Two years ago, at age 93, my father passed away suddenly and peacefully in IsraelLit. ''the one who struggles with God.'' Israel means many things. It is first used with reference to Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel (Genesis 32:29), the one who struggles with God. Jacob's children, the Jewish people, become B'nai Israel, the children of Israel. The name also refers to the land of Israel and the State of Israel., where he had lived for many years. I flew to Israel for the funeral and the first half of shivaSeven-day mourning period following the funeral of a first-degree relative, during which time family members remain at home and receive visits of comfort. Other customs include abstinence from bathing and sex, covering mirrors, sitting lower than other visitors, and the lighting of a special memorial candle which burns for seven days., sitting the second half in America. I rose from shiva three days before ErevLit. Evening Jewish holidays begin in the evening. Hence, Erev Shabbat is the eve of the Sabbath. Rosh HashanahThe Jewish New Year, also considered the Day of Judgment. The period of the High Holidays is a time of introspection and atonement. The holiday is celebrated with the sounding of the shofar, lengthy prayers in synagogue, the eating of apples and honey, and round challah for a sweet and whole year. Tashlikh, casting bread on the water to symbolize the washing away of sins, also takes place on Rosh Hashana..
I was, at the time, in my tenth year as the rabbi at Vassar College, where I always delivered two High Holiday sermons a year. My Rosh Hashanah sermon had already been written. It explored the difference between teshuvah, repentance, and kaparah, atonement, and included references from the events of that past summer, reflections on the TorahThe Five Books of Moses, and the foundation of all of Jewish life and lore. The Torah is considered the heart and soul of the Jewish people, and study of the Torah is a high mitzvah. The Torah itself a scroll that is hand lettered on parchment, elaborately dressed and decorated, and stored in a decorative ark. It is chanted aloud on Mondays, Thursdays, and Shabbat, according to a yearly cycle. Sometimes "Torah" is used as a colloquial term for Jewish learning and narrative in general. readings, and a story from my childhood. It was clever and well-crafted, and utterly irrelevant to my new state of grief. There was no way I could deliver that sermon.
I stood before my campus community on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, shaken and in deep grief, having done no last-minute preparation and with no sermon to deliver. In my welcome, I told the students that my father had just died suddenly; that I had risen from shiva three days before; that I might cry during the prayers. Then I launched into the service, my heart over-flowing with gratitude for the beloved and supportive community that I was privileged to serve.
When it was time for the sermon, I spoke, with no anchor and no notes. I talked about what it felt like to lose a parent—as if the platform you’d been standing on your whole life, and didn’t even know you’d been standing on, had suddenly been kicked away. I talked about how vivid life seemed at that moment, and imagined what it would be like to live every moment with this acute knowledge of life’s fragility. I talked about my inability, in that state of mind, to inhabit my rabbinic role and voice, and could hear myself, as if from a distance, speaking in an intimate and vulnerable tone. And, as promised in my welcome, I cried.
My students are always respectful during High Holiday services, but the quality in the room on that evening matched the quality in my heart—an altered state of intense presence. Students came up afterward and hugged me silently. My boss, a Presbytarian minister, told me it sounded like God had been speaking through me. I believed him, and felt humbled by his words.
When Rosh Hashanah was over, I immediately started wondering—with more curiosity than anxiety—what I would do for Yom KippurThe holiest day of the Jewish year and the culmination of a season of self-reflection. Jews fast, abstain from other worldly pleasures, and gather in prayers that last throughout the day. Following Ne'ilah, the final prayers, during which Jews envision the Gates of Repentance closing, the shofar is sounded in one long blast to conclude the holy day. It is customary to begin building one's sukkah as soon as the day ends.. Should I pull out a stock sermon from a prior year? Reconfigure the Rosh Hashanah sermon I had already prepared? I knew intellectually that I could do this, but as the week progressed it became clear that emotionally I could do no such thing.
On the evening of Kol Nidre, I stood in front of them again, with no anchor and no notes, and spoke. It was different from the prior week—I had thought more about what I wanted to say—but it was also the same. During that talk it suddenly occurred to me that my father had inadvertently handed me a great gift by dying ten days before Rosh Hashanah and ten years into my rabbinate—enough years to give me the confidence, and the earned trust, to grieve in public, to fully shed the mask. I don’t remember much of that talk, but I do remember sharing that thought, as it came to me, in my unrehearsed, unwritten sermon.
I have not written a High Holiday sermon since, and I don’t plan to this year. I don’t presume that this is what any other rabbi should do and I don’t know what I will do next year. With time, it will be harder to capture that intense feeling of presence, and perhaps my courage will falter. But so far, my father’s pre-Rosh Hashanah yahrzeit(Yiddish) The anniversary of a death, usually marked by the lighting of a 24-hour yahrzeit candle and the recitation of Kaddish, the memorial prayer. For U.S. Jews, the unveiling of the headstone usually takes place on or around the first yahrzeit. still serves as a cherished catalyst, plunging me into the extreme vulnerability and joy at the heart of this annual Jewish adventure of the soul.
Rena Blumenthal graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2003. She just completed eleven years as the campus rabbi at Vassar College, and now works as a freelance rabbi.