Torah poet Seth Brown reviews 70 faces
Conversation with the President (a poem for Big Tent Poetry)

Tasks which have no limit

The last time I performed a funeral, I was pregnant. I remember scrambling to find maternity clothing suitable for visiting the grieving family, and then cobbling together a "suit" out of assorted black items so I could look appropriate at the funeral itself. (Male clergy, I suspect, don't lose one tenth as much time as do female clergy to worrying about whether their clothing looks suitably clerical.) I remember that the family of mourners seemed delighted at the fact of the pregnant rabbi -- I think the sight of me germinating new life gave them a sense of hope in a difficult time.

Recently I've been called once again to minister to a family who is grieving, and I'm amazed at how different an experience it is for me now as a rabbi and a mother instead of a rabbinic student and a mother-to-be.

The first thing that has changed is that my sense of loss, and my understanding of the human capacity for emotion, have changed in ways which are difficult to define. Maybe because I now have a child of my own, I can imagine a new, deeper kind of loss to which I was never party before. Maybe because after Drew's birth I struggled so profoundly with postpartum depression, I have a different understanding of the valley of the shadow of painful emotion. I've often mentioned that my fellow chaplains at Albany Medical Center used to tell me that having a child was a profound theological education, and I think this is one of the things they may have meant by that statement. Becoming someone's mother has changed my relationship with theology and with God, and that makes me a different rabbi than I would have been before.

And then there's the practical level on which funerals make non-negotiable demands -- much as children do. A funeral needs to happen when it needs to happen, regardless of whether or not it's "convenient" -- just as a child needs to eat, or nap, or be held, or be entertained at the moment when the child needs those things. (Older children's needs can, I know, be shifted somewhat...but that largely hasn't been my experience of parenthood yet.) Funerals can be painful, messy, inconvenient just as children can. It can be difficult, I am learning, for a rabbi-mama to simultaneously navigate the needs of mourners and the needs of a child.

Behind every successful rabbi-and-parent is a small army of helpers: I feel this with a certainty. (Surely this is always true -- though it may be even more keenly felt when the rabbi is the primary caregiving parent.) In my case I'm relying on my husband, my mother-in-law, our daycare provider, our friends. It amazes and humbles me to discover how difficult it is to try to tend simultaneously to the needs of community members and also the needs of my beautiful, willful fifteen-month-old. I'm reminded again that being a rabbi is a job which impacts one's whole family, always. I've been thinking a lot this week about a cautionary story one of my colleagues tells, about having to be the person who leaves a family gathering in order to hold a funeral featuring a eulogy praising the person who would never have left a family gathering.

"These are the tasks which have no limit," we read in our daily siddur -- it's a quotation from Mishna (Peah 1:1), augmented by another quotation from Talmud (Shabbat 127a) which explains further that these are tasks of which a person may enjoy the fruit in this world while the principal remains in the world to come. (In other words: we do these tasks and reap some benefit now, while the real reward accrues to us in olam ha-ba.) And they are: honoring one's parents, doing deeds of compassion, davening and studying twice a day, hosting guests graciously, visiting the sick, providing for a couple who is being married, accompanying the dead in burial (the Hebrew word for funeral, levayah, means "accompaniment"), being devoted in prayer, and making peace among people. And the study of Torah, the tradition tells us, is equal to them all -- perhaps because it leads to them all.

The sages meant that these tasks "have no limit" in the sense that the Torah does not limit how much or how little one should do of them. The point is that we do them, not in what amount we do them. But in studying this passage this week, it seems to me that these are tasks which "have no limit" in another sense too. There will always be parents to honor (or the memory of parents to honor), compassionate deeds needing to be done, davening and study awaiting us, guests to host, weddings to celebrate, funerals to attend. These are truly limitless tasks; they are neverending. So too, it seems to me, is the work of parenting a child. And balancing between these limitless tasks -- that may be a life's work, all in itself.