One of the many gifts of my rabbinate is the opportunity I have to be with people in times of great joy as well as deep sorrow. When I was a younger rabbi (and I don’t mean the rabbi I was yesterday, but earlier in my now-18-year career), I failed to appreciate the true significance of this privilege. I recognize it now.
However, in the words of that Jewish boy from Minnesota who made good, Robert Zimmerman, better known to most of us as Bob Dylan, “I was older then. I’m younger than that now.”
As I began my career, my father, a now-retired physician, encouraged me to understand that just as with a doctor and her patients, so too with rabbis. While I may have any number of meetings in a given day, for those with whom I share my time, an interaction with their rabbi may well be the most important encounter they have all day.
As an alumnus-in-residence at the Hebrew Union College taught our senior class, every time we sit at someone’s bedside, every time we stand with a couple beneath a chuppah, every time we say kaddish with a newly bereaved family, we should approach the encounter as if it’s our first time.
This is not to suggest we regress to a child-like state or we fail to draw upon the experience and wisdom of age. Rather, it is to encourage us to remain aware of the innocence and wonder, in the words of Jewish liturgy, “of rejoicing with bride and groom” and the power implicit in what the poet Ranier Maria Rilke calls our “willingness to keep company with one who is sad.”
There is another teaching from Rilke that guides me in my work, most especially when I am uncertain that what I have to share will appropriately honor the significance of another’s experience.
“Do not believe,” Rilke tells us, “that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty. … Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find the words.”
To empathize with a family member, or friend, or someone across the room, or even one who is on the other side of the world, does not require our having had their experience (and even then, let us agree, no two experiences are exactly the same and we do a disservice if we compare or rank our losses and joys). Rather, our ability to see ourselves in the experience of another, to see our own reflection in the eyes of another human being, this simply requires that we be comfortable being silent in the face of all we don’t understand, that we allow the human connection we share to bridge our divide, and that we be willing to patiently and sensitively open our hearts to the person in front of us.
As professor of pastoral counseling, Robert Wicks writes, “A person who truly listens stands out because so few people take the time and have the openness to do so.” It’s not so complicated, really.
One day a little girl arrived home late from school. Her mother was angry and started to yell. However, after about five minutes, she suddenly stopped and asked: “Why were you late anyway?” The young child replied: “Because I had to help my friend.” “What was the problem?” the mother asked. “Her doll broke,” was the reply.
“And did you help her fix it?”
“No. I helped her to cry.”
This is the privilege of my rabbinate in times of sorrow and in times of celebration. For truly, this is what it means to live a life with others. As even small children understand, we need one another and we can be whoever each of us needs.
Let’s continue to take care of each other, you and I.
(Rabbi Aaron Bisno is the senior rabbi of Rodef Shalom Congregation.)