A Double Loss

Man worrying

It took many years to realize that my rabbi, who offered so little comfort after my father’s death, was grieving too.

by Lois Greene Stone

Guests could be noisy, standing around my mother’s baby grand piano and singing while she played, enjoying a conga line around the rooms on the main level of my parents’ home. Guests could be comfortable, engaging in quiet conversation, happy around such remarkable hosts as my parents. When the rabbi came, however, it was as if a unique person had entered; respect and admiration was shown almost instantly by anyone in the room, and a place was made for him to sit. My parents felt it was an honor when he rang our doorbell.

During my growing years, I believed a rabbi was one who comprehended what others couldn’t and who had been granted a connection to the Almighty. He understood where all the other people in the world came from when Adam and Eve left Eden. He really knew the reason for ritual; when he blessed a congregation, they all felt they were blessed. This man was a master. All the unknown was given to him, and he could sort it all out for his people.

Like other teens, when he gave a sermon, we used various excuses to get up from our seats in shul, thought our parents believed such excuses, and we knew we had a 45-minute reprieve. Love and compassion were words my mom used as she spoke to my dad about the marvelous or inspiring sermon.

Since girls were not allowed to learn the man’s language, Hebrew, we had confirmation classes, culminating with a commencement. Wearing a white robe, a satin skullcap inscribed with the year, flat white leather shoes with an ankle strap, and holding a very large floral arrangement, the rabbi granted us confirmation. We’d learned about koshering food, the Sabbath, ritual, ancient Judaism, what’s expected of a Jewish wife, and our entrance into this adulthood was with a gift of a white leather Bible and the rabbi’s ritual prayer. How could I not have confidence, trust, and belief that this man was connected to the wisdom of the hidden? He said a blessing over me; I had to be really blessed!

At age 17, I left for college. Since I believed he knew answers and could see the future, when he wished me well, I just had to be and do well.

I turned 20 on April 13. On May 20, the housemother woke me and took me to the train station shortly after midnight. My dad had died a few minutes before midnight, which made it Friday, and had to be buried before Shabbos that same day.

I noticed a pine box with a raised Jewish star carved on the side, saw a funeral as if watching a film, was put in a limo as a procession intentionally passed our house, and then the synagogue, before heading to an open grave. Not real. Got to the house where mirrors were covered, and wooden stools were placed in the living room. At first, my mind thought, I was told he died on the couch, and maybe no one wants to sit on the silk damask. I noticed my blouse had been torn and couldn’t remember why, then sat on a hard box as people just kept coming in. The rabbi entered. I jumped up and ran to him. He’d know what to say. He’d comfort me. He’d explain why my dad was never going to be seen again. He’d tell me about the mysteries that only he, with his pipeline to the Almighty’s knowledge, actually knew about.

I looked up at him, feeling smaller than my 5-foot-4-inch height, and uttered “Oh, Rabbi, I don’t understand this.” He looked at me, detached, arms at his side, and mumbled to himself, but loud enough for me to hear, “How does a healthy 45-year-old man lie down and die in his living room?” Well, I, too, wanted to know this. He moved away. I followed him. “Rabbi, help me, please.” He said nothing, didn’t even touch my arm, told my mother shivah would be shorter, as my father died on Lag ba-Omer.

With my torn, black, grosgrain sliver of cloth pinned to my sleeve, I went back to finish the semester. Anger was a sensation new to me, and the loss – so overwhelming without words from the man I expected always had biblical words of comfort – changed me as well. He didn’t speak of why; he didn’t speak of Almighty’s will; he didn’t listen when I wanted to cry or beg for some universal truth. I went through the motions at rituals and holidays, focused on something else during synagogue sermons, and saw him as one who can teach girls’ confirmation or boys’ bar mitzvah, go through the motions at weddings and funerals, but nothing of substance touched my ears.

What have I learned from this? Rabbis are people with a degree in religion, as my degree was in English and art. Rabbis are people who are also filled with unresolved conflicts, feelings that can overwhelm, helplessness. Delivering eulogies for departed friends, whose lives were shorter than anticipated, numb them as well. They are interpreters of the Bible, but without any closer contact to the Almighty than I have. So, when I look back to that spring day when a rabbi toppled from his pedestal, I forgive his failure. He was bewildered that his 45-year-old friend – a man who was so involved with the synagogue and its congregants that the funeral cars detoured to pass the two physical places important while he lived: the house where his loved ones dwelled and the shul – had passed so suddenly. The rabbi, too, wanted comfort from the confusion.

