Howard Goldsmith
Dad, Husband, Rabbi, Outdoorsman, Skier, Cook, Dreamer

Funerals Lend Perspective on Trump and COVID

(Ten months and) Two Weeks of Loss, by Rabbi Howard J. Goldsmith
It has been a very sad few weeks for our congregation. Dear, long-time congregants have died. Other members of our sacred community have lost parents, siblings, and spouses. Some have died of COVID, some of old-age, some young after long battles with terrible diseases. But the loss has been so great, the loss has been so very real.
These losses have lent perspective to the past weeks and months of our national life. It certainly brings the pain of the pandemic home. So much loss in the headlines and we become numb. Loss in the congregation breaks through the unreal statistics. Each person who dies is a person with a life and a story and family and history and an irreplaceable soul, an utterly unique space in this world. This is always true. But the weight of it hit me this week when I buried two congregants days apart in graves practically next to one another. At the open grave, we recited eulogies and prayers. Just feet away the newly filled grave from the funeral of days before. It was surreal, and it was so very real.
These losses have lent perspective in another important way. The politics and political violence of this moment are scary and sad. And the politics also distract us from the very preciousness of life. When families speak to me of their loved ones, rarely do we discuss their political outlook. And, when we do, it is usually only in passing. What we talk about instead is generations of family, parents and grandparents, children and grandchildren, and, God willing, great-grandchildren. We talk about the joys of youth and young love, of small starter apartments and the move to the suburbs. Children remember dad on the sidelines in his suit from work and mom helping with school work and costumes for the play. We talk about family trips and family tragedies and family dinners and family holidays and the family jokes that people make about the sometimes silly sounds of Hebrew words. Not everything is good or joyful, not all relationships are easy – some are quite hard – but the richness of life and relationship comes through in the conversations I have with bereaved families, the conversations I’m blessed to participate in.
I’m never one to downplay the important of politics or current events. Inevitably after the High Holy Days someone calls to complain about a sermon being too political or too liberal or too critical of Israel or not critical enough. Our society and its leaders and its events matter a great deal. But these awful weeks of burying so many dear congregants and their loved ones, of offering condolences, these awful weeks also remind me that life is lived at home. Life is lived with the people who matter most. Life is lived in the books we read and the dinners we eat and the trips we take and the laughs we share and the fights we have and the tears we shed and the imperfections that make us human. And love matters most. Real love, the kind that accepts all our human foibles and the mistakes we make and the times we lose our temper or leave a kind word unsaid. It is the same kind of real love that heightens our joys and gives us strength to care for our kids and our parents, our siblings and our spouses and dear friends. That is at the very heart of life.
Perhaps these are just the self-indulgent musings of a rabbi who has done too many funerals too close together. I know that none of this will unseat Trump, protect us from his mob, or pass Biden’s agenda. None of this will cure corona virus and get life back to normal. It does not give voice to the feelings of my congregants. I’m not sure that it brings much comfort, either. But it’s real. My heart aches along with all of our congregants who are grieving, all in our country and world who are grieving. Perhaps there lies a bit an answer. Perhaps in the pain and grief is the common humanity that we sometimes forget in these heated times. In that loss and sadness, in the richness of lives lived and love shared, perhaps there is the common humanity that binds us. More than a political idea or national identity, more than a flag or a faith, it is that common humanity that can, amidst the anger and fear and grief, can help us transcend and find one another once again. Because whether you wear a MAGA hat or carry an NPR tote bag, our lives begin and end the same way, we share so much in our common humanity, so much that perhaps, God willing, we can move beyond this moment to a better brighter place.
I’ve been a rabbi long enough to know that funerals come in waves. I’ll typically do three or four funerals in a row and then nothing for months. I know that our congregation will move beyond this darkness and will again focus on uplifting prayer and impactful social action and education and the joy of life and Jewish tradition. I’ll be able to think again about budgets and board business and working with the great staff here at Emanu-El. But for this Shabbat, this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, I’ll allow myself to sit with the tragedy and sadness and beauty of these past few weeks – beautiful lives lived and now ended. What sheds light, what illuminates the passage through the darkness and the mist, are the families who share the stories of their loved ones with me and with one another as if for the first time. And I know that the humanity of it all, the humanity of us all, will shed light, will give us all hope.
About the Author
Rabbi Howard Goldsmith is the spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El of Westchester, a Reform synagogue in Rye, New York. He is the President of the Westchester Board of Rabbis and a chaplain for the Westchester County Police Department.