The Last of the Last of Deuteronomy
Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses – whom the Lord singled out, face to face, for the various signs and portents that the Lord sent him to display in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his whole country, and for all the great and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel. Deuteronomy 34:10-12
Of the many privileges I had as a rabbi, the saddest and most satisfying was the eulogy. It is a sentiment I have heard from many of my colleagues, as well as clergy in other faith traditions. The opportunity to represent a life to those who were impacted by it is a profound responsibility at a powerful and sacred moment of transition.
I know a rabbi who, early on in his career, thought he had it all figured out. He had paragraphs that he would fit together, as he put it, “like Legos.” With a parable here and a section of a psalm there, attached to a recitation of the hard facts of the deceased’s life, he would construct a eulogy that sounded personal and familiar. Eventually, however, people caught on, and “one from column A and two from column B” was no longer effective.
When I heard him gleefully describe his hack, I promised myself I would never do that. Funerals (like all life cycle moments) may have been usual for me, but they were each unique for the family and friends involved. They deserved to know that the person who left a gap in their lives was like no one else. And, to the very best of my ability, those who came to mourn in support and offer comfort needed to be validated in their empathy. When I could no longer share the individuality of the broken heart, I decided long ago, it would be time to make way for someone who could.
The highlights of the life of Moses make up four-fifths of the books of the Bible called by his name. Though he lived 120 years, however, the Bible really narrates only a handful of them. And while later Jewish tradition shares or speculates other events, Moses the hero is eulogized more than Moses the man. He is known for his encounters with God, his challenges to Pharaoh and his leadership of Israel. Like any good eulogy, the personal flaws that might have influenced his public life were underplayed – his temper, his stutter, his disaffection from his family. We don’t even know if his wife, his children or any grandchildren were present to be consoled.
These few lines of tribute, laudatory though they may be, illustrate the dilemma I always faced when it was my task to remember someone I did not know very personally, or perhaps at all. The public aspects of a life can be framed with compassion and emotion. But what really makes each of us like no one else is the influence we leave on those we love. Yes, that influence can fluctuate between uplifting and difficult. But it is not a father’s public office or a mother’s business acumen that makes for a beloved parent. Taking the time to listen carefully (and often below the plain meaning of remembrances) is what reveals the essence of the person.
When a family member or close friend offers a eulogy, it is my experience that the remarks are frequently about the speaker more than the subject. It’s natural. The pain of loss is very personal, and that pain frames the moment. Such a eulogy inspires empathy for the speaker and, by extension, the listener’s sense of their own personal loss.
But I always took it as my responsibility to spend much less time on my own grief than on those who heard me speak. My colleagues who take similar satisfaction as I do in comforting the mourners know, I suspect, that they are conduits for the memories and impressions of others. Any other sermon flows from my own perspective, my own ideas, my own opinion, even my own Lego-like stories. A eulogy (and to a lesser extent remarks at a happy life cycle moment) should flow from the relationships that have the subject at the center. The listener should not be inspired to comfort me. Rather, I should put my comfort at their service. And that means listening with an open heart to family and friends to discover some essence of the person so that it can be reflected back.
Never again did there arise a prophet like Moses. Nor a father like Zelophehad. Nor a sister like Miriam. Nor a son like Nadab. Nor a person like you. At the end of the narrative of every life, however long or brief, there should be an acknowledgment that this person, in the context of friends and lovers, was like no one else.
Tam v’nishlam. Complete and whole. My effort to comment on the Torah using the choice of a single verse from each chapter – from Genesis, verse three of each chapter, Exodus, verse 5, Leviticus, verse 8, Numbers, verse 13 and the last of Deuteronomy – is over. If you followed the whole journey or any part of it, thank you. For the time being at least, each brief essay can be found on jackmoline.com under the “Weekly Column” link. I will take a break for a while, maybe longer.