L’Chaim! : A Shabbat Teaching by Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk – Friday September 27, 2013

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This post on “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple is excerpted from the remarks of Rabbi Robert Nosanchuk at Shabbat worship on Friday, September 27, 2013. He spoke about his internship supervisor when he was in rabbinical school, Rabbi Chaim Stern z’l, and the influence of Rabbi Stern on his understanding of Jewish prayer, rituals, mourning, loss and renewal. He also introduced: Day by Day: Reflections on Themes of The Torah from Literature, Philosophy and Religious Thought by Rabbi Chaim Stern, which is the subject of the upcoming year’s study in the Wednesday morning Torah class, co-taught by Rabbi Caruso and Rabbi Nosanchuk, each week at 7:30a.m.- 8:30a.m. in the Fairmount Temple Lelyveld Center for Jewish Learning.  All are welcome to come and learn.

Rabbi Samuel N. Gordon writes of the feeling we have when we sit by a chair that at our dining room tables, our synagogues, and even beneath our Sukkot, a chair that used to be filled but which is empty now that our friend or our parent or our teacher has died. He writes that: “their chair is empty, but we know they continue to be seated among us…Their teachings, their advice, and wisdom do not die with them. They are still present to us and alive through us…[And] they will always merit a place at our tables, for they have earned a place in our hearts.” (Excerpted from Grief in Our Seasons: A Mourner’s Kaddish Companion, (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998), p. 35.

It is a beautiful image, you know, that those we miss still sat at our side. This week’s celebration of Simchat Torah helps to press that point to us. For our rituals at Simchat Torah place the tribute of remembrance to the death of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy immediately in the chair next to the celebration of renewal and life-affirmation found in the opening stanzas of creation in Genesis.

Right after we complete our reading of the eulogy at the end of Torah, describing the uniqueness of Moses and his prophecy, we gird ourselves for returning again to the beginning of all life and light on earth. That’s not so easy to do. It simply isn’t a leap we can make so quickly in the losses we experience in life, from death to life renewed? I don’t think so. It certainly hasn’t borne out that way in the patterns I’ve observed in the rabbinate. Although we pray it to be so, that sense of comfort that comes from feeling the continued blessing of those who have died doesn’t always emerge quickly. Not always, but most of the time, it takes time and patience.

First thing is, we simply miss our loved ones, and only over time do we realize that grieving is a very deliberate process. Our grief happens to us in stages and, in fact, we aren’t in control of the pace. Sometimes it moves quickly and other times very slow. This is mirrored as well in the ritual of Simchat Torah. After our conclusion of reading Torah but before we begin again, Cantor Sager pauses turns to the congregation and leads us all in the singing aloud of the phrase: Chazak Chazak V’nitchazek. Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another. At my son’s Bar Mitzvah just a few weeks ago, our guest artist in residence led us in the singing of his version of Chazak Chazak, just as the Torah freshly read by a new Jewish adult, was lifted and prepared for its return to the ark. An ending of one stage of his life and the beginning of a new stage were punctuated in song by the reminder of the community’s role in strengthening him for that new part of his life.

I felt the at that moment – that it signaled the need for all of us to consider the process it takes to go from an ending of childhood to the beginning of adulthood, an accounting that it doesn’t happen instantaneously… it requires a community to support that young man, to paraphrase Dan Nichols lyric, a community coming from near and far, who joins in the refrain to his song, and thus together we  feel strong. Surely this mirrors the way the first family of the Jewish people felt when it dealt with loss mid-way through Genesis. They needed time, patience, and understanding from within themselves and within their community to make a transition.

In just a few weeks, one of our upcoming B’nai Mitzvah students will read from Torah about the sudden moment in Torah when Sarah, the mother of the Jewish people, dies, and we see how her family humanly responded, vulnerable to the various stages of grief that set upon us when we lose someone who we cared for and who taught us so much in their life.

The first thing the Torah tells us is a recording of the years of Sarah’s lifetime, one hundred and twenty seven. And it is worth noting that for of all the righteous women in our tradition, her death is the only one whose age at death is cited in the Torah. A midrash explains that we hear distinctively of her age because of the fullness of her lifetime. In other words, Sarah truly knew how to live and appreciate all the time she was given on earth.

But then the Torah proceeds to remind us of the stages of grief that were followed by her surviving relatives! We are thus taught in Torah to find that pathway that fortifies our strength when we lose someone important to us. And the Torah guides us in finding just such a pathway. First, after Sarah dies, Abraham hurts. He learns the hard way that one has to take the time he needs in order to grieve. It’s not clear how long it takes for Abraham. We don’t know whether it is a few days or a few hours or the seven days of shiva or even longer. But in that first stage of shock, Abraham had to both mourn and lament Sarah’s death, two separate actions.

