“Everything is rent.” – Rent, by Jonathan Larson
This week our Jewish high school put on a production of Rent, a rather bold choice for a religious institution. I was very proud of the kids. Their performance was spectacular, but better, through dialogue with teachers, rabbis, surviving families and friends of people who lived and died of AIDS, they understood the message, and it’s a core, it’s a Jewish one: Life is the most precious gift we have, so let us not waste it.
The message reminds me of a favorite story:
A few hundred years ago, a Jewish merchant came upon a shtetl he had never visited before. The times we difficult, many of the usual towns in his travels had been ravaged by plague, or abandoned after a pogrom. Thinking about all the people in all those places broke the peddler’s heart. It broke again at this new town as he wound his way along the path to the gates of the town that led past gravestones and markers through a sprawling cemetery. It was not the enormity of the graveyard that stuck him, he had seen the fields outside of Cracow, Prague, and even Warsaw. No, it was the numbers on the graves: 9, 25, 12, 13. Oy gevalt! My God, he thought, these were children. This is a town that is bereft of her young!
When he reached the synagogue, he was warmly greeted by a few elderly gentlemen who were just leaving the great building in the town’s central square.
“A gutn tag,” one said to the peddler.
“Good afternoon to you sir,” he replied. “Tell me, what calamity has befallen your lovely community?”
“It’s too awful to speak of. Please ask the rabbi.”
The peddler entered the synagogue and found the rabbi at the front of the hall, he was seated at a long wooden table.
“Yes, my friend,” the rabbi said over the brown leather volume he had been pouring over.
“Rabbi, I am a peddler, a visitor to your town. I have visited many towns and cities that have been afflicted by war, by plague, and even pogrom. Rabbi, I have seen and heard of many tragedies, but your town, what horrid thing has befallen your townspeople?”
“You have seen our cemetery?”
“I have, and I cried for your children and for their parents too.”
“ I see,” said the sage, “ You were right to weep, but you may have misunderstood. It is the custom of our town not to list on the gravestone a person’s age, but rather to list on the marker the number years a person really lived.”
As an encore, the players in the show invited the audience to sing along to one of the show’s signature songs; Seasons of Love was printed inside the program. “Five Hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes”. We reminded ourselves and each other to count the blessings of each minutes of every day, month and year we are privileged to share. Likewise, we reminded ourselves to make each and every minute count.
Memories can play such tricks on our minds. Last night, I returned to a synagogue where my husband had served as an assistant rabbi for 5 years. We were there to celebrate the installation of the new senior rabbi who is a good friend. People from different parts of our lives swirled together, past congregants from the synagogue, current friends, and colleagues who we looked forward to meeting. All of this taking place in this synagogue building which holds such an important place in my life. I was married on the bimah, celebrated my wedding reception in the ballroom, watched my husband bloom from a rabbinic intern in to a full fledge rabbi, and taught my own first adult education courses. The five years I walked in and out of that synagogue mark the years I grew up and became an adult.
All of this came flooding back as I sat in the pews and walked the halls. But one emotion hit me in the gut, regret. Walking down the hall a picture of the cantor my husband worked with, Cantor Renee Colson stared down at me from the wall. The minute I saw her tears came to my eyes. The last time we were in the synagogue was seven years ago for her funeral. She was diagnosed with cancer and died within two years of our leaving the synagogue.
Her eyes seemed to follow me as I walked down the hallway. And I remembered… I remembered having to cancel a dinner date I had made with her because a work commitment got in the way. She was already very sick at the time, though I did not realize how sick. I was surprised, when I called to tell her I couldn’t make it, when she said, “Well it doesn’t matter, since I can’t eat anyway.” She wouldn’t, or couldn’t reschedule. Her words stuck with me like an arrow in the gut. I meant to reach out again, but then I heard she had died. To this day, I regret that I cancelled our dinner date.
I know that having dinner with her would not have changed the course of her cancer. But I feel like I let down a friend in need. Today I do not remember the work commitment I had that night, but I remember where I should have been.
It is easy to spout aphorisms about living each day to the fullest and spending less time at work and more with family and friends. But it is hard for us to follow them. I wish my priorities had been in the right place that night.
I will always remember Renee being full of life and voice. Every Rosh Hashannah certain songs bring her to mind. Her high notes still ring in my ears and her memory lives on in me.
Sitting in the sanctuary last night, as I celebrated my friend’s new beginning as the rabbi there, I remembered. For a moment, the past, present, and future all combined. I sat in the moment with both joy and pain in my heart.
I hope I will not make a similar mistake in the future. May Renee’s memory teach me to celebrate with friends in the good times and be with them in the bad, for life inescapably brings both.