The Circle of Life
by Rabbi Erin Boxt
In just under a month as the rabbi of Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, Georgia, I have been reminded of several very important aspects of life: the fragility of life, the energy of the youth, and the challenges and desperation that exists when a person in your life is ill (or even if you are ill yourself). This morning, I officiated my first funeral for a Temple Kol Emeth family. While I tried my very best to be a comfort and support for the family, I certainly felt the emotion present from the initial meeting with the family all the way to the funeral this morning. When a person dies, we often say Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet, “Blessed be the Judge of Truth.” While we understand that every person sins and has imperfections, we focus on the works and accomplishments of the deceased, praying that God will grant the deceased everlasting life in the presence of God.
Several of the family members approached me after the service and complimented me on a “job well done.” While I usually do not take compliments very well – I believe the things I do are just as important for me to do as they are to those I help – I realized that for these family members, I might have made this very difficult time just a bit easier with the words I used or the emotion that was present in my actions and words. I must say that I was extremely nervous, so I was cautious to come with a service printed out, to prevent me from forgetting my place or taking away from the importance and significance of this ceremony for the family. As we left the cemetery, and I was washing my hands with the ritual water present, I felt that the tension of the moment was somewhat eased. I certainly do not mean to imply that it was easier for anyone present, but there is something to be said about the “finalization” of the funeral. The last action of the family is to use a shovel to place earth on the casket which has been lowered into the ground. Although it is one of the hardest actions for a human being to do – to place earth on their beloved deceased – there is a sense of finality that can be comforting.
This afternoon, I will be visiting our Temple Kol Emeth kids at URJ Camp Coleman. I have a lot to think about as I drive the 70 miles to Cleveland, GA. Having just officiated at a funeral, I am now going to be talking with, playing with, and hanging out with a group of our kids. It will be a very different experience, and yet it will be just as important and significant. When we think of the “circle of life,” we think of birth / childhood / young adulthood / adulthood / senior adulthood / death. It is a sequence that we are all too familiar with. As we grow up from childhood into adulthood, we often say, “From strength to greater strength,” chazak, chazak v’nitchazek, when we reach certain key moments: bar/bat mitzvah, sweet 16, high school graduation, college graduation, marriage, birth of first child, etc. However, when a person dies, this is also a key moment, not only in his or her life, but also in the lives of those that knew him or her.
When we send our kids off to summer camp, we expect for them to learn, grow and mature in many ways. It is not too often that death enters into the equation of our camp experiences – although, sometimes it does. At camp, we expect our children to have fun, meet new friends, learn about Judaism, and find themselves in a safe Jewish environment. Having never officiated a funeral and then immediately gone to camp, I recognize that I need to be able to push aside my feelings of sadness in order to fully experience camp through the eyes of our youth. I know this will be hard, but it is vital in order for our kids to stay focused on accomplishing all they choose and want to accomplish while at camp.
This day has been a bit of a reversal for me – going from death (a funeral) to birth (perhaps the first camp experience for some of our kids). It is an opportunity for me to go from sadness and mourning to gladness and joy. As a rabbi, I know that I will find myself in these kinds of reversals of life many, many times as I grow in my career. However, for now, I can go home, hug my wife, and recognize that I have 70 miles to “clear my head” and remember that Camp Coleman was/is (for me at least) a home away from home, a place I often went to when I was overwhelmed with life and unable or unwilling to see what was coming next. Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazek!
Rabbi Erin Boxt serves Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, GA.
Originally posted at Rabbi Boxt’s Rabbinic Journey