Rabbis And Matters Of Loss

By Rabbi Steven Sager

Matters of loss – illness, infirmity, frailty, death, grief, recovery – are among the ubiquitous moments in a rabbi’s pastoral work.

Loss often takes rabbis by surprise, posing unique challenges: realigning priorities despite the imminent arrival of Shabbat, holidays, other rabbinic responsibilities, or other insistent life-cycle events in the community. A Rabbis Manual offers a suggested script for responding to loss. But more than being the caretaker of rituals, a rabbi must be a model of caring for diverse personal and emotional needs. The strength to gently hold a range of emotions, as well as the insight, intuition, and empathy to guide are not “by the book” talents. Such capacities might not come as easily to some rabbis as to others, although they are necessary for all.

A rabbi seeking to enrich the capacity of responding to loss finds a resource in Sicha, an organization committed to enriching and sustaining rabbis in their work.

Sicha’s Rabbinic Retreat, held each spring in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, is dedicated to exploring a single theme related to loss during three days of hevruta, full-group study, journaling, and sharing.

The most recent Sicha Rabbinic Retreat set forward the theme, “Leave-Taking: The Paradox of Parting.” How do we say “good-bye” when mortality is heavy in the air? What do we leave behind? What do we take away? How does our own personal experience, or our imagined and anticipated experience enable us to help others with their moments of leave-taking?

Participants found resources in classical texts and in modern Hebrew poetry where sages and artists offered rich understandings of our topic expressed in the language of Jewish imagination that infuses us and grounds our work.

An example of my own learning in the last retreat helps to narrate the event’s potential. One of our texts, the Talmud’s story presenting the leave-taking of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and his students, begins this way:

When Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was dying, his students came into his room to visit him. When Rabbi Yohanan saw them, he began to cry. His students said to him: Lamp of Israel! Great Pillar! Mighty Hammer! Why are you crying? (Berachot 28b)

In our study of the text, I came to recognize something that I’d never noticed before; namely, that the master’s famous students – among them, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanos and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiah – are unnamed in this Talmud story.

Such anonymity – hiding in plain sight – was the perfect journal prompt for me! With these great luminaries under cowl and cover, I found a place for myself around the master’s bed. In my journal, I discovered – with surprise – that in responding to our teacher’s tears, my own voice was inflected with confusion and alarm. I wrote of my imagined experience at his bedside:

His tears dissolved me. Gone were my hopes to hear Torah brought from the edge of another world. Gone was assurance and radiance. Remember who you are, I urged beneath the words! You’re crying?! Even I could do that!

I had read the story many times. But I when I lived myself into the drama, I discovered an honest – even if embarrassing – confusion of emotions. I urged the master to remember who he was because that’s who I needed him to be: The Lamp, Pillar, and Mighty Hammer. Even now – especially now – he could still light the way, support my world, and hammer out meaning on the anvil of the unknown. I needed my hero not to cry. The journal allowed me to examine my own reactions in slowed time. My complicated leave-taking involved self-interest, anger, and fear as well as compassion, love, and empathy for my master and for my fellow students. I had taken final leave of many congregants, friends, and family. But until now, my experience had not included anything like this.

Personal journal writing is an integral component of the Sicha Rabbinic Retreat, extending and deepening the other elements of our daily learning. Each morning, we survey the day’s texts. Then, hevrutot, meet for slow and close study. Following hevruta learning, the full company of participants gathers, reassembling our Bet Midrash for further exploration. With the full group present, each participant briefly identifies an aspect of the morning’s texts that might prompt an afternoon of writing. After lunch, each rabbi can disappear into the greenery to reflect and to write, to map out the personal terrain where story and experience – lived or imagined – can meet.

Journaling is a retreat requirement. But each evening’s sharing of personal writing is optional. Personal discovery is its own valuable end that might percolate up into public use.

Rabbis are regularly challenged to reach beyond personal experiences in order more fully to serve the unique needs created by loss. The Sicha Retreat’s goal is to enable rabbis to reach both within and beyond personal experience in ways that make them increasingly renewable, self-discoverable, and self-sustainable.

The 2020 Sicha Rabbinic Retreat will take place May 11-15 2020, at Wildacres Retreat in Little Switzerland, NC. This year’s theme is, “Mechayeh Hametim: Life Among And Beyond Our Losses.”

Rabbi Steven Sager, Ph.D., is the director of Sicha, an organization dedicated to rabbinic enrichment. Sager is Rabbi Emeritus of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, NC. He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Duke Divinity School and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute.