Tag Archives: eulogy

A Week in the Life

Some of what I’ve seen this week:

A four month old baby nestling in the lap of his 90 year old great-grandmother.  His head fit perfectly into the crook of her right arm.  It was a celebration of his naming and conversion (he had been to the mikveh earlier in the day), and also of her special birthday.  The entire family was gathered around.  The children, now in their late sixties, the grandchildren creeping close to their forties, the great-grandchildren, ranging from 10 or so all the way down to this newest addition.  His eyes were bright and wide as he took in his surroundings, his cousins, the generations of his family.  She radiated joy, even tough life was not easy, even though she was mostly wheelchair bound, even though …

But what is a day like that, a moment like that, a family like that, worth?  Maybe the answer is this:  everything.

 

A seventy year old man got up to eulogize his mother.  She died at 94, after a long, good, and full life.  She had seen the birth of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, had been blessed with good health well into her 90s, had lived with a sense of joy and gratitude.  Truly a good life, a life to celebrate.

He spoke simply and clearly, related a story or two, talked about characteristics and qualities, laughed a bit.  And then cried.  Even when you are 70 and your mother is 94, even when the life was good and long, even when there is so much to be grateful for, a loss is a loss, and your mother is your mother, and the one who brought you into the world is no longer there for you, as she always was.  The grief is real, and the pain is deep, and the heart is torn and needs time to mend and heal and feel grateful again.

 

A man in his 80s has been fighting an insidious disease for a long time.  I visit him every few months, to check in, to catch up, maybe to lighten his spirit just a bit.

His independence is slowly but surely eroding.  From living alone to living in a supported living environment, from being able to walk with a walker to riding in a motorized wheelchair, to now needing to be pushed everywhere.  His mind is sharp, he watches it happen, bit by bit, day by day.

He fights with great strength of spirit and even greater dignity.  He smiles and jokes, he goes about his day in the best way he can, he gets up each morning, gets dressed, mindless tasks for us, monumental tasks for him.

We chat about the stock market (oy!), the Ravens (he is a fan and anticipating this weekend’s game), and most of all about his family.  He plans for the future, thinks about how he can improve his life, and finds within himself the grit and determination to do so.

The morning blessings we recite each day remind us to be grateful for the ability to stand, to move, to stretch, to dress, to rise from bed, to welcome the morning’s first light.

Life, too, can remind us of how grateful we should be for each and every day.

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Filed under Beth El Congregation, Jewish life, liminal moments, mindfulness, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

The Glasses

These are the little things that remind us that time is creeping by.  A bit like an honest look in the mirror, one of those moments when you realize you aren’t in Kansas anymore, that you actually do look your age, and that your age is somewhere in the mid-50s!  Who knew?!

And so it was that I set out, just late enough not to turn back, to officiate at a funeral.  I was most of the way down the street when I realized I had left my reading glasses at home.  I’ve been wearing reading glasses for some time now, close to a decade, but until very recently I could pretty much get by without them in a pinch, particularly if the light in the room was good and I wasn’t too tired.  If you use reading glasses yourself, you’ll know what I mean.

But just the last month or so I’ve needed them more and more.  Those little blurry things on that page are letters?  Good light still helped, but trying to read a menu in a restaurant had become impossible – it essentially looked like a series of ink schmears on yellow paper.  Nevertheless, here I was, Rabbi’s Manual in hand, eulogy printed out in 12 point font, and in 15 minutes or so I would be standing in front of a group of mourners, reading from that manual and delivering that eulogy, no reading glasses in sight.

It wasn’t perfect, but in the end it worked out OK.  The light was good, and I adjusted the lectern so it was as far away from my eyes as it could possibly be.  I had just written the eulogy, so it was fresh in my mind, and that also helped.  The truth is I barely need the Rabbi’s Manual.  I’ve read those prayers hundreds and hundreds of times, and they are imprinted in my mind.  It is pretty much like starting the tape and letting it play.  Even so, I’ve seen Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead forget the words to Me and My Uncle, a song he has sung more than a thousand times.  He now uses an iPad so the lyrics are always there, just in case.  So it is with my Rabbi’s Manual.  More of a crutch than a necessity.

