When I introduce myself to someone new, invariably they ask me, “so what do you do for a living?”
“I’m a rabbi.”
“Oh… so what do you do?”
And then I never know what to answer.
I do so many different things. But on some days, I sit and learn, prepare classes, facilitate events, do administrative tasks and pray for people. Other days, every single second is occupied with “being a rabbi”.
This week, I had one such day. And I realized what the job of a rabbi really is…
Let me introduce you to Josh (I have changed his name to protect his identity), originally from an ultra-orthodox family in Montreal. His life was one ridden with hardship. As a young adult he was diagnosed with mental illness, and decided to leave religious observance and got involved in punk rock instead. He buried his sorrows in his music and became a celebrated drummer. Making noise was his favourite thing to do; a break from the difficulties of life.
His friends knew him as the life of the party. Spending seven hours in line waiting to get in to see his favourite band in sweltering June heat, his friend relayed how he went to get freeze pops and give them out to everyone around. A dichotomous life made up of medical drugs, doctors and a series of unfortunate events were the perfect storm that led to this story.
Sunday around 11:00am I received an email from a friend. He had just received a disturbing call from an old friend whom he hadn’t seen in years. His ex-wife lives in Montreal with their children, one of whom, severely disturbed, killed himself this morning by jumping in front of a subway. The family had nowhere to turn for advice or help, so they turned to him. The police had the body and now they are asking me if I could assist.
Josh’s mother, who introduced herself by her Hebrew name, was devastated; she could barely put two words together. She described the horrifying phone call she had just received. No parent wants to ever receive a call like this.
Then our conversation took a serious turn. She could not afford nor go through the immense effort it would take to recover his body and get him to Jewish burial. She told me that the coroner was going to take the default route: cremation.
The Torah states that each one of us was made in the image of G-d. No matter how far we drift from Judaism, we each have within us a divine spark that shines.
When I think of cremation, my mind immediately wanders to the crematorium of Auschwitz. When we say “Never Again!” I think we also say ‘never again’ to the smoke of the crematorium. We, as Jews, consider the body to be holy; it must be treated with care and respect and if it needs to be disposed of, burial is the right way to honour it.
It took three hours of conversation, but his mother finally agreed once I convinced her I could mobilize our community to get it done without adding to her already stressful life.
Within the hour, the family signed over power of attorney to me to take care of the final arrangement. Within minutes I received a call from Josh’s dad, who was able to help with some funds and was grateful that his son would receive a proper burial.
I made one call to Susan Karpman of Ometz, who graciously connected us with a free plot in the Back River cemetery via the Baron de Hirsch Foundation, and another to a generous friend of mine who offered to cover the remaining costs. Paperman & Sons did their work pro bono when they heard the story. In the words of Ross Paperman, “Are we going to take money from a rabbi?” We signed Josh’s body out from the coroner’s office and he was on his way to a proper Jewish burial.
Tuesday morning — just before 10am, as the sweltering sun was beating down on the Earth — ten of us gathered at the edge of the Back River Cemetery. I began the prayers, looking upward, thinking about the events that had transpired, and about Josh.
I had actually known Josh; he would come to Chabad NDG every so often for our holiday events. I remember him asking me if I knew any nice Jewish girls to set him up with. Another time he had messaged me asking if his band could play at one of our events. I’m feeling sorry for not reaching out to him more. I guess, everyone is feeling sorry they hadn’t been there for him.
His sisters surrounded his mother, the three of them crying; his friends stood around. Face masks and gloves covered them, a clear sign of the reality of our times. His older sister shares her memories, dropping f-bombs as her brother would so often. His younger sister remembers him for being a kind older brother and his friends speak of his music and his generosity.
His mother hands me his tefillin and a pair well worn-out drum sticks that I immediately put inside his pine casket. His father speaks from my phone by video chat.
We lower the casket and take dirt in our hands to cover him. The cemetery doesn’t let us use a shovel due to COVID-19. The dirt feels dry as I dig my fingers into the large mound on the side of the grave. My tears feel moist as I lift my dirtied hands to wipe my cheek. My emotions are as if transported, wondering why a good G-d would allow such suffering in His world. We watch as the gravediggers fill the rest of dirt and I conclude with the final prayers.
“Today, the world has lost a great light. Today, the world has lost a little music. Make noise, Josh, make lots of noise. Storm the heavens, drumsticks in hand, and tell them to make this all stop; and when you do, remember us as we remember you.”
When someone asks me what I do for a living, I think that this is it.
Dayenu. May I have no more of this kind of work to do.