Nine-and-a-half years ago, as a newly minted rabbi, still wet behind the ears, and with a lot less grey hair, a family expressed these requests. The funeral wouldn't take place in the Sydney Chevra Kaddisha where rules regarding funerals were more strictly observed, so playing a personal piece of music at the conclusion of the ceremony wouldn't be an issue. I politely explained to the family that the funeral home, the cemetery, and I had limitations on our time, and that out of respect for the deceased we don't delay a burial longer than is necessary. It would be preferable for them to serve coffee and refreshments after the funeral. They happily consented to this suggestion.
Something unforeseen happened at the cemetery prior to the burial. The son of the deceased turned to me and said, "Um, rabbi, they've opened up the wrong grave." I turned to the funeral director who confirmed that this was, in fact, true, and I asked him how long it would take for the cemetery staff to correct what had transpired. The funeral director said, "About forty-five minutes. I suggest we send everyone to the cafe at the entrance to the cemetery and then we come back to finish the ceremony." And so "I Did It My Way" was played as this gentleman's casket was wheeled out of the chapel, and circumstances created an opportunity for his family to have coffee and refreshments, prior to his burial, just as he had wished.
Perhaps this is a classic case of "Man plans, God laughs," or perhaps it is just one of those moments in life, that is equal parts refreshing and frustrating, and completely, utterly unpredictable, just like the rabbinate. Many people associate rabbis as leaders, people in positions of power and authority, with an ability to command respect and influence the events and outcomes of life. But we rabbis are more powerless than we like to let on.
Life, in all of its glorious unpredictability, has a way of reminding us, that even when we rabbis are at our best, conducting the ceremony or the service with aplomb, being present at the bedside of an ailing person and offering comfort, support and presence, making a difference in someone's life, we are still human, just like everyone else. There's no cape fluttering in the wind, (thankfully) no insanely tight superhero costume with an emblazoned "R" for "Super-Rabbi" (trust me, the lights on the bimah are hot enough to begin with), and certainly no superhero powers (like Moses with a magical staff), granted to us for our knowledge of Hebrew, Aramaic, Jewish law and history, or our counseling and interpersonal skills. The title "rabbi" doesn't make us immune to the unpredictability and fragility of life. Rather the title "rabbi" conveys a hope that we will openly and willingly embrace this unpredictability and fragility, and respond without judgment, with unconditional love for people, continuing to believe in the possibilities and potential of life itself.
There is a certificate on my wall that grants me qualification and a title from the faculty and Board of Governors of Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, and says that I am "authorized and licensed to perform all rabbinical functions in the name of God and Israel." But this certificate does not make me a rabbi. The people that I serve do. The title of rabbi is earned, day-in and day-out, by serving the very people who invite us and grant us entrance into their lives, often at some of their most critical junctures, and times of deep, heartfelt transition, celebration, and loss.
I marvel at the fact that our Torah reading this week is titled Emor, "say," because on so many occasions I have asked myself the question, "What am I supposed to say? What does this person, in this moment, need me to say to them?" But the rabbinate has often reminded me, that life is not only about what we say, but also about how we say it. And even more, perhaps more often than not, life is about how we listen, how we vouchsafe what other people choose to tell us and share with us, how we hold other people in times of discomfort, and how we help people to understand their own truths.
Yes, there are "truths" in life, and there are "truths" in the Jewish community. And I often wish that in this world that perilously teeters toward the fundamental, the unflinching, the very clearly defined, the "well if I'm right then you must be absolutely wrong," the nasty, vitriolic comments online in places like Facebook, that there would be more acceptance of "multiple versions of truth," that somehow the world could just be a kinder, gentler, more compassionate place, that instead of black-and-white, we saw life as a kaleidoscope representing a panoply of different colors, shades, opinions and perspectives.
This thing we call life never fails to surprise and stymie, exhilarate and disappoint, torment and comfort, and it even seems to reward and punish without rhyme or reason, purpose or plan. There is an ever-tenuous balance to be struck between grasping tightly to the fibers of life and knowing how and when to let go. Sometimes we grasp too tightly, and sometimes we let go too easily. If I had a dollar for every time I struck a perfect balance between these ideas, I would need to find another source of income.
But life isn't really about striking that perfect balance, is it? Thankfully not. Life may very well be about finding that perfect balance, about searching, questioning, wrestling, and journeying with the goal of getting there, even if none of us ever fully arrive at our destination. Life may very well be about how we pick ourselves up after we fall, how we apologize after we fail, and how we seek forgiveness for our fallibilities. Life may very well be about the grace that other people and God grant us, to keep on trying, to keep on loving ourselves and loving the world, even in the depths and throes of our own humanity.
Perhaps that's why, since the beginning of time, we humans, we pack animals, have tried to form communities, and why every community, is truly and wholly imperfect - an imperfect whole, comprised of imperfect parts. But like a sukkah exposed to the elements in a windy, October rainstorm, somehow we come together, somehow we come to say mazal tov to that child at his bar mitzvah who just a few months ago couldn't read Hebrew, somehow we come to place our arm around a fellow congregant whose parent has just died, somehow we meet in a committee, (sometimes rife with dominant personalities and vociferous differences in opinion) to ultimately plan a project that might make our slice of the world just a little bit better, somehow we gather on a Saturday morning because we want the space to learn what God might be saying to us through the timeless words of Torah, somehow we gather on a Friday night because at the end of a long week we seek solace, comfort, and just a little bit of uplifting song.
Somehow, someway, we're not alone in this journey. Thank God, we are not alone. And we needn't be alone. The remarkable thing about Judaism is that while we may think we need to be "more Jewish" by engaging in detailed, picayune rituals, Judaism's only purpose, in the sum of its parts, is to help us lead a more purposeful, reflective, spiritual, meaningful life, in covenantal partnership with humanity, the natural world, and God. Does Judaism always provide for a meaningful journey through life? Certainly not, for few things in life ever do. But Judaism affords us the space and the opportunity to keep on practicing, to keep on trying, to keep on striving, and while we're at it, to keep on embracing, cherishing, and loving others and ourselves, no matter how imperfect we, they, and our world may actually be.
I think back to a conversation that I enjoyed a number of years ago with my Orthodox colleague, Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence who said, "At the end of the day, no matter how much time I've put into my work, I try to think back to the opportunities for doing good and making a difference that I've been granted. I know of few other careers that would afford me the chance to do this every single day." Ten years into my rabbinate, I have more questions and less answers, I am painstakingly aware of the very fragility and vulnerability through which all of us must traverse, and yet I am continually humbled, awed and amazed by the blessing that comes from serving others, and by this very precious gift that we call life.