Last year I posted an article about the first funeral at which I officiated. The article is re-posted below or can be found at this link. In the article I was rather self-critical of those first efforts. I am often self-critical. It will always be one of my distinguishing features. In particular I then found my words wanting in the face of the enormity of death. I still find my efforts lacking when they brush at death. It is not that I believe I am unhelpful to the grieving families. I recognize, even though I am also deeply humbled by this, the comfort and strength my presence brings to mourners. Still I find all efforts in the face of death inadequate. How can mere words measure a life? There is a certain injustice in the eulogy. A life well lived is summarized in well-chosen phrases, verses and perhaps even on occasion, eloquence. That is from where the feelings of inadequacy derive. They always accompany me to funerals. They are a source of awe and inspiration. May they also continue to be a source of humility.
A few months ago I received a beautiful email from the son of the first man I helped to bury many years ago in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He wrote and sought to respond to my feelings, especially those self-critical words. He was only appreciative of my efforts and grateful for my presence during those difficult days and their preceding weeks. And then I read the following article in the Institute of Southern Jewish Life's quarterly newsletter. In the opening chairman's column, Rayman L. Solomon writes:
Several months ago I received an extraordinary email from my friend, Charles Lipson. Charles grew up in a small Mississippi Delta town of Marks with his two brothers and his parents who ran a business there. Charles' email included a very interesting column from Rabbi Steven Moskowitz of the Jewish Congregation of Brookville on Long Island's North Shore. Rabbi Moskowitz writes about the first funeral he ever conducted over 20 years ago, in Clarksdale, MS, which was for Charles' father, Harry M. Lipson, Jr. The Rabbi, who was a student intern, was extremely self-critical of the service he performed. He told of going the next day to sit by the grave and ask forgiveness for what he perceived to be an inadequate performance of his duty both in terms of style and substance. The response to the Rabbi's column, which Charles shared with a group of friends, was that from the family's perspective the Rabbi was totally incorrect and too harsh on himself. Charles pointed out that what was most important to his family was the chance to talk before the service to the Rabbi about his father--to express their grief through sharing family stories in private. It was the gift of having a rabbi in a community that could no longer afford to employ one that mattered beyond all else to the family. That is the insight that led to the creation of the Rabbinic Program at the ISJL over ten years ago...
And the most important gift any rabbi asks for is to know that your presence matters, that your being there made the grief and pain more bearable, that your standing there under the huppah or on the bima made the those simchas slightly more joyous. Now I know. And I will continue to remind myself that such days may be just another day in a rabbi's busy schedule, but they are the most important days in those families' lives. And I will continue to search within in. How else can I better myself? Even more importantly I will continue to be humbled and awed by the fact that people, some of whom know me very well and others who know me only by my title, will want me there at the greatest moments in their lives and the most terrible, darkest days.
And I will continue to recall Charles' words.
And I will continue to recall Charles' words.
I will remain grateful that the internet helped to close that circle which had remained open for these past 20 years. I will as well be pleased that it widened the circle of concern again including yesterday's friends in the Deep South who continue to remain steadfast in their Jewish commitments.
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.”