At my daughter’s recent college graduation, one of the doctoral candidates spoke on behalf of the other graduate students in the university’s school of humanities. As a PhD in English, she had successfully defended her dissertation on the topic of 16th century deathbed memoirs written or dictated by British women. The speaker credited her studies, as well as her grandfather’s illness and subsequent recovery, with helping her to truly understand the meaning of death. She now felt prepared to enter the world beyond academia, possessed of deeper wisdom about human mortality.
Listening to her speech, I thought back to my ordination from rabbinical seminary twenty-six years ago. At the time, I too assumed that I was prepared for the hard realities of suffering and death which awaited me beyond the seminary’s walls. I actually had good reason to believe I understood how to minister to the dying and their loved ones. During rabbinical school I had spent a year as a student chaplain at Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center in New York, working with very sick and dying patients, as well as with their families. I built relationships with these people. I listened closely to their stories, and at times I wept with them for their lives that were ending too soon, or that were filled with regrets. They were writing their death bed memoirs in front of me, and I was terrified and honored to hear their stories limping from their dying breaths. I proudly reasoned with myself that I was ready to be a rabbi.
I was not really ready. During my first pulpit position, one morning at 3 AM, our phone rang. The local hospital emergency room wanted to let me know about the sudden death of a congregant. Rushing a half hour later into the ER, I found my congregant lying in one room. His estranged wife, whom I had been supporting through their impending divorce, sat in another room in the visitor’s lounge. In a third room sat his lover who had brought him that night to the hospital. I stayed with his wife in the ER through daybreak, when we went to her home to tell their young children about his death. Through the funeral and the shivah, the mourning period, I struggled to remain calm, collected and comforting to the man’s doubly bereaved family. My heart broke when his wife said to me that this man now being showered with praise by others was not the man she had known in recent years, as he forced his way out of her life.
No book, nor the wisest quote, nor the most intellectually gifted professor could have shown me how to un-knot any of that snarled tangle of live, loves and deaths. Nothing could replace this and future experiences which ripped my heart open wide enough to let God in; only then could God show me how to help others stitch their own lacerated hearts back together.
As a life-long student of great books and ideas, I am thankful for the learning and critical thinking that I, my children, and many students are lucky to have. The ancient Jewish sages whose words I study every day once said that studying is greater than action and engaged experience. Yet they concluded that the reason this is so is because studying leads to action, which paradoxically is greater than study from which it derives. My hope is that the graduates of 2016, both of my daughters among them, will passionately pursue lives filled with study, thought, and ideas; and that they will, with equal passion and courage, take those ideas into the world, open to unlearning everything about life for which they prepared, so that they can act upon and experience real life, as if for the first time.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, New York.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.