Shloshim for Reb Zalman

I have felt private since Reb Zalman passed. At first, I couldn’t find words to describe my feelings as I oscillated between simple acceptance and a deep sadness that left me in tears. For the rest of Semicha Week, I felt called to helping our chevra, first by singing a deathbed niggun Reb Zalman had shared with me years ago, by including El Maleh Rachamim in our Mincha that day, and by facilitating an abbreviated funeral service on Friday morning which began just as the funeral in Boulder began, giving us all an opportunity to say kaddish together.

When I walked into Kabbalat Shabbat that evening, I felt that I didn’t belong. A mourner waits outside until L’cha Dodi is over and only then comes into shul. I finally realized that I had lost my spiritual father, my rebbe, who had been in my life in one form or another for 52 years, whose chasid I have been for 42 of those years. So I left and returned when L’cha Dodi ended. All during the next week of Ruach HaAretz, the combination of teaching, preparing, and being with our amazing granddaughters took up nearly all my time, providing the benefit of remaining private. Finally, being home these past two weeks and using the Kaddish L-Yachid that my students and I created, has allowed me to begin processing my feelings.

And now shloshim, the first full month since his passing, is ending and I’m standing in the shul that Hanna and I nurtured into being so many years ago. Or Shalom was and remains our first contribution to a spiritual renewal of Judaism in a post-holocaust reality. Or Shalom is, by its very existence, part of Reb Zalman’s living legacy and it makes sense that this is where Hanna and I mark shloshim, that Vancouver is the place where I offer my first public words since Reb Zalman’s passing.

I like to think that our relationship was not so much student-teacher as rebbe-chasid. Reb Zalman often told the story of the man who came to the rebbe and told him: “My father came to me in a dream and said that I was to be the rebbe for 300 chasidim.” The rebbe responded: “When 300 chasidim come to me and say that your father told them in a dream that you are their rebbe, then I’ll take you seriously.” Reb Zalman would conclude: “There is no such thing as a rebbe without chasidim, nor a chasid without a rebbe.

One day among those we spent together on my first trip to Winnipeg in 1972, he asked me whether I would consider semicha from three rabbis, one each being Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. I told him that I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a rabbi at all, but if I did this would be a way I could embrace. By accepting the possibility that I could accept semicha from him (the Orthodox component!) and, as he used to say, by giving him permission to start a new lineage, I became his chasid and he became my rebbe. Thus, he called my semicha a “Certificate of Collegiality.”

We all know the story of the chasid who goes to watch how the rebbe ties his shoelaces. Here, then, is one version of what made Reb Zalman my rebbe:

1. He never pretended to be more than he was at any given moment. For me that meant that he showed me how to deal effectively with mistakes. My tendency is to wallow in the shame and embarrassment of my errors in judgement and particularly in speech. He showed me how to acknowledge my mistakes, accept them, and then move on to correct what could be corrected and to develop an awareness to minimize these possibilities in the future. He modelled that again for me as recently as two years ago when I began work on a booklet about an aspect of conversion that he initiated and which I didn’t have a chance to finish before his passing.

2. Also during that first trip to Winnipeg, he showed me the portrait of the friediker rebbe, Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, that he wanted placed on the wall in front of his deathbed and played me the music he wanted to be listening to as he died. I think he was about 48 at the time. If you’ve read the booklet called “Yom Kippur Kattan and Cycles of T’shuvah,” you know that he used to practice dying when riding the subway in Brooklyn. Later, he said that he wanted to be cremated and his ashes scattered at Auschwitz, not to flaunt our burial traditions, but rather to affirm his belief that cremation would not prevent resurrection and so to honour the deaths of those of our people during the Shoah who were cremated rather than buried. Then he proposed that a cemetery be created at the old Elat Chayyim where he and the rest of the founding generation of Jewish Renewal could be buried so that people would have a place to visit. Personally, I never liked this idea and told him so. The last conversation we had on the subject was when he told me that he had now decided he wanted only a wooden grave marker which would rot over time. I don’t know if this will happen, but he did decide to buried directly in the ground without a coffin.

In this extended conversation, I saw Reb Zalman as a person who thought deeply about the significance of individual behaviours in relation to values and as one who was constantly re-evaluating both behaviour and values. By the end, his focus was on eco-responsibility, on minimizing his carbon footprint wherever he could, and living that out right to and including the end. I want to believe that this was also one of the reasons we were told that he didn’t want lots of us flying into Boulder for his funeral.

3. Again, on that first visit to Winnipeg and, again, in the car, he told me that one thing he liked about me was that I knew how to get around. I think this was because I had hitchhiked from the interior of BC to Winnipeg to see him. At that time, my sense of myself was that everything I touched, broke. My inner response to him was, “If my rebbe thinks that I know how to get around, then maybe I do.” Ever since then I have noticed that, while I can’t fix everything that’s broken, I rarely make it worse. Reb Zalman saw the best in what I could become and related to that. In response, I tried to make his image of me as real as possible.

4. Reb Zalman made the point over and over again that being a rebbe was a function performed when called for and not a person on call. This is a teaching which is crucial for us as we begin to contemplate his legacy and how best to express it. A rear view mirror, he would say, is good for checking the road already travelled but not a good device for determining the way ahead. As he had the gift of making me, and everyone who knew him, feel that she or he was the most special person in his life, so we best manifest his legacy by making those who come into contact with us also feel special. As he saw the need to renew rather than restore Judaism, so we need to continue the work of renewing Judaism so that it is responsive to changing times and useful in enhancing the lives of its practitioners. And, perhaps most important of all, as he saw a Judaism that exists in an active partnership with all others, be they religious or not, who see this planet as a single, integrated, and conscious whole, so must we model a Judaism which engages with others in the effort to heal the wounds we have inflicted on the planet while simultaneously adapting and changing our priorities so that we can better live with the damage we have already caused.

His legacy is all of us, how we live, how we make our decisions, how we love each other and learn to work together. In this way, his soul will be bound to ours and ours to his in a living bond.

תהי נשמתו צרורה בצרור החיים

י־ה ואנחנו נחלתו

The above is what I wrote to say at the shloshim in Vancouver. Attached is the article I wrote for the Jewish Independent of Vancouver. 

ZalmanJewish Independent