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Honey From The Rock – A Contemporary Reflection

01/03/2022 08:29:48 AM


Rabbi Ranon Teller

My father, Rabbi Dr. Gerald Teller z”l, died of COVID last February. He contracted the virus while officiating at a prayer service at his retirement home in Israel. Two other members of the minyan died b’oto yom [on that very same day].

In his final hours, as a last-ditch effort, the medical team put him in a coma. Everyone–including him–knew that he wouldn’t make it out, but he still wanted to give HaKadosh Baruch Hu [The Holy Blessed One] one last chance to spare his life. My father called me to say goodbye. He told me that he was proud of me and charged me to “remember him.” I wanted to say, “That’s ridiculous, I am you!” Instead, I said, “I will remember you and I love you.”

With my father on a ventilator, my request of God was simple and fair. My father had served God and the Children of Israel every day of his life. “Holy One, please spare my father’s life. Make good on our Covenant with You. He served You faithfully, now You please save his life.” My father died the next morning. My sister buried him that night. And I was locked out of Israel as COVID continued to surge.

It didn’t make sense. My father was a celebrated rabbi and educator who went to minyan every morning and studied daf yomi [the Talmud page of the day]–and he died in the act of prayer. He was in excellent health and served as my mother’s primary caregiver. She suffers from Parkinson’s and dementia, and has been spared the tragedy of her husband’s death.

Pilgrimage to Israel Through COVID

Two months later, COVID still surging, I received permission from the Israeli government to enter the country. My face wrapped in an N95 mask, I tested and retested with different protocols for multiple countries for safe travel. When I arrived in Israel, I stayed in a guest room at my parents’ retirement home so I could be close to my mother. Her health care worker informed me that I was staying in the same room that my father quarantined in with an oxygen tank, refusing hospitalization so as not to leave my mother. 

When Shabbat arrived, I walked down the hallway to the beit knesset as if in a dream–to the prayer space that killed my father. They asked me to lead the Mincha service because I had a chiyuv [legal responsibility], as a son mourning his father. I begrudgingly complied, but afterward, as I sat down for Kabbalat Shabbat, I became angry and bereft. I walked out of the prayer space and didn’t look back. I was too distraught to visit my father’s grave during that trip and spent my time with my mother instead. I decided that I’d go when I’m ready.

I made my way back to the States, my face still wrapped in an N95 mask, surrounded by the COVID that killed my father. I resumed my rabbinic work, which naturally included officiating at funerals, shiva minyanim, and unveilings. I put on my spiritual armor and went into battle with darkness. My heart was shattered, my soul was lost, but I kept moving…until I broke.

Bearing Overwhelming Grief

In her book, The White Album, Joan Didion writes, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live. We interpret what we see…select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images… Or at least we do for a while…” With my father’s senseless death, my narrative didn’t make sense to me anymore. I was lost as a rabbi, a man, and a son. As a rabbi, I could no longer officiate at funerals; I could no longer bear the grief. As a man, I felt spiritually “impure” from my personal interaction with death and bereavement. As a son, I was angry and resentful. My father and I both live by the credo that one can only serve God faithfully with a joyful spirit. On his gravestone, which I still haven’t seen, it is written, “Avad et Hashem b’simcha”–he served God with joy. In my inconsolable grief, I couldn’t serve my congregation properly.

I stopped officiating at death and bereavement lifecycle events with a letter declaring myself a “rabbi-in-healing.” I isolated myself from my family with the fear of contracting or spreading COVID. I became even more lost and confused. I sought therapy, but between my inconsolable grief, isolation, identity crisis, new medication…I lost my grip on reality.

Journey Toward Healing

I am now healing through the power of unconditional love and mental health support. My family, my friends, and my congregation stood by me through the darkness. I fell into the depths and they rescued me. I have held and consoled my congregants for sixteen years. Now, in my time of darkness, they are holding me.

I thank God for my family, I thank God for my friends and colleagues, and I thank God for my synagogue community. Unconditional love is the light that leads us from darkness to light. My year of mourning is coming to an end, and it’s time for me to transform pain into purpose…to draw honey from the rock.

A form of this essay will be published in the forthcoming book, "Honey from the Rock," edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor."

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784