Rosh Hashanah is Almost Here: Year in Review

It’s been an interesting year. It’s been a year with a lot of changes and with more to come.

Highlights of the changes a year has wrought:

  • 2015-09-09-selfieI’m now working as rabbi at a Jewish nursing home and assisted living facility. After years of working mainly as a freelance rabbi (with occasional forays into congregational work, academia, etc.), working within a single organization has a lot to recommend it. I’m enjoying creating longer-term relationships in my rabbinate. It is meaningful work that I find fulfilling.
  • Eva and I are in the process of adopting a child. After years of not being ready/not being sure we’d ever want or be ready to raise a child, we’ve taken the plunge and are now in the process of waiting. Which means that day to day life goes on pretty much as normal, with this great big possibility of monumental life change possible at any point from pretty much instantly to more than a year from now.

This leaves me in a somewhat odd frame of mind. For many years now (like five), there haven’t been a huge number of changes from one Rosh Hashanah to the next. It’s nice to have some really big changes (dare I say, even progress). At the same time, I’m very aware of the ways in which I’m still in a waiting position to see what comes next.

Each year is different. Each year brings newness. At the same time, the year is a cycle, ever repeating.

Working with the elderly, it becomes obvious the ways in which each life is unique. People make different choices, and even more, get dealt different cards in the game of life (yes, I know that one isn’t dealt cards in the board game). And, at the same point, certain themes come up over and over again, regardless of the experiences of a life.

Each year is also unique, but the more some things change, the more obvious it becomes that in some ways things remain the same. The details of the challenges change, but sometimes, it feels like the new challenges aren’t as new as I might like.

As we come to the new year–5776–I wonder what the next year will bring. I hope it brings a child to Eva and myself. I hope for continued satisfaction with work. I hope for a year of blessing and tranquility (okay, I recognize the contradiction between hoping for a baby and hoping for tranquility).

May the new year be a good year for all of us.

The Fragility of Life

Rabbis have an odd perspective on life (at least, this rabbi does). We see people at their extremes:

  • Extreme joy: Wedding, bar/bat mitzvah
  • Extreme sadness: funerals
  • extreme exhaustion: baby namings

We experience on a regular basis events that for others happen occasionally over the course of a life (case in point: at a wedding last weekend someone told me it was the loveliest wedding she’d ever been to–then noted that it was only the second wedding she’d ever been to; for me, it was my first wedding (of the year), but will be one of at least 7 or so I am present for between now and October). I am present when families experience the death of a loved one. I’m visiting in the hospital as a person realizes his mortality is not quite so abstract as he had assumed.

Rabbis listen to the stories of people’s lives. We are allowed into their lives in ways which others aren’t: people put up fewer filters, and are more likely to tell us how they’re really feeling when we ask. Which is good, because otherwise we (or at least, I) can’t respond to them usefully.

All of the above is preamble to this: I’ve been very aware of the fragility of life during the last week. Teaching an adult education session on Yom Kippur, I was found myself speaking of how the liturgy of Yom Kippur seeks to remind us of the fact that each of us might die in the coming year. Calling someone I hadn’t spoken to in months about returning some tiki torches I borrowed for a congregational event, she answers the phone from her husband’s hospital room, where he’s been for the last month since being in an accident. And, of course, there’s the basic experience of aging, which is to say, more of our own friends fighting cancer, losing parents, etc.

So, last weekend, when I got into the car to drive 3 hours to a wedding, I brought a certain awareness of how fragile our existence is: how easy it is to glance away from the road, and drive into a tree, for instance. After all, it happens all the time–just not to us (at least, not on a good day).

I leave you with the point I was making in the class I taught: it’s not that we should live every day as though it were our last, but that every now and again, we should think about whether we’re living our life in such a way that if it were to end tomorrow, we’d be pleased with the life we’ve led.

A New Year

It’s been a while since I’ve written. I got about half way through December and realized I hadn’t blogged yet, and decided to take the month off. But now, it’s a new year, and that brings with it all sorts of changes.

For starters, Eva and I  adopted three new cats yesterday. A sibling pair of black cats with white markings, and one brown/gray tabby male. All are about two years old, and have lived together since kittenhood. The names they came with are Diana (f)  and Dancer (m) for the sibling pair, and Classy for the male tabby. Diana, at least, is likely to undergo a name change, since we just had a cat named Diana. To date, Diana is the only one who is actively out and visiting with us, while Classy is hanging out under the couch. For the moment, we aren’t quite sure where Dancer is. (As I type, Diana has become Eva’s laptop).