And that is the funny thing about it.  As a young rabbi, I didn’t need the glasses.  Everything was crystal clear, whether near or far.  But I sure needed that Rabbi’s Manual.  The thought of conducting a service without one would have terrified me twenty years ago.  Now it is exactly the opposite.  The manual I don’t really need anymore, or at least I know I can get buy without it in a pinch.  But I sure need those reading glasses!  The more experience I have, the muddier things get.  Ah, the wisdom of aging…

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Filed under clergy, Grateful Dead, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, ritual, rock and roll, the rabbinate, Uncategorized

23,500 Words

Just one way of telling the tale of my last 6 weeks or so.  Here is how I arrived at that number:  5 High Holiday sermons, about 1800 words each (a total of 9,000 words);  3 Shabbat sermons and 1 Sukkoth sermon, about 1200 words each (4,800 total);  7 eulogies, some 1,10o words each (7,700);  plus 8 ‘bar/bat mitzvah charges’ which come in around 250 words each (total of 2,000) – all of which adds up to 23,500.

A lot of words, any way you slice it.  The average number of words on the page of an average book is 250.  So the 23,500 words I’ve written over the last weeks would make the first 94 pages of a book.  What tale would those 94 pages tell?

Perhaps a bit about the times we live in, the anxious state of our nation, weary of a bitter (and long!) election process, fearful of clouds that grow darker on the horizon.  Maybe a thing or two about the state of Jewish life in America in 2016, its challenges and bounteous blessings.  Certainly the narrative of the lives of those whom I eulogized, the habits and hobbies, quirks and passions, connections and professions that made up their lives.  A few things about the b’nai mitzvah, just beginning their journeys, looking out on a future that is bright and filled with possibility.

And also, I suppose, reading carefully, a thing or two about me.  In part what has been on my mind, what were the thoughts that were nudging me in the fall of 2016, my concerns, worries, interests, and opinions.  But also who I am.  I hope that too comes through in all of those words, the thousands upon thousands of keyboard strokes, the verbs and nouns and adjectives, the sentences and paragraphs, the metaphors and textual references.

You know the old saying is a picture is worth a thousand words.  That would make 23 and a half pictures.  Maybe it is time to take up painting!

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Filed under American Jewry, Baltimore, Beth El Congregation, clergy, Jewish life, preaching, Rosh Hashanah, seasons, sermon, Uncategorized

4 Funerals, 1 Day

A couple of months I ago I posted a piece about a week where I officiated at seven funerals.  Last week, in one day, on Friday, I officiated at four funerals.  The seven funeral week piece was more about emotionally how I navigated those days.  In this piece I want to address the question of logistics – how is it actually possible to officiate at four funerals in a single day?

First, two things must be said.  One, I’ve learned over time that the rabbinate in a large synagogue requires the art of appearing in multiple places at the same time.  I know this is not actually possible, but it is possible in a way – by leaving one place a few minutes early, arriving at another a few minutes late, skipping meals, using every possible second of the day, stacking appointments one after another after another.  It is not something I recommend, and the truth is when you are in multiple places at once you are not fully in anyplace, but sometimes it is what you have to do just because of the sheer volume of what you need to accomplish.  

The second thing is this:  if you are serving in a mega-shul, sometimes you just have to work on Shabbat and Yom Tov.  You just have to, like it or not, admit it or not.  The four funerals I had were on the Friday after Shavuot.  The holiday began on Tuesday evening, at which point only one of the four funerals was scheduled.  The calls about the other funerals came in on Wednesday morning and afternoon, and I think one Thursday morning.  Both Yom Tov days.  For each funeral a meeting with the family is required.  At each meeting notes must be taken.  Eulogies must be written.  It is not possible to wait until the end of the holiday, Thursday night (and late!  close to 9:30), before beginning these meetings.  

So here is how it went down.  I met with one family Wednesday afternoon.  Thursday after services I came home directly and wrote eulogy #1.  Then Thursday afternoon I began meeting with the other three families.  One at 4, one at 5:30, one at 7.  Straight through, one after the other.  I finished those meetings at about 9 at night, Thursday night.  As of Thursday night the four family meetings were completed, and one eulogy was written.  Tired out, one good beer, some reading, and bed.

Friday morning up early.  Eulogy #2 written between 7 and 8:30.  Now with two eulogies finished I went to the first funeral, a graveside at 9:30.  From there right to the funeral home for funeral #2, a chapel service that began at 11.  I was back at the synagogue at 1, with the next funeral scheduled to begin at 3, the last funeral at 5.  From 1 to 2:30 I wrote eulogy #3 and also wrote the short remarks I would make at funeral #4 (the family and friends would be delivering the main eulogies).  In a pinch (and a four funeral day qualifies as a pinch) I can write a eulogy in an hour or so.  

I printed out the last eulogies, arrived at the funeral home at 2:45, officiated at funeral #3, and from the cemetery drove right back to the funeral home for funeral #4.  After the burial service I arrived home at about 6:45.

Oh, and there was that issue of the sermon for Shabbat morning.  But that is a story for another day.

 

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