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Me and My Rabbi, My Rabbi and Me

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This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post on January 13th 2010 and is reproduced here by permission of the Post - www.jpost.com

We wouldn't have enough time.

We would meet at the height of summer; we would worship in a Southern Fall and we would part, too soon, one New York winter. Yet in this briefest of journeys, my Rabbi would bequeath me tear-stained riches.

I remember the moment of our first meeting well. It was a Sunday in June. I was guest to dear friends, congregants at Temple Judea, Manhasset, where Rabbi Avner Bergman had lead worship for twenty-three years.

Inside, the Temple was vibrant. It was the Rabbi's retirement party. Soon after, the Bergmans would move to Charleston, South Carolina, a place I had recently made home myself.

I moved toward the couple. Tall and elegant, Rabbi emanated an inner light. He was the first to look up. Sounds grew distant. I felt his topaz gaze peer into my messy soul. From his first words, my Rabbi instructed me.

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"This will be a very important relationship, Qanta,"

His words were prophetic in a way I wasn't to discover until one snow-crusted morning almost four years later.

Soon after, I welcomed them at a favorite Charleston haunt. After a wonderful dinner, I watched the Rabbi's silhouette retreating in the dark, his wide-based gait stabilized by his adoring wife. Fingers interlocked, Rabbi and Linda disappeared into the humid August night. I paused, watching them until I could see them no more, struck by the force of their forty year old love.

Overtime we three became close. I would seek them for my own sustenance. We would talk and somehow after leaving each other, I would feel uplifted, improved. The Rabbi spun Technicolor tales from the Talmud and the Torah just as vividly as he could stories from the Quran. His narrative and wisdom mesmerized, transported.

In time he would teach me about the mysteries of one's B'shert and the possibility of finding a great Shiddach. I collected his magical words like jewels. Once he shared the story of the daughters of Zelophehad. Until Rabbi, I had no idea quite how much Islam interdigitated with Judaism. Like his handhold with his wife Linda, our faiths too, he showed me, interlocked.

Soon, my Rabbi invited me to my first Shabbat at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim. I watched as he and Linda (herself a Cantor) lead the service. In that evening, when services had ended and the room had emptied, I found my appetite for knowledge of Judaism had not.

A summer or two later, Rabbi joined me on the eve of my fortieth birthday. I watched as he entranced my eclectic friends who had joined me to celebrate. Turning forty, I found I was nowhere I had expected to be. Instead, I was in the American South, I was yet to meet my life partner, I was far from family. Yet, I felt full and blessed.

My Rabbi was among the first to make a speech that evening, which he did as always, extemporaneously and without fanfare. By now, he ranked among my greatest treasures. Under my Rabbi's spell, I could see one of my friends was opening the door by the tiniest degree to his long forsaken Judaism. I smiled, knowing Rabbi could be instrumental to him, the way he had already become to me. It didn't strike me until over a year later that we had that night numbered eighteen around the table, Rabbi's favorite number: everything was as it meant to be.

My last talk with my Rabbi would be a conversation was about the mystery called marriage. We had just finished observing Shabbat at his home. Rabbi and I spoke for a long time, ending with his observation that I was "More ready than I knew". I left quizzical, wondering how Rabbi knew this to be true.

Then the time came for me to leave Charleston and move to New York City. Linda and Rabbi arranged a farewell. We returned for dinner at the very first place we had dined. We had come full circle.

I don't remember the particulars of our conversation that evening, except that it was especially wonderful in a way dinners with others would never be. Days later, I moved away. Through a hectic year, I was unable to see my Rabbi and Linda again. I wouldn't know it, but Rabbi's work intended with me was already done and fate would not bring me back to him again.

Stuck in a maelstrom of airport delays, I read about Rabbi's accident on my BlackBerry. Stars died in my chest. I knew this to be the marker that my joyous journey with this angelic force was up. By the time I had finished my transatlantic travails, the end was near. Tuesday lunchtime came the news. I dried my tears between appointments with my own patients. My Rabbi was gone.

Two days later, we buried Rabbi. Somehow, though I had office hours open for months, no patient had scheduled to see me that day. I had long bemoaned my choice of an evening flight out of town that day. Why hadn't I left earlier, I had complained. Instead, I now found fate had earmarked my schedule for what was a very important duty to attend. I was fated to say goodbye to my monumental teacher and beloved friend. Ours was indeed, as my Rabbi had predicted, a very important relationship, one that warranted due salute

I was the first to disturb the seven am stillness. Auden's clocks had stopped. The Great Neck chapel was still locked when I parked my car. Eventually, I entered. I was allowed a few minutes with the plain coffin. I stood close, feeling his centripetal neshama consoling me. Like a tide, it pulled the tears out of my eyes and released them, again and again. The humility of the pine adorned with a simple, several-pointed star made me ache. My Rabbi in death was as he had been in life: a man of no pomp, no show. In my foolish fur, I felt humbled, lacking. Yet, as my heart cried, it somehow gladdened for the love distending its deepest recesses.

