“Will you please…” Like markers on a trail these three words have dotted the path of my rabbinate. A moment in time where I am forced to stop and feel the presence of vocation and the presence of God. Some stops are fleeting a place to catch my breath — refocus and refresh. “Will you please pass the challah? Will you please lift me up to see the Torah? Will you please say Kaddish for my zayde?”
Some moments are life benders. Places where time stands still and memories are created. “Will you please … will you please do my funeral?” My friend and former congregant sat swallowed in his easy chair. It was a hot August afternoon, and the ceiling fan turned slowly above our heads. His head freshly shaved — to stave of the inevitable loss of hair. His face sunken, his eyes seemed to have grown in size and depth.
“Will you please do my funeral?” The words hung in the air riding the wave of the last six weeks that began with a phone call of cancer’s appearance, through the blazing path of a tumor untouched by medicine or radiation. Asking me to bury a friend, to hold his wife and eight year old daughter — a daughter brought home from China, a salve to infertility — who I had named in my tallis seven years earlier, watching the tears in his eyes as he saw the future laying before him.
“Will you please do my funeral?” A different future unfolded before us now. Those eyes looked into mine across the small living room. Eyes which had seen the x-rays, the MRIs, the doctor’s reports and seen with clarity that life was turning its last page. While he could, he wanted to dictate those last words of ending.
He looked to me not as a friend but as a rabbi, his rabbi. A rabbi who knew and loved his wife and daughter and would lay one hand on the pine casket and the other on his family’s shoulders. The rabbi who would place a shovel full of dirt on his grave and help his non-Jewish sisters through the words of the Kaddish.
“Will you please be my rabbi?” That is the question behind the question. It is the personal, it is the power, it is the privilege of our vocation. It is the path walked as a rabbi — as someone’s rabbi. It is a privilege to be of service.
Two days before Yom Kippur, I was looking into his eyes as he breathed his last breath. I did his funeral as I had promised the month before and said goodbye as a rabbi and a friend. That is my role and I am honored every day by it. Not bound by walls or edifice but by service and kindness and love.
Rabbi David Burstein is an educator, spiritual teacher, and community rabbi who is committed to meeting people where they are and helping them come closer to God.