There was clearly both an inner grief and a need to express his pain openly. Only after Abraham had completed these first stages of mourning and lamenting could he return again to the tasks of life. Then the Torah teaches, Vayakom Avraham Me’al p’nei Meto… Abraham rose up again, and turned away from the face of his beloved one, in order to set himself to the task of procuring a burial site for her.

Finally, only after burying his wife, Abraham was able to tend to the needs of his son Isaac. The main task in assuring the welfare of Isaac was clear – Abraham had to find a bride for Isaac. So he urgently sent a top lieutenant to go and find a wife for Isaac. It’s as if he knew that neither he nor Sarah would find rest until Isaac’s future was assured through a wife’s love and the creation of a partnership in a new family, headed by Isaac and Rebecca.

I think we might all do well to heed this caring and deliberate process when pain and loss touch our lives. We have to remember that our pain will not disappear overnight. First, we must let ourselves hurt, then we see to it that our loved ones and friends who die are appropriately buried with honor and care. Only then do we aim to honor them in our ritual life and in all the ways we continue to live.

The process of Jewish mourning rituals begins with what we do immediately upon hearing someone has died. We ritually demonstrate our brokenness of heart by rending a garment or cutting a keriah cloth worn during shiva. Most modern Jews realize that such a ritual of grief and lamentation must occur for the death of a parent or spouse, sibling or child. But our tradition adds several others for whom we should mourn as openly as we do these close relatives.

The medieval rabbi Moses Maimonides teaches that “in the same way that a man tears his garment in memory for his father or his mother, thus he is required to tear for his teacher that taught him Torah, and for the prince, for the Head of the Beit Din, the Jewish court of law.

In other words, we are to treat honored teachers in our life as mournfully as we do the loss of our parents. (Rabbi Moses Ben Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Shofetim: Hilchot Evel: The Laws of Mourning, Perek Tesha: Chapter 9) Other occasions on which we should mourn openly are when we hear of the tragic death of a large community (like those who were murdered on September 11), or for the defaming of God’s name (which you might also say happened on September 11) or for a Torah that has been burnt, for the [destruction] of the cities of Judea, for Jerusalem or for our Sanctuary.” (Ibid.) I believe this lengthy list is our tradition’s way of teaching us that the Jew must become well acquainted with the valley of shadows. We have to be ready to experience and ultimately come to terms with grief because we know it will happen to us. Through the performance of rituals, we slowly return to life, hopefully with a sense of blessing from those who have died.

A story. I was in my third year of rabbinical school, and I had just been placed in a new rabbinical position. I was to serve as the rabbinical intern for the Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, New York. The position involved considerable time on the pulpit, for it was a congregation where worship was considered the central component of modern Jewish expression. It should come as no surprise that worship and liturgy took such a central place in Chappaqua. Its rabbi for the past thirty-three years had been Rabbi Chaim Stern, the reform movement’s chief liturgist. Chaim wrote the Gates of Prayer and the Gates of Repentance, numerous prayerbooks for the Reform Jewish movement in England, and one of his students, Rabbi Elyse Frishman wrote Mishkan Tefila, which we are praying from tonight.

Yet working alongside Chaim Stern on the pulpit was kind of surreal for me, most of the time, given his general tone of modesty and humility alongside his very prominent stature in the worldwide Jewish community. For here was a rabbi who had written the liturgies from which tens of thousands have prayed since the late sixties in Great Britain and the early seventies in the United States!

I remember early in my position in Chappaqua, Chaim had assigned me to a prominent sermon on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath in between the high holidays. The truth is– he had never even heard me preach a sermon, and just under the surface showed he was just slightly more nervous about my sermon than I was. But I had heard that Chaim had a good sense of humor and I decided to test it. He asked me if everything was all set for my sermon and I said it was, but “could I try out the beginning for him?” When he agreed, I proceeded to say, “Our Lord Jesus teaches us in the New Testament…”

Now if you could have only seen his jaw drop open! But then he ultimately let out a laugh that was contagious for both of us and it sealed the deal – and we quickly became fast friends and colleagues. His sense of humor, his love of the Jewish people, all of his gifts as a poet and teacher, all were a warm and engaging model for me in my development as a rabbi. In the two years that I served in Chappaqua, Chaim kept in close touch with me as to how my teaching and working assignments were going. He and the other clergy leaders at the congregation were always careful to let me fly on my own and to learn on my own to negotiate some of the rough challenges of congregational life.

But being around Chaim and talking issues or ideas over with him always settled me down. Both as a scholar and as a trusted advisor, I spent time with him as I researched my thesis. I would daresay that without his help – both at steering my research and helping me to calm down when I panicked, I might still be toiling away on my thesis at HUC in New York!