Cantorah Melissah Adelman climbed the stage. She moved carefully, well into her second trimester. The small woman-with-child enunciated our newborn grief. Her tender words bowed me, ripples splitting me in two. The waves came from deep within, from a place I hadn't formerly known. I looked at the pregnant voice for our loss, reminded of the fragility and fierce beauty of life. I wondered could it mean, even amidst death one cannot extinguish life?

Rabbi-like, Linda led us through the day. Her hands and heart were rawed from shaking and hugging, from crying and keening. Too soon, it was time to return the Rabbi to The Source. I returned to my car, hurrying to join the funeral procession. Lacking a resident's permit, I had parked far away from the others.

When I returned to the chapel, I couldn't see anyone from the service. Lost, I didn't know which way to go. I was just about to map the address when a modest, silver-gray hearse appeared, almost shyly, behind me. For a final time, the Rabbi ushered me into the right direction. I felt his neshama shepherding the most recent and straggling member of his diverse flock. The hearse ensured I was the final car in the entourage. I joined the convoy of modest cars carrying Rabbi's flock of magnificent spirits. Driving through panes I was strongly aware my Rabbi sheltered me even now, in these, my bleakest of moments.

The cortege first went to Temple Judea. I stared at to the very place where I first met my Rabbi one Sunday, one June. Would we bury him here? In my confusion it took me time to understand. Finally the relevance dawned: the diffident convoy had stopped in a final salute. The hearse and its sorrowful followers paused to acknowledge Rabbi's legacy to Temple Judea.

We moved mournfully on.

Morning sun unfurled a snowscape of emerald brilliance and blinding glare over the cemetery. Mourners helped each other through icy ground and banked snow. A starling brushed past, saluting my Rabbi over his grave. In Rabbi's presence, I realized, the time for separation was very close. A young rabbi officiated the burial. He told us how the Talmud teaches every teacher to be a form of parent. He told us we, Rabbi's children, must now cover our teacher, just as a parent covers a child at night. Hot tears punctured snow, for it was time for our father to go.

I stood with my brothers and sisters, listening to the Kaddish, too shy to ask help to say words I didn't know. Instead, I prayed all that I knew, from my book.

The hollow sound of the earth on pine was stark, emptying men of quiet, noble tears.

"I am covering you up, Sweetheart", Linda cried, watery, valiant. .

With her wounded hand, she filled the shovel and threw in one spade of American soil. Her eldest son followed, as did her youngest. At the young Rabbi's gentle encouragement, the mourners came forward. Everyone there threw some earth in, some with the shovel upside down (which the young Rabbi said was especially holy). Ladies in sable and girls in smeared mascara followed suit. Emboldened by my love for my Rabbi, I decided to do the same. In my bewilderment and hesitation, I was the last one to 'cover the Rabbi' My loving Rabbi was including me, completely.

Securing the spade in the earth, I turned from the graveside to find myself in line with his children. I reached for the hand of his firstborn. We shared a deep gaze. In his eyes, I was connected to the Rabbi's love, which thrives now within us. Like a current, we fused.

I stayed at the graveside for full minutes. The grave was not dark, but luminous. The earthen walls were decked, made festive almost, with a brier of roots. Terracotta and golden, this was a place not fearful, but inviting. Even his death couldn't extinguish his light, which somehow continued to illuminate, flickering that we might not be in darkness.

It was a terrible feeling to leave my Rabbi in that place and suddenly feel his absence writ so large. I realized in that silent scene my Rabbi had in fact been helping us all gather our wits until that hopeless moment. His God-power, as one of my loveliest friends calls it, his soul, was in those moments very powerful.

In the cold light of the New Year, I am just now assembling the magnitude of my Rabbi's influence on me. As my tears begin to ebb, I understand. Even from death my Rabbi continued to instruct me in life. Rabbi taught me about life's brevity and death's finality, about the transience of life and the tenacity of permanent love and within it all the place for Divinity. Rabbi taught me of the dust from which we all come and to which we must all one day return. I had indeed learned my last lesson: Rabbi showed me that nothing, even on this terrible threshold, is to be feared. My Rabbi had left me, better prepared.

I am extremely proud to have been schooled by my Rabbi. He schools me even now, in death. I am honored to be welcomed to his flock of modesty and meaning. Rabbi used to end every gathering by saying, "How good it is when brethren can gather in Unity". I found in this brethren of Judaism, he had somehow gathered even me.

As a Muslim, allow me to say: I can confirm he was Rabbi to all. I am become a better Muslim because of my Rabbi. And as I mourn him, I can only wish every Muslim have the good fortune to be, one day, in the sweet shade of a Rabbi like mine.