I am only just waking up to the awareness of the tremendous impact that Reb Zalman has had on me and who am I as a rabbi and as one who walks in the mysteries of this perplexing world. It is hard to express the gratitude that I have that life brought me to serve as a rabbi for 10 years in Boulder, in the presence of Reb Zalman. Truthfully, his being here was a significant reason why I took the job and my only regret is that I did not have the chutzpah to spend more time with him, drinking from his mighty well of wisdom. There are no words to describe the sense of privilege and wonder that I have that I ended up being one of the rabbis to officiate at Reb Zalman’s funeral, helping to honor that sacred body that was the vessel for some 90 years for a unique and far-reaching soul that changed the Jewish world in more ways than we will ever really know.
I met Reb Zalman the summer before entering rabbinical school in London and was so taken by his deep embrace and love of the Hassidic world, along with his openness to new forms and expressions from the heart; a compelling embodiment of a new-old Judaism. I asked him back then, some 16 years ago, if there was a way to get smicha, rabbinic ordination, from him, even while being on my particular path. With that enormous smile, he told me that he would be happy to add his smicha to mine when the time came. My six year journey to become a rabbi was divided between London, Jerusalem and Los Angeles, where I was officially ordained at the Ziegler School as an American Conservative Rabbi in 2004. I have been in Boulder ever since and it may well be Reb Zalman who has kept me here. At my installation, I had the honor of him addressing me, and just a couple of months ago, Reb Zalman gave me that smicha, a silent transmission of his lineage through so many different worlds.
We in the Jewish community of Boulder have been so blessed by this great man’s presence. Reb Zalman has been rabbi, teacher and guide to all of us, challenging us in profound ways to be more real and authentic in our spiritual lives. At my congregation, Bonai Shalom, we have had the honor for many years of Reb Zalman leading our prayers for dew at Passover and for rain at Sukkot, deep prayer rituals of the Spring and Fall, opened for us anew. Last Fall, Reb Zalman prayed for rain for us, just days after Boulder’s catastrophic flood. At a time that we were seeing rain as a curse, he transformed it into a blessing and helped us heal. Over the years, the rabbis and teachers of Boulder have been so blessed by the space that Reb Zalman opened for us to study with him, to sit at his feet and learn his Torah. I have such wonderful memories of the Friday morning study sessions for the rabbis and the gift of a few months of weekly learning with my two friends and colleagues, Rabbis Gavriel and Josh. Where other than in Boulder would an Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbi learn together a Hassidic text called Derech HaMelech? In the presence of our beloved Reb Zalman.
When he was well and in town, Reb Zalman would join us every week for our Thursday morning minyan, often leading and reading Torah, including leading special services for us on Thanksgiving morning, replete with American melodies. He knew the yahrzeits (death anniversaries) of all the great Hassidic Rebbes. In his tradition, the mournful prayers of tachanun are not recited on these days, and every week when we came to that part of the service, I would look over to him and with a glint in his eye, he would say, “today, there is no excuse!” or “today, we have an excuse!” He would then tell us whose yahrzeit it was and I made a deal with him that we would only skip the tachanun prayers on condition that he would share a story or teaching of the Rebbe in question, which he did. I am going to miss those exchanges so very much, and without him, we will have to recite those prayers much more often. From now on, there’s one date on the Hebrew calendar on which there will be no tachanun, 5th of Tammuz; Reb Zalman’s own yahrzeit. My hope and prayer is that we will all be able to connect to his neshama and receive his light and blessing on that day every year.
