In the small room, the family drifted around aimlessly, bumping into things, and each other, like pinballs in slow motion. The coffin made them nervous and agitated. No one knew how to acknowledge that their mother’s body lie in that box. And no one could ignore it. They were not ready to say good-bye, and I had to help them begin this process.
I asked the family to gather into a circle around the coffin. We gripped hands and said a prayer. After a few minutes, the grip relaxed. Hands began to stroke the box the way a non-musician might stroke a grand piano, afraid of leaving fingerprints, afraid of making a discordant noise, but drawn to its beauty all the same. Then one of the adult children began to caress the head of the coffin and murmur a lullaby. I remembered him mentioning at the intake that this was how his mother had helped him fall asleep as a child. We all knew that this was his way of putting her to rest now.
The night before, I had set up a picture of the deceased beside my computer. (I always ask for a photograph. I think back on how many faces have been beside my computer, silently overseeing their own eulogies.) The woman in this photo is in a sweat suit, sunlight and wind whipping her white hair into a glittering meringue. She seems to me like an aged pixie calling from another world, “Catch me if you can!” She is laughing at my efforts to capture her life in a few chosen words.
“Who are you?” I ask the picture.
“Who are you?” the picture seems to ask back.
As a rabbi, I enter people’s lives at pinnacle, profound, and often private moments, and each time I am both amazed and embarrassed. Amazed at the beauty of people’s spirits, and although I am invited, embarrassed at my intrusion. I think of how many times I have stood underneath a marriage canopy, watching as the bride walks down the aisle. I glance at the people sitting in the pews, seeing various expressions wash over their faces – pride, joy, envy, memory. Couples lean into each other and interlace fingers. All at once, the bride and groom are before me. Before the ceremony, I had seen the bride in her curlers, or I had given the groom a bobby pin from my hair to keep his yarmulke in place. I have only shared a thimbleful of their lives, but I am there, this close, as they leap into destiny.
All holy moments make us tremble and feel a little uncomfortable, but especially when we find ourselves caught in someone else’s holy moment. Have you ever been in a restaurant and overheard someone sobbing her eyes out? You want to rush over and comfort her, but you are also afraid to get too close because you are strangers. Will she lash out at you? Will she tell you too much? And if she spills her broken heart, will you know what to do with the pieces? You are amazed by the depth of her sorrow, and embarrassed to be so near. In my career I walk into those moments every day.
Once, I commented to a friend that I’d never been a bridesmaid. She joked, “Never a bridesmaid, always a rabbi!” Her joke was very insightful. Even when my heart flutters for a couple, I am never the bridesmaid in these moments. When I burst into tears driving away from a funeral, I am not the mourner. When I smooth someone’s forehead on his sickbed and sing, or cradle an eight day old baby and bless him, I am not a relative or friend. I stand at the gate and facilitate their passage. I fold up the wisdom of four thousand years for them, carefully, like origami, into simple teachings, that they can take with them and draw upon when needed.
My role is similar to the role of a lighthouse. A lighthouse doesn’t choose the way for the ship, it illumines many ways. The lighthouse reminds the captain that he or she is not alone on this vast, dark sea, that his or her life is meaningful, even in the fathomless night. The ships are not looking for me, they are looking for the shore. This is their journey, not mine. In fact, the lighthouse doesn’t really go anywhere! At the end of the ceremony, the bride and groom dash away, the wedding party recedes, and I am left standing under the canopy like a jilted rabbi. Abandoned, but overcome with vicarious hopefulness, I cannot help but jump up and down and cheer the ships as they set out into the mist…
“Who are you?” the pixie in the photograph repeats. I look at myself. I’m wearing flannel pajamas with little hearts. I can hear the television in the bedroom. My husband is probably asleep, but he leaves it on to make me feel as if I am not the last one awake, all alone with the ghost. Over the baby monitor I hear the baby sucking his pacifier.
Who am I to be summarizing her life? Me, who loves Shabby Chic fabric and Turkey Hill ice cream, who secretly longs to wear neon boas and Betsy Johnson minis, who is petrified of noises in the night, who cries at commercials and pounds the steering wheel to Nirvana. Who am I to step into people’s lives at the precise moment when their emotions are the most exposed?
