Being with people near the end of life, offering them comfort, and supporting their families is part of what rabbis do. It is an honor. When I hold the hands of dying people – praying with them and sometimes quietly singing for them – I feel like I am doing something important. I feel like I am doing something that makes my own life matter in some small way. It is humbling.
Wednesday was the second night of Chanukah. While I sat with this man, I heard people in the hallway talking about Chanukah. I went out and saw a few men and women pushing nursing home residents in wheelchairs toward one of the small lounges in the facility. I guessed that they were the adult children of the residents they were escorting. I followed and saw that the lounge they entered was decorated with Chanukah banners and decorations. A small electric Chanukah menorah was set up on a counter. (Nursing homes have rules against open flames, so it had to be electric).
I sat down in one of the chairs and heard a man talking about the holiday. Even if he felt unsure about the story of Chanukah ("Was it the Greeks or the Romans that the Maccabees fought?"), he was so determined and so loving in his desire to give his elderly mother a real Chanukah experience. It was moving and beautiful to see. I felt blessed and privileged to be part of such a sacred lighting of the Chanukah lights of hope.
Eventually, the time came to light the candles and the man professed his embarrassment that he was not good at reading Hebrew. I quietly volunteered to help, and the man quickly handed me the laminated sheet with the blessings and asked me to lead them, which I did.
I sang the blessings looking into the eyes of men and women in their fifties and sixties who were in a nursing home to take care of their sick parents in their eighties and nineties. I saw how they wanted to give their parents at least one more night of Chanukah. I thought about all the childhood memories that must be swirling around the room – memories of Chanukahs from long ago when the parents were able and strong and the children were small and filled with wonder, looking into the candle lights.
I sang a blessing that talked about how God did miracles "in those days at this season," and felt like I was experiencing a night of miracles right then and there. Humbling. Unexpected. The man who had explained the holiday told his mother that it was a blessing that there just happened to be a rabbi there to lead them that night. I told him that he and the others were the blessing for me.
The congregant I sat with on Wednesday night was 99 years old, so, his death the next morning was not unexpected. Today, I met with his family to help them to prepare for Monday's funeral. That, too, is a humbling and powerful experience. It is hard to see the people you love grow frail and fail. Letting go is hard. We want so much to hold on to the moment, and to see in it the miracle and blessing of love that lasts beyond our lifetimes.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Making Known the Miracle
The Shamash is the Tall One in the Middle