Reb Zalman has been preparing us for his death for a few years now. In fact, he has been teaching us how to die with grace and with love. But we were not ready and his loss feels immense and unbearable. Two summers ago, in the way that only Reb Zalman could conceive, he decided he wanted to experience taharah, the ritual washing and preparing of a body before burial, while still alive! Reb Zalman is from the line of kohanim, priests, who are traditionally forbidden from being around death, and so are not supposed to participate in this very holy act. He asked me to be one of the men performing the rituals, which was to take place at the bottom of my garden by the creek. I am also a Kohen and this beautiful process was new to me too. At first I had such resistance to the whole idea, as I often did to Reb Zalman’s iconoclastic reworking of tradition, his holy chutzpah so to speak! The times when I have overcome these resistances have been where I have learned the most in my life, challenging my own perception of what is the right way to do things in our tradition. This was one such time and the intimacy that we all shared that day was very sacred. Reb Zalman surrendered to the experience in a bathing suit on a massage table, as we poured water and chanted special verses. We kept qualifying that this was not “the real thing.” It gave us all new appreciations of life and death and of the fragile and beautiful nature of the body as a home for a soul. Two hours before Reb Zalman’s Fourth of July funeral, I put on my tefillin and dovened my morning prayers in exactly the spot where we had performed these rituals. I asked Reb Zalman for guidance on the awesome and awful task of laying him to rest. This time for real.
Even though Reb Zalman told me on my last visit in his hospital room in Boulder that he was planning to be around for Sukkot to lead once again the prayers for rain in my shul, it was not to be. Just three days before he died, he planned his funeral and though he was not actively dying, he must have known his time was close. He explicitly requested that people not fly in for his funeral and he asked that Rabbi Tirzah Firestone and I co-officiate. He also really wanted Chabad Rabbis Yisrael Willhelm and Yossi Serebranski to be involved and share words, connecting back to his original rabbinic role as the first emissary of Chabad on campuses along with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
Years ago, Reb Zalman caused a stir when he expressed the desire to be cremated and have his ashes scattered in Auschwitz, to join those souls whose bodies were gassed and burned. In more recent years, he had requested that he and his beloved Eve would be buried in Green Mountain Cemetery in Boulder and my congregation was honored to help them acquire the plots. Another request was that ashes from Auschwitz were buried with him as an act of redemption of these souls. During his ‘actual’ taharah, these ashes were wrapped with him in his shrouds. Reb Zalman asked that there be no casket and that his shrouded body be placed straight into the ground, according to common practice in Israel as well as in the Muslim tradition.
The funeral was raw, beautiful, intense, excruciating and, beyond the pain, just perfect. A very hot Fourth of July with hundreds of people full of love for Reb Zalman. We laid him to rest with absolute cavod, with dignity and respect and in accordance with his wishes. With Reb Zalman, we always learned to expect the unexpected, to have our illusions about what is normative to be challenged. Very few if any of us there that day had seen a wrapped body being lowered into the grave in this way and received by two people standing inside. It was shocking and beautiful at the same time and, of course, just right for Reb Zalman. We asked for forgiveness and offered it, we chanted and sang and escorted. We spoke beautiful words to honor an incomparable legacy. We wailed and we laughed and we reluctantly fulfilled the mitzvah of burying our beloved in the earth, thanking him for his tour of duty in this world and for the many gifts with which he blessed us. Having laid our Rebbe to rest in the way he wanted us to, the official mourning began and we offered words and gestures of comfort to Eve and to some of Reb Zalman’s children. So many of us feel like we are among the mourners in this loss. Some people do have the tradition of sitting one day of shiva for a great Torah scholar and I know there are people all over the world gathering to do this and to give and receive comfort. However deep the grief, we cannot compare this to the loss of a father, a life partner.
I feel so blessed to have been among the students, the disciples of Reb Meshullam Zalman Chiya ben Shlomo HaCohen v’Chaya Gittel. I miss him so much. I feel so proud to have sat in silence with him receiving a transmission, which I anticipate will take the rest of my life to understand. I think the thousands and thousands of people who have been touched by Reb Zalman each carry their own piece, their own story, their own holy sparks of this great man. My hope and prayer is that we can and will each make manifest these holy shards, so that Reb Zalman’s light continues to shine in this dark world and that we, collectively, can continue his paradigm-shifting work of inspiring and lifting up souls.
Zecher Tzadik livracha!
May the memory of this Righteous One be for a blessing!