A couple of verses from the Book of Samuel help me overcome my self-doubt: “They took two cows and harnessed them to the cart with the Ark…[The people] looked up and saw the Ark, and rejoiced…they split up the wood of the cart and presented the cows as a burnt offering up to God.” I identify with those cows! Legend has it that everywhere they went, people rejoiced. Soon, the cows started thinking that everyone was rejoicing because of them!
“We must be the greatest cows in the world!” they thought. In the end, of course, the cows are slaughtered. This story reminds me every time I walk into someone else’s sacred moment that it is not really me that is invited, but what I represent. No matter how many intricately spun words I share, it is not about me, but the mystical, meaningful, celestial tradition I happen to be dragging along.
I hear the baby crying. It is a relief to stop writing the eulogy and hold him in my arms. Sometimes I have trouble discerning the rabbi-me from the rest-of-me. When I pray, a question creeps into my mind: Am I really praying, or am I modeling prayer for my congregation? The same doubt often afflicts me when I interact with my family. Am I really a good mother and wife? Or am I modeling family interaction for my community?
Being clergy means giving up a certain level of privacy, similar to public office. The time when I most felt my private life and my public life collide was when I was pregnant. While I would sermonize on matters of the spirit, my big belly gave its own silent sermon on corporeality. My belly exposed me as not only a spiritual guide, but as a sexual being. My talk was all heaven, while my body was all earth!
However, pregnancy did anchor my philosophy in real life. Without an anchor, belief becomes like a helium balloon, soaring until it pops. To be a “spiritual person” is to recognize the sacred in the mundane, and to consciously elevate the commonplace to a level closer to divine. In spirituality, nothing is routine. Tying your shoe is infused with meaning, drinking a glass of water is reason for blessing, and a walk in the park is filled with radical amazement. Because of ‘mundane’ diapers, breast pumps, and teething biscuits, I have become more aware of tiny miracles. I’ve learned to reconcile philosophy with fact, high ideals with highchairs. Motherhood has certainly made me a better rabbi.
But does being a rabbi prevent me from being a better mother? One day our son will be old enough to challenge me on this, and, to be perfectly honest, I am terrified!
He will say to me, “Mom, you teach thousands of people the importance of holidays, and yet you are rarely home to celebrate with us! You teach people how to say grace after meals, and yet, because of your classes and meetings, we rarely have dinner together! You talk about family, yet you spend more time at the synagogue than with yours!”
Sometimes I take the baby to work with me. He sits on my hip while I tell stories to the preschool. He will come to know these stories well. He will also know that the stories I tell him at bedtime are made up only for him and no one else. No matter what I represent to anyone else, to him I don’t represent anything. I am just me…with all of my fears, insecurities and love. As I lay him in his crib, I realize that as vulnerable as he seems to me, it is I who am totally vulnerable to him.
I print out the eulogy, turn off the television in the bedroom, and climb into bed. My husband is fast asleep. The mantra of his breath soothes me.
Sometimes people ask me if it has been challenging being a female rabbi. It seems very natural to me. Historically, women have been assigned the role of homemaker, and in many ways, a rabbi is a homemaker for an entire community, making people feel safe, loved, guided, challenged, and nourished in body, mind, and spirit. Women have also been associated with “mystery,” and to me, the goal of any organized religion is familiarizing the mysterious. The first woman to be ordained as a rabbi was Sally Priesand in 1972. I am grateful to her, and to the liberal Jewish movements, for the opportunity to be true to my calling.
I believe everyone has a calling. I have always felt that being a rabbi is mine. My parents were not religious, but they taught me that there is hidden beauty everywhere. I grew up in an artist’s home, and in many ways, art is the same as religion. Art is the result of our interpreting, wrestling, and loving the creation around us. I learned the principles of art from my parents, and followed them down a different path.
In the morning, after the coffin is lowered, the family shovels dirt into the grave. I blink away a tear. Maybe it is fatigue from a long night. Maybe it is empathy. Maybe it is a sudden wave of recognition of my own mortality that moves me. I think of my husband and baby, waving good-bye in their thermal underwear. I notice the grandchildren of the pixie linking arms. I look at all the headstones dotting the slopes. When I am no longer amazed and embarrassed by these moments, I will no longer be a rabbi.