January 15, 2009 - For Alan's Funeral
by Norman Fischer | January 15, 2009 at 2:31 PM
For Alan's Funeral - January 15, 2009
This is not a speech I ever wanted to give. Alan and I spent our lives contemplating death, and we both felt that that we die is the essential fact of life, of religious life. We taught about this together, and often discussed it privately. I always insisted that he should be the one to speak at my funeral because I did not want to job of speaking at his. But though he always had more to say than I did, he was quite definite that in the end I would speak, and he would be silent. I am deeply sorry that he was right about this point.
So this is not a speech I ever wanted to give. First, it is impossible to imagine a world without my dear friend. It would be a world too different, too sorry. It would be lacking in love. I am not sure I can imagine such a world or that I want to. I understand that we die, that we are all now dying. But love dictates that I not give up my tears and my impossible wish that what has happened would not have happened.
On Monday, Sherril and Malka said that love was the theme, the motive power, of Alan's life. His great generosity of spirit, as the poet Kit Robinson put it to me yesterday. Like no one else. Alan was the most loving and generous person I have ever met or ever will meet. He cared deeply for the people in his life, and for everyone else - sometimes to a fault. His love sometimes caused him a great deal of pain. He taught me what the rabbis had discovered generations ago: that kindness and concern for others is the radiant center of the Torah. That God is there wherever there is kindness. So Alan's love was profound; it went through and beyond human interaction; it was divinely inspired love. Alan talked to God and God talked to him. He saw God and God saw him. But I think he did not believe that God was someone else.
This is terrible. I do not want to think of Alan's life as having ended. I am still not sure I believe it. This is not a speech I ever wanted to give.
What happened to him? What did he feel, what did he think, in that last moment, and the moment before the last and the moment after? According to Hannah, the person who found him said he had a smile on his lips. I don't know if that's really so. But I am sure that Alan wanted to live. He had no intention of leaving this bright world and the people he loved, especially Sherril, Steve and his family, Hannah and Malka, Jason and Carol and their families, because he was devoted to them, thoroughly devoted, agitated and upset when things in their lives did not go well, thrilled when they did. He loved them and life and certainly did not want to die.
But I understand the smile if it was a smile, because I am also sure that Alan embraced death when he knew that his time for death was here. I am sure that in that last moment, if there is such a thing as a last moment, he gave himself completely, utterly completely, to God, that ineffable presence beyond and within living, and that God was happy to see him and he was happy to see God. He would not have had regret because his life was complete, full. There were no loose ends, no tragedies, no broken relationships, and everything he came here to do had been done. Everyone he loved knew he loved them, and loved him back. His relationship with Sherril was sacred and warm and as close as any human relationship could ever be. He was proud of his children and grandchildren, and delighted in them all. His work had had an enormous impact on the Jewish community throughout the world, and on the wider Bay Area community; he transformed the lives of many many people, and they told him so. He led the Beth Shalom community for many years, revitalizing it when revitalization was necessary, and he founded Makor Or, and was perhaps the major voice in the Jewish meditation movement world-wide. He meditated, he prayed, he studied. He lived in Israel and in a Zen monastery. He wrote luminous poems and four wonderful prose books, the last of which, an immense generous and gorgeous chronicle of his family over three generations, as yet unpublished, he worked on for more than thirty years, and had just completed a year or so ago. His work for the homeless and against the death penalty stood as moral benchmarks for all of us. And he spoke: he spoke with such honesty and eloquence, such understanding and truthfulness and humor that people's lives were magnified - magnified by mere words, but words propelled by such a heart, such a voice. Samuel and Isaiah must have had such a voice.
But I wonder if Isaiah and Samuel were capable of the depths of friendship and loving concern that were so natural to Alan. It is not so hard to be a public person, a great person. If you are talented and energetic, and the time is right, this can happen. But friendship, love, this depth in private life, this is something else. This is God-given.
I am often ashamed of myself because I am not as caring, not as generous as loving as kind, as I would like to be. It is a major shortcoming of my life, one that I think about every day. I try, but I suppose I do not try hard enough. Alan was as caring, as generous as loving, as a person could be. He never faltered in this. I am lucky to have seen such a person, been able to call such a person friend, because it may be possible to live a lifetime and not know first hand that such generosity of spirit is actually possible.
We were young men together trying to figure out who we were in confusing times. We wanted to write, but I think we did not really know what that meant until much later. Many things happened, to us, to the world. Along the way of broken relationships and failed projects, we both discovered unexpectedly, to our amazement if not shock, that we had religious vocations, and we both lived out these vocations, in exactly the same way, side by side, heart to heart. We gave each other permission to be what we were. Forty years went by. Now one of us is gone.
It is common - and true - to say to people in grief- and I say this all the time to people in grief - that the loved one has really not left, only the form of the relationship has shifted. I know this is true. I will, we will, continue Alan's work, and he will be with us. His words will live, his family will recover from this loss and flourish, carrying his spirit forward. His memory will be a blessing and an inspiration. The lives he touched will carry him forward. And yet... today is a terrible day, this has been an awful week, and this is not a speech I ever wanted to give.
Alan usually had the last word, and today should be no exception. Alan died on January 12, 2009, three days ago. On page 112 of his great book on the High Holidays, This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, we read (as Alan would always say) "the following":
This is real. This is very real.
This is absolutely inescapable.
And we are utterly unprepared.
And we have nothing to offer but each other and our broken hearts.
And that will be enough.