No photos as of yet because I don’t want to freak them out (any more than they already are), but I assure you, there will be photos.

In far less momentous news, I’ve started the new year by working out each day. The holidays brought me a Wii Fit, and while I’m not fit yet, I’m working on it. As weird as it seems to have a video game leading me through Yoga or fitness training, it does seem to work pretty well for me. On the other hand, we’re only 4 days in.

Any other news will have to wait, because someone wants attention. And what’s the point of having cats if you don’t drop everything to attend to their every whim.

A Sad Rabbi

Sometimes, I’m running hard enough that I don’t really have time to emotionally process what I’m doing. This week has been like that.

There was a very difficult death in the community this week. Someone much too young. An unexpected death. Someone about to graduate from college and begin his life.

I knew it was a terrible tragedy, but it wasn’t until this morning, when I had my first opportunity to sit and knit in three days, that I really felt it. I’d felt his mother’s pain, and that of people who knew him, but until this morning, hadn’t really felt any of my own pain.

My pain in nothing compared to those who knew him well, those who loved him. But I can’t ignore it either.

At times like these, I begin to feel like I’m dwelling in the sad section of the universe: the part which is filled with pain, tears, anguish. It’s far removed from the neighborhood where weddings take place, filled with joy and laughter and possibilities. Love is constant in both areas, but in one it brings joy, and in the other sadness.

My role, as rabbi, is at least as important in the sad parts of life. Probably more so. It is fulfilling to be of service. But it is hard. And sometimes, some days, I wonder how I’ll do it. How will I be present the next time I meet with a family who have just lost a loved one. But then, when I do, I’m not meeting with “a family who have just lost a loved one,” but rather, I’m meeting with a specific family, mourning a specific loss. And somehow that specificity, the uniqueness of that family’s loss will draw me into their lives. And I will be their rabbi.

I am a rabbi to be there for people in the hard times as well as the good. The hard times are full of spiritual growth and meaning. But they also take their toll.

Colliding Worlds

I am pursuing two very different careers simultaneously. I am working both as a congregational rabbi, and as the owner of a business that provides workspace and community for people who would otherwise work from home. Most of the time, these two activities seem to blend well. After all, both are about creating and sustaining community. Some days, the combination creates a distinct sense of disjunction in my life.

Yesterday evening, I went from figuring out how to set up a LCD projector to display Game 1 of the World Series to rushing out the door and going to the hospital in Salem to be with a congregant and family in the final hours of his life. At one moment, I was concentrating on how to make the connections between a VCR which I was using as a tuner, an LCD projector and a pair of computer speakers which were powered through a USB port, and the next I was on my way out the door and heading for the hospital as quickly as I could.

I know there are those who would regard sitting with the dying as one of those duties that unfortunately comes with being a rabbi. Although I find it to be emotionally painful and hard, it is also one of the reasons I became a rabbi: to be with people in times of extremity, to be able to help them through the hard times, just as I help them to celebrate and sanctify the good times. Death is one of the places where a rabbi can make a difference, offer some comfort. I find it taxing, but fulfilling.

Yet I cannot help but be struck by the contrast between that and what I do with the rest of the day yesterday. Other things I did yesterday included: showing people around CubeSpace and talking about how CubeSpace might solve some of their problems; restarting the server to install updates; setting up a room for a meeting; and a variety of other mundane tasks that make up the normal workday. For most of the people I interacted with yesterday, the day will be just another day in their lives. A month from now, they will be unable to distinguish it and remember much about it. For the family in the hospital, and for myself, yesterday will hold a unique place, sacred and sad. It will not drop into obscurity in the stream of time, but rather will be one of those days which remains distinct as the years pass on.

There is nothing new noting the dichotomy between everyday life and death; there is no unique insight in noting that life goes on for all the rest of the world, even as an individual dies and life is brutally interrupted for the family and friend. Nonetheless, in my dual roles I feel like I have a somewhat unique perspective, drifting between a place of death and mourning and an office environment where it feels oddly inappropriate to speak of anything quite as personal as death.

I try to bring my whole self to both of my careers. In general, I feel like I succeed. People at CubeSpace know (for the most part), that I am a rabbi. People at the congregation know that I own a workspace. I feel like I am fundamentally the same person in both places: I feel like I treat people similarly regardless of which hat I am wearing. Yet very occasionally, the two halves of my life feel disjointed, and cannot be made to reconcile. And when that happens, I seek to make meaning out of this disjunction by writing about it and sharing it.  Thank you for being willing to share this with me.