“Rabbi, I wouldn’t want your job,” congregants have often said to me, most often in connection with the rabbi’s proximity to death. My response often surprises people: “Being with those who are dying, and with families coping with the death of a loved one, is actually the most meaningful part of being a rabbi for me.”
Make no mistake: The rabbi is not immune from feelings of sadness in the midst of mourners. Having served more than two decades in one community, and now forging meaningful bonds in a new one, I frequently experience real personal loss at the death of a person who has become dear to me.
Still, the well-boundaried rabbi does not become consumed by grief at the death of a congregant. With true caring for the person who is dying, or who has died, and for the family, the rabbi can play a unique role to bring healing. The rabbi can leverage the liminal moment to draw people closer to the congregation, to the Covenant, and to God. Most importantly, the rabbi can convey authentic faith, which I have come to understand most importantly as the middah of bitachon (the soul-trait of trust), thanks to my learning with Alan Morinis.
In significant measure, I take my cue from the Christian funeral, a comment I make in the context of a witticism I often share about Jews attending a Christian funeral:
A group of Jews gets in the car after a Christian funeral, after offering condolences to the family and kind, if not entirely sincere, words to the minister or priest. The car windows are rolled up. I have been in this car. “Geez,” one person exclaims, “I thought we were going to Ploni’s funeral. But I didn’t hear hardly anything about Ploni! Did we just attend Jesus’s funeral?”
Naturally, the Christian service doesn’t resonate to Jews. We don’t share the theology proclaimed there. We are not imbued with faith that Ploni has found the blessings of life eternal because of his/her relationship with Jesus. That Christian funeral does not inspire bitachon (trust) in us.
In our own day, people often ask why rabbis bother to give eulogies at all. After all, family members are often eager to speak, and they knew the deceased better even than a rabbi who has shared a long relationship with the departed. While I agree that the loving words of familial mourners are meaningful, and certainly called for (as in Proverbs 31), the rabbi can fill a role that most family members cannot.
I minister to dying individuals and their families, and I craft each eulogy, with a clear, rabbinical goal in mind: I am there to offer bitachon, trust, despite the unhappy circumstance before us, that:
1) Life is an inestimable gift from God, exemplified by the life now ending or ended. The dying or recently deceased person has made an important impact on this world which will not soon be forgotten and is indisputably not erased by death.
2) We who yet live can keep this person very much alive here on Earth by finding our own ways to live our dear one’s values. I suggest that this responsibility to a person’s immortality on Earth is what we mean when we say that we are reciting Kaddish “for” somebody. Literally, the Kaddish is an opportunity to praise God on behalf of one who no longer can do so. We may interpret our Kaddish obligation more broadly as a duty to perform mitzvot, to offer cheesed (loving-kindness,) and tzedakah (righteous charitable giving), and/or to continue shalshelet hakabalah (the chain of Jewish tradition) on behalf of the one who no longer can do so, thereby granting immortality in this world.
3) Life after death for the departed in the World to Come is also a meaningful part of our Jewish faith. This is the hard part, for countless reasons, not the least being that any honest discussion of Jewish theology in this regard doesn’t fit into a eulogy. Still, I affirm that even poetic, oblique reference to eternal life in God’s embrace offers faith and hope that our funerals might otherwise fail to convey.
Serving my congregants at their times of greatest spiritual need, I have come to realize, has bolstered my own bitachon, my own ultimate trust in the Eternal. Death is a difficult aspect of the human condition, from which rabbis are not exempt. Striving to help others face death with faith serves as a constant reminder to me: I must pursue tikkun middot, the repair of my own flaws, to deepen the meaning of my own earthly existence; I am charged to recall the goodness of my grandparents, of blessed memory, by striving to “say Kaddish” for them through my own actions; and I would do well to remember that I, too, am “but dust and ashes,” my body destined for the cemetery, my soul in the hands of God, a prospect I increasingly accept with bitachon, with faithful trust.
Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR.