Five years ago today I was attending the last retreat of my rabbinic studies. It was a Thursday. Classes ended the next day. My chevre and I would celebrate Shabbat together, and everyone would go home, rich with new knowledge.
That Thursday was also the day when two of my then congregants were to have their beit dins; they had, with their spouses, traveled to the retreat site.
Beloved rabbis were to sit on the beit dins – Rabbi Victor Gross, Rabbi Nadya Gross, Rabbi Shaya Isenberg. With such rabbis, I could be certain that the two candidates would experience the best kind of beit din – one that would be reflective, considerate of heart and soul and mind. I could be sure that they would feel safe, welcomed into Klal Israel.
And so it went.
My husband, Ralf, and our son, Erik, also arrived that day. They were serving as witnesses for the congregants. We had also planned to drive to the Virginia mountains after the retreat for a short family vacation.
But it did not go like that.
During the afternoon, Ralf was oddly distant. Though my husband is a quiet man, he enjoys an opportunity to share in communal joy. But even at our celebratory dinner, when we laughed and joked about the delightful moments and the unexpected ones of the day, Ralf was withdrawn. Erik, too, seemed unusually reserved.
Very late that night, when the dinner was over, Ralf and Erik drove me back to the retreat center. Ralf parked, and turned the key.
“I think Evelyn is dying,” he said, turning to me.
Shocked, I held him as he cried.
My mother-in-law, Evelyn Thiede had gone into the hospital that day for a procedure we all assumed to be essentially safe. A cyst had formed near her heart which needed to be lanced. But the operation went wrong. The surgeon cut into her heart. They tried to sew it together, without success. She was being kept alive by machines.
“Honey,” I asked, “why didn’t you tell me before?”
He explained. Hours earlier, when his brother had called, he had thought over what I was doing that day. I was sitting in on the beit dins. I would need to be fully present for my congregants. They would want my attention and my joy. Knowing earlier would not change any outcomes; Ralf and Erik would tell me as soon as they could, and that would be after the celebratory dinner.
I loved my mother-in-law; it felt to me that she was meant, like Ralf, to be part of my life. She was, in a way, a kind of Naomi for me.
Evelyn was a straightforward, kind, forgiving person. She liked to knit and cook and go on small excursions. She sang with a voice like a girl’s even in her sixties and seventies. My name always sounded beautiful when she said it. She thought of others first.
Five years later, Ralf’s decision still strikes me as profoundly, deeply generous.
He wanted to protect my congregants’ day and their joy. He knew he could do that. He was also right about me: The fear I knew in Evelyn’s last hours, the grief and the horror of it – all of that would have been impossible to box away during those beit dins or the celebration thereafter. I would not have been the rabbi my congregants needed.
I have had occasion, these past years, to think about what rabbis think they must be and must do for their congregants. Or rather, I have learned about what congregants think their rabbis must be and must do for them.
For some, the rabbi must remember every challenge each congregant is facing. They must respond immediately to every request. Rabbis must take the high road while congregants allow themselves to indulge in behaviors that would get them fired from their workplaces and “unfriended” by their social network on Facebook.
Judging the rabbi can become a congregational competition. Winning the prize for the harshest judgment and imposing the cruelest sentence appears, for some, to be a sought-after accomplishment. There are those who take pride in winning such a prize.
The appalling number of religious leaders suffering from depression, divorce, and addiction, the number of religious leaders who barely make it through a decade of service – these facts tell us about the price religious leaders of all faiths pay for entering the profession.
I do not regret not knowing sooner that Evelyn was dying. Ralf is his mother’s son, and Evelyn would have thoroughly approved of his choice. I know that with complete certainty.
I hope that the congregants who later discovered what had happened valued the generous decision Ralf made on their behalf.
Five years later, remembering the joy and the terrible sorrow of that day, I can only pray for this: That all congregants try to hold their religious leaders dear – if only for their willingness to try and serve. I pray that they examine their own hearts and motives and remember to be constructive. And kind. Kind, above all.
May we act on behalf of others and for the sake of heaven, in this and every year to come.
Evelyn, I imagine, would love that.