These last weeks have been a passage of unspeakable grief and loss. Great teachers have left our midst—Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield and Rabbi Alan Lew. We have been wracked by the pain of catastrophic destruction in Gaza and the great suffering of Palestinian families, by Israel’s seemingly insoluble dilemma as she seeks to defend her land and people. We hope that the current ceasefire will give enough breathing space for healing to emerge. We pray mightily that, with the help of Holy Oneness, wisdom might flow through the peoples of the Middle East, teaching them and us—their friends, sisters, brothers—how to begin to invite the true and lasting peace.
At the same time, these weeks have been a time of exuberance, of billowing joy, as we prepare for the transition into a new order—a new day dawning. By the time you read this, Barack Obama will have been sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. The tide of inspirited community involvement that swept him into office will now be challenged to carry this nation through the “sea of troubles” that shakes our world. Even as we pray for our new President’s safety, well-being, and success, we wonder if our country can sustain and build upon the emerging consciousness that we are, indeed, our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers—that we all rise and fall on these swelling waves together.
The extremes have been almost greater than any human being—any society or planet—can bear. How can any one person or community or nation hold center amidst the simultaneous tugs of hope and despair, grieving and ebullience?
And yet this is exactly what we are being asked to do. It is perhaps the central teaching of those dear teachers who have left us. Simply, humbly, each walked the walk, attempting to hold, in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words, “G~d and [human beings] in one thought at one time, at all times.”
After attending Rabbi Lew’s funeral, I wanted to be with trees and grass and the great silent space inside. Walking slowly back to my car, I saw a bee circulating amongst the ground cover in the parkway that divides Presidio Avenue. Suddenly overwhelmed by the poetry (Alan Lew was an amazing poet) of a life so fully lived, loved, marked, witnessed, and mined through careful observation and insight, I felt opened to the world, exposed in mind and heart. I drove into the Presidio and, perched on a hillside overlooking the Bay, watched another big bumble bee buzzing in the grass nearby, precious in its precise detail.
During the funeral, my eyes were drawn again and again to the face of Rabbi Lew’s wife, Sherril, somehow contained and scattered at the same time. Her eyes, mouth, and cheeks looked softly fallen. Just last week, I thought, she was with the one who filled her face with the flush of life. That fullness, that joy, will come again, through memory and laughter, through her children and, G-d willing, her grandchildren. But for now she sat pale, empty, bereft.
We do not mean to do this to each other—to hurt each other with our closeness, through our loving. To sting with the very richness of our coming together, then leave emptiness with our going. And yet, it is into that very emptiness that the soup of life pours and is held temporarily, as we sip and relish.
To give it all out, to let it all run through the fingers like water or handfuls of tiny ocean-polished pebbles… heart, heart, heart! As one of Rabbi Lew’s daughters said, a heart so big, a heart that held so much that it burst. The person who discovered him lifeless on the sidewalk in Baltimore says that there was a smile on his lips. Reb Aryeh’s wife, Beth, says that he was buoyant, playful, and happy when he waded back into the water alone to enjoy the ocean’s teeming life. Both were taken in an instant, an exhale, like my rabbi, Arnold Wolf, a few weeks ago—simply gone, not ready, perhaps, but complete. Unfinished but complete.
Let us be blessed by what we cannot understand. Let us be loved by that Mystery and let us in turn love, as much as we can, in every moment. Let that love well up in us, a mighty, unstoppable, courageous, eloquent current carrying along the shards of the past, the broken bowls left behind by those who came before to prepare the way. Let us ride that wave, love that wave, be that wave, as we enter this new place and take this next breath and the next. Let us be blessed and let us, in turn, bless what we cannot understand.