When I was a university student, I once took a class in creative short-story writing. My professor thought that I showed some skill and suggested that I attempt to seek a career in journalism. I did not follow his advice and took another life path. I became a professor of Hebrew language and biblical literature with an added emphasis on Israeli history. Later in my life, I became an ordained rabbi. I was never a scholar, and never wanted to be one. I wanted to be only a teacher trying to reach the minds of my students and the hearts of my congregants… a shepherd, if you will.
In a book published in 1982 by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Joseph Rudavsky wrote about the Rabbi and the Human Element. Quoting Rabbi Joshua in Pirkei Avot, “Aseh lecha rav u”kneh lecha chaver” …..”provide yourself a rabbi and thereby get yourself a friend”, he calls our attention to the letter vav in the Hebrew, implying a double responsibility. As one colleague remarked, “a rabbi is a shepherd”.
“Like Moshe Rabbenu, therefore, the rabbi is a shepherd and as such he follows in a great tradition. He does not stand on a high hill and point the way. He does not sit in some tall tower and commune only with God. He does not lock the door of his study and bury himself in books. He is a shepherd and his life is with people.
He shares their every circumstance. Whether in straight paths or death-darkened valleys, his life is with his people. He stands beside the death-bed of someone whom he has come to admire and respect. He is truly the shepherd when all the members of his flock are precious to him, personalities to be respected, lives to be touched, souls to guard and to guide through the beauty and the terror of every life’s cycle.”
I know such a rabbi. He is the man of God who walks among us. Rabbi Polakoff is a Modern Orthodox Rabbi with a silver tongue and a heart of gold. His congregants adore him for his humanity and humility. He never seeks glory for himself, only concerned with the well-being of his flock. He is our good shepherd.
During the nine months of my beloved wife’s illness he called upon the congregation each Shabbat morning to pray for the health of Rahel bat Chaya. Whenever I saw him, his first question was always, “How is Rahel doing?” and his second question was, “How are you holding up?” He always asked what the doctor’s reports were and if any signs of improvement were noticed. He asked because he cared. Because he is a true tzadik, a righteous man who walks with God.
As Rahel’s end of life was drawing near, he embraced me and held me and gave me the strength I desperately needed to go on living. I did not want to live without my sainted wife. But Rabbi Polakoff reminded me that I needed to be strong and to provide strength to my children and grandchildren.
For months, Rabbi Polakoff was my savior, my comforter, my friend. It was not simply sympathy that he offered. It was the empathy which he shared. Several years earlier, he lost his beloved wife to cancer. His five children were now motherless and he experienced the pain which no one should ever have to experience. He raised up his five beautiful children, three sons and two daughters. One son followed in his footsteps and became an Orthodox rabbi. And like his dear father, he too will be a shepherd to his people. Ha tapuach lo nofail rachok min ha etz… the apple does not fall far from the tree. Rabbi Polakoff understood my deep pain and grief because he too had experienced it.
Very early in the morning of erev Shabbat on September 23rd, my beloved Rahel breathed her last breath at 2:45. I telephoned Rabbi Polakoff and he and his lovely wife Ellen were at my door within minutes. He called the chevra kaddisha and together with them he escorted Rahel’s lifeless body into the waiting funeral van with me walking behind.
The funeral took place a few hours after her death, before the approach of the holy Shabbat. His heartfelt words in her praise as a true eshet chayil, a valorous woman, still ring in my ears. After Shabbat he came to my home to be certain that I and my children were well and that we had sufficient food for the week of shiva. There was, in fact, so much food provided by the magnificence of members of his congregation, that not only did we not lack for sustenance during the week of shiva, but there are still some sweets remaining, sufficient for Chanukah.
There were 161 visitors who came to console me and my children during the shiva. But the greatest among them was Rabbi Polakoff.
As someone said to me “He is the most outstanding rabbi when it comes to comforting the bereaved and offering his personal help. No other rabbi can compare to him in his chesed, his kindness, his devotion. He is a rabbi who sincerely cares for his people”.
To which I replied, “And why not? He is not just a rabbi. He is the man of God, Ish ha Elokim, who walks among us. Blessed may he forever be.”