This week I’m drawn to reflect on how clock time collapses in the face of death, life and practice. And yet something vital persists through time.
Sunday was marked by the torrential rains that once again washed away historic Ellicott City’s Main Street. The locals call it “a 1,000 year storm.” What meteorologists mean by this is there is a .1% chance in any year that such a storm will hit. But the last one hit just two years ago. I’m not sure if actuarial tables follow the same mathematical principles: a seventy-nine year old woman could be expected to live for another ten years. Judy did not.
Judy and her husband Jon were among the first “locals” I met when I moved to Baltimore to go to college. Over the years that we spent time in one another’s homes and on an occasional outing, she was kind and helpful in the way an older sister can be. I lost this couple in a divorce almost forty years ago and had rarely seen them since. Even so, I wanted to be present among the mourners honoring her life. Waiting for the ceremony to begin, the room was full of people greeting one another – so many people in her life who were not strangers to one another.
The officiating rabbi had listened deeply and wisely to what family members recalled about Judy’s life, and wove them into a beautiful and tender picture: significant losses that had shaped her as an adolescent, choices she made to tend to family, to her social work and counseling patients, to community institutions and well-being.
I experienced once again a mix of wonder, regret, and resignation that it is through a eulogy I learn so much about one who has died. The person I remember fondly, “knew” and took to be a whole person – I “knew” such a small part and yet somehow that also contained the whole of her.
I experienced once again how time collapses at such a moment: a lifetime into a 20-minute eulogy. The definitive ending. Or a person’s departure from the time-bound into some timeless realm. A self-comforting thought.
Tuesday was marked by a more rare event, and one that I was attending for the first time: the ordination of my old friend Jerry as a rabbi. Jerry and his wife Becky and I had shared some years together as members of the same weekly Chaverah, a Jewish fellowship. As I pulled up and parked across the street from the 145-year old synagogue, Jerry beckoned me to join in the pre-ceremonial photo-shoot outside. We were delighted to see one another: it had been perhaps several decades.
From a distance I had followed his lengthy journey through both secular and rabbinic studies. This was such a singular culmination of years of effort. According to Becky’s lovingly written bio of her husband he began teaching himself Hebrew out of a book when he was 15, visited Israel five times before he was 20. He earned a degree with honors in Political Science and Spanish. Most recently Jerry completed a Rabbinical degree at the Union of Traditional Judaism along with an MS in Pastoral Counseling.
Several of his rabbinic teachers traveled some distance for the occasion, and praised Jerry for his devotion, persistence, patience, and provocative questions as a student. But the overall theme of this eulogy-during-life was his menschlichkeit (roughly translated from the Yiddish as humanity, human goodness, honor, integrity). They spoke to his skill in tending to peoples’ needs, to sensing just which words, which tone to strike to help the person in front of him. And they spoke of the partnership between Jerry and Becky, and their numerous acts of kindness, showing up at the door of whoever needed help in the community with practical, emotional, and spiritual support.
The similarities to the eulogy spoken at Judy’s funeral were striking: one life story ended, another beginning a new chapter. And yet in Jerry’s life, time collapses regularly.
Because among the many dynamics of Torah study is the collapse of time. We are cautioned not to assume the events we read in chronological order in Torah actually transpired that way. And the 63 sections of the Talmud contain conversations among countless rabbis over hundreds of years, as if all were sitting around a table in the same study hall with today’s students.
Times collapses, but the fruits of our practice persist.