Let’s start with something uplifting from a friend’s Facebook page:
If you are sad today, lift your heart with the words of R. Nathan ben Naphtali Herz: “The whole world is nothing more than a singing and dancing before God. Everyone is a singer and every letter of the Torah a musical note.”
Now to the topic at hand. It’s been a week full of dying as well as living. Yes, I know, people are dying all the time. But usually we’re lucky enough that we don’t deal with death on a daily basis. This week, my life was touched by three deaths.
One touched us all — Maurice Sendak died at the age of 83. A nice Jewish boy by birth, he didn’t believe in God or an after life, but he sure as hell believed in the power of the imagination to take us virtually anywhere. We’re all mourning in our own ways — I went out and bought Where the Wild Things Are. (A link to a fascinating obit about a complicated man: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/09/books/maurice-sendak-childrens-author-dies-at-83.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all).
At the far end of the spectrum, one of the deaths touched only a few — Calcifer, a 4-year-old Siberian Husky, died unexpectedly in his sleep. The youngest in a house of four Huskies, Cal was a gentle giant who had an uncanny way of attracting people to him. People simply loved him. My kids are devastated. They’re mourning a painful loss.
Somewhere in the middle was a woman who died at the age of 57. I didn’t know her. I got an urgent call on Thursday afternoon saying that a young woman in hospice had just been extubated and told she’d die within two hours. When they offered her a priest or minister, she asked for a rabbi. They couldn’t find a real one, so they called me.
The doctor was wrong — she lived until Tuesday night. As my mom says, “in for a penny, in for a pound,” which in my case meant that I visited with her and the family as often as I could (remember, I was officiating at the b’not mitzvah over the same weekend).
She was beloved. Her hospital room was like Grand Central Station. People came by the carload to say goodbye.
I think there was a little confusion about why she asked for a rabbi, since no one in the family has belonged to a synagogue in decades, and they told me — incessantly — that she was spiritual, but not religious. Well, she asked for a rabbi, so I came, and ministered to her as she died and to her family as they sat waiting for her to die.
Yesterday, I got a phone call from a woman in Rhode Island who introduced herself as the Celebrant of the memorial service and invited me to participate. She wanted me to lead a special interpretation of the mourner’s kaddish that the Celebrant had written herself. I asked, what’s special about your interpretation? And she answered that she’d taken God out.
If you’ve never read the mourner’s kaddish, look it up and you’ll find that it does not mention death. It’s all about praising God. Let me be clear — it’s ALL about God. (I’ll save a full discussion about it for another day).
I sputtered and stuttered a little, mentioned that it’s kind of hard to have a mourner’s kaddish without God, and was reduced to confused silence when she informed me that it’s really about love, not God, so it was easy to do. I finally said that I’d have to think about it.
Twelve hours later she called back and — thank goodness I let it go to voice mail — disinvited me from the “celebration.” She even went so far as to say that they’d moved it to another location; I guess they’re afraid I’ll crash the party and do something Jewish.
I will not tell you what I said as I deleted the voice message in mid-disinvitation. Let’s just say it was colorful and pretty pissed off. I imagine this is why so many rabbis are wary of unaffiliated “spiritual” people, who turn their backs on Judaism but suddenly turn back in times of stress. It’s not the turning back that I resent. It’s that they want a rabbi but they don’t want Jewish.
I don’t begrudge the family their mourning. I’m just glad they’re doing it without me. On the other hand, I’ll be happy to say mourner’s kaddish with my daughters as they mourn their beloved family member.
Why did I include the word living in the title of this blog post? Because of the first paragraph. Rabbi Herz was correct: “The whole world is nothing more than a singing and dancing before God. Everyone is a singer and every letter of the Torah a musical note.”