About the Author

Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Her poetry and personal essays have been included in hardcover and paperback book anthologies. Collections of her personal items, photos, and memorabilia can be found in major museums, including 12 different divisions of the Smithsonian.

3 Comments

  1. ruth housman May 22, 2015 Reply

    I am a psychotherapist. I have worked in the Clinics everywhere, have seen what I thought was everything, and in that everything, spirit rises. I learned more about the human soul from them, my patients, than I ever taught them. It was a privilege to work with those who came through my door. Yes, everyone is grappling with personal demons, and to lose a close friend, is a human situation of deep loss, for a rabbi too. And it happens one loss for us all also invokes other losses, and so there is a deep sadness that does bring down a heavy curtain when something unexpected, like this, becomes more than a major blow, and that is low.

    On the other hand a rabbi is schooled to provide comfort for those in despair, for those who have lost, and a rabbi encounters much loss, because this is his job, his calling.

    I totally respected a rabbi who wrote a book I used to teach from, called Journeys, about Jewish mysticism, spiritual seekers. He wrote in the preface that he had misgivings, severe misgivings about becoming a rabbi when his mom developed cancer. I so appreciated his honesty because this was, real.

    What this rabbi did was not a good thing, because you felt that knife to the soul, and if he now knows, he might regret this, might ask you to forgive his grief, that so blinded him to the needs of your family, to you, and actually to His Family. I note the ILY in the word family since I do it always with words, and I see the I Love You, and surely this greater story, is about LOVE, or what are we here for?

  2. david housman May 22, 2015 Reply

    I am a psychotherapist. I have worked in the Clinics everywhere, have seen what I thought was everything, and in that everything, spirit rises. I learned more about the human soul from them, my patients, than I ever taught them. It was a privilege to work with those who came through my door. Yes, everyone is grappling with personal demons, and to lose a close friend, is a human situation of deep loss, for a rabbi too. And it happens one loss for us all also invokes other losses, and so there is a deep sadness that does bring down a heavy curtain when something unexpected, like this, becomes more than a major blow, and that is low.

    On the other hand a rabbi is schooled to provide comfort for those in despair, for those who have lost, and a rabbi encounters much loss, because this is his job, his calling.

    I totally respected a rabbi who wrote a book I used to teach from, called Journeys, about Jewish mysticism, spiritual seekers. He wrote in the preface that he had misgivings, severe misgivings about becoming a rabbi when his mom developed cancer. I so appreciated his honesty because this was, real.

    What this rabbi did was not a good thing, because you felt that knife to the soul, and if he now knows, he might regret this, might ask you to forgive his grief, that so blinded him to the needs of your family, to you, and actually to His Family. I note the ILY in the word family since I do it always with words, and I see the I Love You, and surely this greater story, is about LOVE, or what are we here for?

    I put in my husband’s email and name here, because this kept rejecting but I wrote this. It’s not his comment.

  3. Rabbi Cheryl Weiner July 23, 2015 Reply

    As a Rabbi, I am also familiar with loss and grief as a board certified Chaplain. While forgiving your rabbi frees you from your anger, your anger is a valuable marker for you and others concerning grief. Anger emerges with grief and if not dealt with adequately will resurface unbidden at other times that remind you of this incident. At the very least your rabbi might have said, “I am so sorry, I am grieving also for your father and I have no words of comfort right now”. Yes, we as rabbis are human and yes, we grieve also. But our professional calling is to reach outside of ourselves to be present to our congregants and constituents, especially when traumatic events occur. While you may be beyond this, it is important to come to closure with this rabbi so that in the future when trauma or suffering occurs in your life, you will be able to reach into the Jewish core of comfort that surrounds the spirit and gives us resilience in times of need—without having to deal with the residue that this experience might have left. Forgiveness serves us all; but confrontation and resolution does also. Your rabbi needs to know how he impacted you.

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