Every now and then there are some times when being a congregational rabbi is just, well, hard. Some of this is seasonal: of course there are the High Holy Days, with the increased expectations and attendance, plethora of services to officiate and sermons to deliver, complex and demanding music and myriad details to manage. There is Passover, with its many ritual and congregational duties plus the personal demands that any Jew experiences who is hosting a Seder and preparing for the festival itself (not to mention the pain of eating matzah). And there are other festival times when the rituals and personal obligations pile up and can seem overwhelming.
And then there are those other, unexpected times, when things just come down all at once, without warning or preparation.
Usually this time of the Jewish year is a fairly relaxed one: all the holidays, including Sukkot and Simchat Torah are over, there has been time enough to clear up some of the leftover projects that we couldn’t get to over that long festival season, and it’s still a while before Chanukah. Typically early November in the synagogue calendar, and in a congregational rabbi’s life, is a pretty nice time. Even the weather cooperates.
But sometimes things conspire to prove that old Yiddish proverb mensch tracht und Gott lacht. We make plans, and God laughs.
It all started during Sukkot, actually, before the holidays even ended. Between the Shabbat of Sukkot and the Sunday after Simchat Torah I conducted five funerals or memorial services. My wife, Wendy, and I hosted a big post-Sukkot party for the High Holy Day Choir that night, and then the next day our outstanding young assistant rabbi, Jason Holtz, went into the hospital for a dangerous ailment. That week we had Rabbi Holtz and four other Temple members hospitalized with serious conditions, and suddenly I was also covering all the various responsibilities that Rabbi Holtz normally handles. It was a shocking turn of events for him and his wife, and for our entire temple.
We have been assured that Rabbi Holtz will make a full recovery, and we pray for a Refuah Shleimah for him speedily and soon.
The following week in my congregation there were three more funerals or memorials, including the sudden death of an apparently healthy young woman — and then three women were diagnosed with breast cancer. All this over the course of about three weeks. It was stunning.
This tzoris (woe) was leavened in that period of time by the joy of celebrating three B’nai Mitzvah, a baby-naming and a bris, conversion ceremonies for eight (!) new Jews, and the pleasure of singing and preparing two wonderful concerts of great Jewish music, one with the Tucson Chamber Artists, the second Bloch’s Sacred Service coming up with the Tucson Master Chorale.
But on a higher plain, all of this could get you thinking about the general fragility of life, and the simple fact that we know a whole lot less about the future, or sometimes even about the present, than we think we do.
It is a cliché, of course, but no matter how elaborately we plan, how carefully we prepare, or how certain we are that we know what we are doing and where we are going, ultimately it really is all in God’s hands, not ours.
Which inevitably teaches us a greater lesson still: to be grateful for what we do have. In this season of Thanksgiving, a holiday based on our own Sukkot festival, we need to remember that life is a gift, that good health is a blessing, that people we love and nurture and care about are here now. And that, while God’s ways are sometimes inscrutable, the Holy One has blessed us with much that is good and precious.
We have today. Only today is ours. Only this moment, the present, belongs to us. May we learn to be grateful for it and to give thanks. For if we can do that, then the challenges we experience in life can be overcome. Baruch Ata Adonai — blessed are You, God, who gives us the ability to appreciate what we have now
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El and host of “The Too Jewish Radio Show with Rabbi Sam Cohon and Friends.”