Thursday, February 5, 2009

Remembering Dana and Reflecting on a Rabbi's Greatest Challenge

This past week, I had to do two funerals, one for a man who died at age 91, a good man, with a wonderful family who grieved over his grave in the frigid air this morning. As the tears let loose, however, I could not help but compare this situation to the service I had to conduct last Sunday for Dana Kraus. Dana was 23 when she died a week ago, inexplicably and suddenly. There were upwards of 900 people at her funeral, people from throughout this community and well beyond, and I can say that in death Dana has touched more people more deeply than most people do while alive.

Some got to know her really for the first time last week. Many have asked for copies of the eulogy I wrote, which, together with the passionate statements of friends and relatives, painted a picture of this loving soul cut down so young. With the encouragement and permission of Dana's family, I've uploaded my eulogy to the Web; you can find it by clicking here.

Thankfully, I don't officiate at many funerals like this one. The experience can be extremely draining, to the point where I felt I needed to take last Friday night off before a weekend of extreme highs and lows. But as much as I dread such situations, I also am supremely grateful to have the chance to help people in a manner that few can. This week, everyone has been wanting to do something for the Kraus family. The shiva has been wall-to-wall people. There have been lots of heroes, so many people who have contributed. The rabbi's part is perhaps the most public, but my no means the most difficult. Some friends stayed all night at the funeral home with Dana to keep her company and prepare her body in the traditional manner. That's much more difficult than anything I do.

I wish I could describe what it's like to be standing in front of 900 people who are riding on every word. Add to that the deep desire to "do justice" to a life of infinite value and equally great nuance. And yet, while there is a degree of pressure, what you feel most of all is a sense of privilege. Rabbis often experience life at the limits, but never more than at these moments.

But how is it possible to control one's own emotions at a time of such utter chaos and dread? When I first started out as a rabbi, in my late 20s. I wrote that "I prepare for each funeral as if it were my first, for it was at my first that I was best able to share in the sense of raw, unadulterated grief that consumed the family." I wouldn't say exactly that today. I understand that people need the calm professional who can hold them up while still feeling their pain. It's almost impossible to balance the two, but it's necessary. At times it means shielding oneself a little. Numbness is is not generally a good thing, but as I wrote more recently, sometimes the only way to survive such terror is to avert its direct gaze.

And then there are the young adults and teens. I felt more for them this week than for almost anyone else, as most of them have never had to deal with something like this. A tiny silver lining is that I've reconnected with a number of young adults who grew up here, many of them choosing now to come to me with questions totally unrelated to the week's events. Small though it may be, this silver lining is part of what the shiva process is about: reconnecting with community. This week, that has happened for people of all ages.

Dana liked Robert Frost. Here's a brief poem that speaks directly to the sadness we all feel at her loss:

“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

- Robert Frost

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