And then we are brought right down to earth. Literally.
Last fall, I arrived to officiate a funeral at a relatively new cemetery in our town. It was small – barren, mostly of trees or landscaping, but featuring a sizable and rather muddy-looking pond at one side.
On the other side of the cemetery, across a busy local highway was a gas station and a storefront that had certainly seen brighter days.
Though I often do funerals for unaffiliated Jews, I had met the woman whose funeral I was officiating. She had been a witty, acerbic, and, in her way, absolutely charming presence at one of our Hanukkah parties. I knew the kind of culture that gave rise to her style of quips and comments, and I appreciated her intelligence and her sense of humor.
She attended my small community’s doings once or twice more; she was not “religious,” she told me, so we shouldn’t expect to see her. Still, nearly a decade later, it was not at all hard to remember her. Her sons told me the way she had become a second mother to their friends and distant cousins but remarked, repeatedly, on her sense of humor. I could certainly recall her loving and witty personality from my own brief encounters with her, so writing a hesped for a woman who had given so much and taken care of so many came easily.
The funeral itself was a rather different matter.
There were not too many attendees – perhaps about twenty. One came in flip-flops; another took her shoes off during the service.
The casket was a bright fire-engine red; I was given to understand that it had been ordered, then rejected, by another family.
All appeared to be going well, however, regardless of a casket shining like a fire truck in the sun, the sound of cars whizzing by, and an unusual lack of footwear.
I greeted the mourners. I read two psalms and a poem that seemed to capture the spirit of the woman we had come to honor. I was glad to see that the hesped managed to capture her bright and powerful personality. Both sons nodded at me; both had tears in their eyes as I spoke of their beloved mother.
It was time to chant El Malei Rachamim. I waited, composed my soul, and asked the Holy One help me convey simple and honest compassion.
About ten words in to the haunting, exquisite melody, I felt a sudden, sharp stinging on my left foot. Then my right. While singing, I looked down for a moment to see a crowd of ants congregating in little red minyans of their own, running into my shoes. I saw the telltale sign. There was a mound next to my left foot and the ants were swarming from its crushed mouth.
I went on singing. There was no way to try and brush the creatures off, no way to stop the proceedings, no way to do anything but ask the Holy One – with great and fully spontaneous intensity – for the strength to ignore the fiery pain in my extremities.
Fire ants are among the many insects I react to allergically.
Thank the Holy One. I finished the prayer, competed the service, allowed time for the mourners to say a last goodbye, all the while feeling the flaming pain and itching rise up my legs. Some of the ants had found my calves an attractive alternative venue for their impromptu meeting.
When I could, I made my way over to my husband, Ralf, and told him what had happened.
“With spiritual experience,” he said, “comes the agony of the feet.”
“He says sole-fully,” I rejoined.
Knowing that such things usually cause violent swelling and a long road of misery and sleepless nights, Ralf did his best to find ways to whisk me home.
But mourners also wanted to thank me, bless their hearts, and there was no gracious getaway.
Religious leaders have no idea what they are getting into when they feel that call to serve. You can’t dream up the things that will happen at life cycle events, in your communities, at the lecture you thought would go so smoothly.
My only advice: Be prepared to be brought back down to earth.