Some of you may have read the recent essay by Sara Davidson in the Huffington Post titled Passover Asks: Are You Ready to Go? Here's an excerpt from near the beginning of the piece:
When I arrived that morning at his home in Boulder, CO, the rabbi's wife, Eve, was in the kitchen, preparing for Passover by removing "hametz" -- anything containing flour that's risen -- from every drawer, shelf and counter. I walked down to the basement, where Reb Zalman stood up from his computer desk and greeted me with a hug.
"What does Passover feel like in the December years?" I asked, as we settled in chairs facing each other.
"That's such a good question. Give me a moment to go inside." He closed his eyes, waiting to sense what would arise. "When we come to the end of the seder, we open the door for Elijah the prophet. I ask everyone to be silent and think, 'What question would I like to ask the messenger of God?'" He said people reflect on that, sitting quietly while the door is open, and after it's closed, he asks if they'd like to share what they heard.
"Then we come to the place in the ceremony where Elijah asks, 'Are you ready to go?'"
"Go where?" I said.
"Go forth from the seder into the world. But for me it's also, 'Are you ready to go?'"
Readiness is an essential quality in the story of the Exodus: readiness to leave, to head into the unknown, to trust. Readiness is part of celebrating seder. And readiness is required if one wants to face the end of life gracefully, whenever that end may come.
This is a story which also appears in Sara Davidson's new book The December Project, subtitled "An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life's Greatest Mystery." The book chronicles two years' worth of regular conversations between Sara and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, "Reb Zalman," about navigating the December of one's life, doing spiritual end-of-life work, and approaching death with open eyes, clear heart, and untroubled mind.
The resulting book is somewhere between memoir (stories of Reb Zalman's childhood, upbringing, adventures, and spiritual life) and the kind of conversation one might have over coffee with a dear friend after many years of connection, when you can go straight to the stuff that matters.
For we who are students of Reb Zalman, or students of his students, much of this material will be familiar. Many of us will have heard him tell these stories, often more than once! But that doesn't make them any less a pleasure to read, and being able to imagine his presence, his humor, and his singing voice just adds to the experience of diving into the book. And for those who haven't been blessed with a personal relationship with this rebbe, the book offers some of those gifts in printed form.
Reb Zalman's been working with these ideas for years. Some of the practices at the end of this book are similar to the exercises in his From Aging to Sage-ing, a book which I also recommend. But this book takes a different tack. And Sara Davidson, this book's author, offers an interesting path in. She is open about both her doubts and her hopes. Over the course of the book, she takes us on her journey -- not only into these conversations, but also into her mother's illness and death, and into her own anxieties about the end of life and what comes after. She strikes a keen balance between sharing enough of herself that she is a real presence in the book, and withdrawing enough of herself that we can feel that we too are sitting in intimate conversation with Reb Zalman, gleaning some of what he's harvested over nearly ninety years of life.
In one scene which has stayed with me, Sara has appeared for their regular appointment and Reb Zalman is clearly unwell, struggling with a variety of physical ailments which are dragging him down. They talk about his need to disengage even from beloved students in order to marshall his energy for his own survival. And then he tells her about how he used to maintain an open-door policy on Shabbat, where people were welcome to come and pray and sing and learn; now he spends Shabbat only with his wife. Here's how Sara describes it:
Before Friday night arrives, he writes his love-letter and slips it under her plate. On Saturday at dusk, they sit outside if the weather is mild and sing Shabbos melodies until it's totally dark. "It's so wonderful," he said, and I watched his body soften and his breathing become more relaxed. It was as if the words, like the smell of chickens roasting on Fridays at camp, had a Pavlovian effect, taking him to a Shabbos state of mind.
In telling the story of how he has come to adapt Shabbat practices for his late eighties, he models for us what it would be like to thoughtfully choose what to relinquish as we age.
Reb Zalman's sweetness, his sense of humor, and his deep hunger for God all come through in this book -- as do his idiosyncracies and some of the challenges which have resulted. Here are stories about Chabad, about meeting Howard Thurman and coming to deep ecumenism, about experiencing Christian and Buddhist mentors, even about experimenting with LSD as a path to God. He's also honest about his failings and his mistakes -- not in a self-congratulatory way, but thoughtfully. I was particularly moved by his frank and gentle words about his first marriage and its dissolution, and by the chapter where he asks to undergo taharah -- the washing / blessing / dressing of one's body after death -- in order to prepare himself for that experience when it comes.
On a purely personal note, I got a particular frisson of joy while reading the chapter "You Can Take Me Now," in which Sara describes two different ALEPH ordination ceremonies. She describes Hazzan Shoshanna Brown singing a niggun which had been a favorite of the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, as a prelude to asking Reb Zalman to offer a teaching. Sara writes:
With high color in his face, Reb Zalman took the mike and faced the audience. He explained that the Rebbe used to sing that melody to prepare himself and his students for a transmission. "Want to hear my transmission?" he asked. Turning to the ordinees on stage, he threw out his arm. "You are my transmission."
That was at my ordination, and it is a moment I will never forget. (Photo source.)
Must one be in one's "December years" to get something out of this book? Not in the least. As a student in the ALEPH hashpa'ah / spiritual direction program, I spent a semester studying and engaging in the work Reb Zalman calls 'sage-ing' -- preparing, mindfully and consciously, for the transition out of this life. Many of you know that I am not yet forty. Then again, I'm also a multiple stroke survivor, so I'd already begun to approach some of these big questions.
I remember talking with my spiritual director about what it was like to begin doing this sage-ing work at a young age. She told me that she had done the same, and that doing this work had enriched her in innumerable ways. After all, our tradition prescribes making teshuvah on the eve of our death, and since we never know when that will be, the sages teach us to make teshuvah -- to do this inner work of discernment, forgiveness, and letting go -- every night before we sleep. (I've written about this before -- see my post The vidui prayer of Yom Kippur -- and of every night.)
Death is perhaps the greatest mystery there is. In this book, Sara Davidson and Reb Zalman have given us a beautiful example of how to live with that awareness joyfully, and how to approach it not as something to be abhorred, but as a holy transition -- the end of this deployment, to use Reb Zalman's language, and the beginning of something new.