longer and shorter. On the one hand, it feels like the year has flown by. On the other, it feels like I’ve been involved in the congregation forever, and it’s hard to remember a time before I was splitting my weeks between CubeSpace and Salem.

I leave the congregation knowing that I did the job I was hired to do, and that the congregation appreciates the job I did. I am very lucky to have had the chance to do work I am good at and enjoy. I am even more fortunate that those for whom I worked appreciated the work I did.

I will miss the congregation and I will miss the work. But it is time for me to move on, to give my successor room to work and make this his community. Yet I will visit, and this year will always be with me, having shaped who I am.

Transitions Suck

Transitions suck, which is why I am writing a blog post at 6:20 AM on a morning when my alarm is set for 8 AM. After about 2 hours of not sleeping, I decided to get up. I don’t know that I can blame my sleepnessness entirely on my upcoming transition out of Temple Beth Sholom, but I might give it a shot.

Over the next three to four weeks I will cease to be the rabbi of Temple Beth Sholom. I have been with the congregation for a year as interim rabbi, fulfilled my function, and will be moving back to full time at CubeSpace. I face this transition with extremely mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’ll be glad to leading a somewhat less chaotic existence, no longer splitting my time between Portland and Salem, between CubeSpce and the rabbinate. On the other hand, I’m very much going to miss working with the congregation.

I believe in better living through chemistry, and think that antidepressants are a good thing to help one through transitions. The ability to make change with the somewhat stabilizing influence of an antidepressant is one of the minor miracles of modern society. Nonetheless, change causes stress, sleepless nights and ideally provides an opportunity for reflection.

I look back over the last year, and am  struck by how far I’ve come as a rabbi. When I started in Salem, I was scared that I wouldn’t be a “good” rabbi. I’d never really done the congregational rabbinate, outside of a student pulpit, and wasn’t sure how I’d do, or whether I could really do the job. At the end of the year, I recognize that I’ve done a good job, and am delighted the congregation seems to agree with me. I’ve made a difference in people’s lives, and in their relationship to Judaism and spirituality. I’ve prepared the congregation well for my successor, creating a situation wherein he has a better chance of sucess.By pretty much any measure I might use, I feel like I’ve succeeded as a rabbi this year.

That being said, it doesn’t necessarily make transitioning out easier. In some ways, it makes the change harder. It is difficult to move away from doing something you are good at, and enjoy, even the change means you’ll have more time for something else you are good at and enjoy. It is difficult to leave the people I’ve grown close to over the last year, but part of my job as an interim rabbi is to get out of the way now that my time is done, and let my successor have a clean slate to work with, without me hanging around.

And so, today, I had down to Salem, recognizing that there are only 3 more Thursday when I will make this weekly pilgramage which has been so much a part of my life over the last year. And I’ll begin to try to clean up/out my office.

Edit: I finished writing this, and then went and read some of the blogs I read, and was reminded that as transitions go, mine isn’t so bad. I’ve been following the blog of a woman  who recently lost her husband, and has been blogging about it extensively. I’ve found her courage breathtaking, her suffering heartbreaking. The account begins here.