In his own silly way, he called me the “Reverend Doctor Nosanchuk” and when he asked me how my son was, he called him “the brat.” You know I must have been close to Chaim to let him call both my son and I by alternate names. But he and I are both the youngest children in our families. I was the youngest of three, and he had eight older siblings, so we each had our share of being called names. However, I was especially honored when Chaim gave to me free run over inheriting much of the library in his office when he retired, and when he composed a special blessing in honor of my ordination, reciting it from the bimah.

I was only a few weeks into my first rabbinical position in Baltimore when I got a call from Chappaqua, and they told me that after just a couple of months of suffering, Chaim had passed away. A brain tumor required chemo and radiation, had taken out his resistance and he was sufficiently weakened so that a pneumonia came and took him from all of us. I had just been talking with my wife Joanie about how grateful I was for all of Chaim’s support to me and of a recent email he had sent expressing his confidence in me during my first high holidays. I wondered aloud whether he had finished his newest creation, a final prayer book I knew he had been working on. But alas, I couldn’t call or email my friend and teacher to ask how the project was coming.

The most heartening thing I could feel was that the pneumonia had saved him from the indignity of losing the qualities that most made him who he was – as a rabbi and as a person, his way of communicating and his exquisite gift with words. Had he lived on and the cancer had taken those gifts from him, then literally our whole Reform movement, who has been touched by his rabbinate of teaching and writing, would be robbed twice over of a beloved teacher.

On the day he was buried in in Chappaqua, I had to preach a Shabbat evening sermon at my congregation in Baltimore. The chair next to me was empty that night as I realized that I wouldn’t be able to rely on speaking to him for guidance or ideas in my rabbinate. But that night I also wore a keriah cloth, torn by me just before services and attached to my sport jacket- as a reminder of my honor for a teacher of Torah. For in sharing his gifts of Torah with and alongside me, Chaim acted as a parent might over an inquisitive child, and I at least owed him the honor that the Rambam taught you give to your teacher.

But to tell you the truth, I wasn’t sure how I’d react at first hearing of his death. In the shock of losing someone so quickly who has helped accompany me to my rabbinical ordination, I was fairly sure I would not be lost and confused for quite a while in my struggle through the stage of mourning and lamentation. But then I came back to work. I opened my prayerbook to begin preparing for Shabbat services, and right before me were Chaim’s simple words in a meditation that began:  “As I am blessed, so may I give blessings to others.”. When I saw those words, I knew that, in a way, here he was, standing alongside me, helping strengthen me on the journey from the ending of a life and a career to the beginning of a new life and career. He was still present to my rabbinate with his grace and love and poetry. It inspired in me that night a prayer in my heart that as I’d grow into a mature rabbi, I might have the determination to do so as Abraham did, seeking to assure the welfare of others in the community, and engendering a partnership with the members of my congregation- to build toward a bright future.

Beginning next week and for a considerable period of time ahead in our Wednesday morning Torah study group here at Fairmount Temple, Rabbi Caruso and I will be studying from one of Chaim’s final books published before his death. It is a tremendous book called Day by Day, a wonderful companion to study in which themes of our Torah and tradition are reflected on using each week’s Torah portion as an anchor to see new light in texts from Torah, from modern and medieval literature, philosophy and religious thought. I am quite sure it will engender an open-hearted and inquiring and very relevant weekly discussion and I encourage you to join us. For more than a decade now, the Wednesday morning Torah study group at Fairmount Temple has welcomed weekly students as well as drop-in visitors as each year a new theme and approach has taken shape. I am delighted that over the coming weeks I get to dig back in to read and remember a great teacher of Torah among our people.

In addition, each year, for several weeks in the fall and in the spring, our temple’s coordinator of caring community, Wendy Jacobson leads a bereavement and grief support group, so as to help individuals in our community to grieve slowly, carefully, lovingly for those who are dear to them. It is a life-affirming process and there is genuinely resourceful information and loving dignity and strength offered in a private setting here at temple under Wendy’s skilled guidance and with the company of fellow mourning families and often a visit from Cantor or myself to add resources from the Jewish tradition. The fall group actually begins this coming Tuesday at 4pm. You’d be welcome if you still want to join or to try out support if you are yourself struck with grief. Just be in touch with me or Cantor or Wendy by Monday.

Whether it is in the bereavement or study or prayer, or volunteering options in our community, we always hope that people will learn about these programs and be able to pass the word to others you know who might be interested. We hope, of course, that there aren’t any empty chairs in the study group each week on Wednesday morning, or the Tuesday afternoon bereavement support group, or the worship we share each week here at temple. But assuming there is an open chair, an empty chair, I’m not going to fret about it. Tonight I pledge that I’ll simply  look toward it and say what I love being able to say each week to you when we make Kiddush. I’ll say: L’chaim! L’chaim! To life!