Even though I have served as a rabbi for over eighteen years, some of the most important and lasting lessons were learned in my earliest years prior to earning the title of rabbi. Many times our first experiences teach us far more than we can then admit. I still remember my grandfather teaching me how to ride a bike, his loving hand guiding me and his shouts of joy encouraging me.
There in my mind is a tableau of first memories. And so I continue to be drawn to the memory of officiating at my first funeral.
In 1987-88 I served as a student rabbi in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the birthplace of the Blues. Since the 1870’s Jews had found a niche in this community and there thrived in many businesses. Once a month I flew from Cincinnati where I was attending rabbinical school to Memphis and then rented a car, driving through the cotton fields of Northern Mississippi to Clarksdale. There I served Congregation Beth Israel, a synagogue built in the 1930’s.
By the 1970’s its membership was declining. The synagogue could no longer afford a full time rabbi and so it became a training ground for young student rabbis, until ultimately closing its doors in 2003. It was there, in Clarksdale, at the age of 23, in the first days of June 1988 that I officiated at my first funeral.
Harry Lipson Jr. died after a long battle with cancer. I carved out a few hours to visit with him and his wife Dottie during the course of my weekend trips. At the funeral I recited the words from the perfect, unused pages of my new Rabbi’s Manual. “Death has taken our beloved Harry. Our friends grieve in their darkened world…” Some of the words felt empty, and some even cruel. “For when we die we carry nothing away; our glory does not accompany us.” Others felt comforting. On some words I stumbled. On others I discovered strength.
I have never before revealed this but the next day I returned to the cemetery and sat by myself at Harry’s grave. The warm, humid Mississippi air was heavy with moisture. I asked Harry to forgive me for being the first funeral at which I officiated. I begged him to ignore my mistakes. I apologized over and over again for all of my weaknesses and flaws. I was overwhelmed by feelings of inadequacy and incompetence in facing death.
And then I remembered that death is not a failure. I recalled that I became a rabbi rather than a physician because I wanted to have a manual that worked for moments just as these. I did not want to say, “There was nothing more we could do…” but instead, “I am sorry. I promise I will walk this path with you. We will face this death together. This is what our tradition says we must now do.”
The pages of my Rabbi’s Manual are now torn and wrinkled from snow and rain. The pages bear scribbling and notes as well as reminders that I no longer require. There are a few pages wrinkled from my own tears, from funerals still too painful to recount. Many have stood expectantly, looking up at me as I read from this small, holy book. There were days when I did not know how I might summon the strength to greet these expectations. Nearly every time I am drawn to remember Harry.
I recall that there is no perfect path through the valley of the shadow of death. I remember Dottie’s observation that the very words from our tradition that I found harsh and cruel she found soothing and comforting. She explained to me that it was the comfort of a familiar voice reciting what generations of Jews have spoken for thousands of years. I worried too much about the meaning of each word. She listened instead to the voice. I learned then that there is our tradition’s manual and its guidance. There is the strength we draw from our community, from each other.
I still find it remarkable that people ask me to stand by their side at countless occasions such as these. I am thankful that there have been far more simchas than tragedies in these eighteen years. In these years I have studied Torah with over 200 b’nai mitzvah students and watched as their parents welcomed them into the age of Jewish responsibility. I relish the smiles of parents and their tears of joy. I find it to be an unparalleled privilege that my congregants want me standing there at the absolute best of times and the worst. I am grateful that they see fit to call me rabbi.
I cannot promise that I will always say every word perfectly. I can promise that I will continue to call it a privilege and blessing to serve as a rabbi.
And as I learned as well in the birthplace of the Blues, from the master B.B. King: “You better not look down if you want to keep on flyin’. Put the hammer down. Keep it full speed ahead.”