[Note: This is a review of a book that is available for sale starting September 29. I was given a free copy to review, but I will receive no remuneration for this write-up; I just think the book deserves a review.]
I would guess that I’ve buried between 200 and 250 people. For each I tried to develop a eulogy that spoke to the person’s nature and character, and to his impact on family, on friends, and the world.
This approach of telling the person’s lifestory, reading his heart aloud to friends and family and the curious, transcends the classic nature of the Jewish eulogy, the הספד. Traditionally, the הספד was a speech that tugged the heartstrings, delivered with the aim of drawing tears from the mourners. As the Talmud teaches (Shabbat 105b), there is merit in reaching a state of mourning, in crying for a good person, and so Jews of millenia past would hire professional eulogizers whose task it would be to bring the listener to tears (Moed Katan 8a). (Noteworthy: This is the type of eulogy prohibited on dates marked for festivity on the Jewish calendar, as in Taanit 15b.)
Today, in our unsentimental society, the norm is to eschew the explicit tearjerker (although the tears often happen naturally, at least for me). Instead, we go for a cross between biography and ethical will: The ways in which the deceased influenced my life, the lessons I learned, the experiences for which I am grateful. The speaker introduces his audience to the deceased, as he knew him, and, hopefully, presents an educational and inspiring message along the way.
I think R’ Albert Lewis, head of a congregation in southern New Jersey for decades, had that sort of presentation in mind when he asked Mitch Albom to deliver his eulogy. Based on the story Albom unfolds in Have a Little Faith, Lewis meant for him to capture the essence of his life and teachings. A man of more grandiose vision might have asked for a full biography, but Albert Lewis does not present himself as someone worthy of, or seeking, the immortality of publication. He only wants one more educational, inspirational moment, to come at a time when he will not be able to personally deliver it (although he does try – but I won’t spoil it for you), and so he hand-picks Albom, a congregant if somewhat estranged, a writer of considerable success, and someone who could, perhaps, use some education and inspiration himself, to do the job.
Have a Little Faith tells, in brief snapshots, the story of Albom’s years-long attempt to get to know his childhood rabbi. Modern-day meetings are mixed with reminiscences from Albom’s childhood, snippets of old sermons, questions of theology and pieces of Albom’s own mind. Along the way, Albom also introduces the life of a Detroit pastor, Henry Covington, whose biography is far from that of Lewis, whose pastoral milieu and methods are far from those of Lewis, but whose ideals and generous nature dovetail nicely with those of Albom’s rabbi and deepen the book's themes of faith and service. [Indeed, at some point I might write a separate post on Pastor Covington, whose story raises so many issues of its own.]
There is humor here, as well as wisdom - "Getting old, we can deal with. Being old is the problem." There are gut-wrenching moments, perhaps none more painful than when R' Lewis delivers a speech eulogizing his own young daughter, Rinah. We watch the rabbi age, reaching a Yom Kippur when he no longer stands on the pulpit. And stories, stories and more stories, a few of which I have put away to use for myself in the future.
Of course, there is much more in this story, which is as much Albom’s as it is Lewis’s or Covington’s, and which also tells the tale of two very different communities. But what I find most rewarding in this read is its peek into the life of a career rabbi. My twelve years in the rabbinate began toward the end of Lewis’s decades, and I am Orthodox where he was Conservative, but often, when Lewis speaks, I hear my own voice.
Certainly, there were great differences between Lewis’s rabbinate and my own – the leadership of halachic institutions, the role of בעל קריאה (Torah reader) and the constant flow of classes on my end, as opposed to the trend of metamorphosis in his movement, and the social demands and religious school demands he faced – but, as with the Lewis/Covington comparison, we are similar in our basic drives, that underlying theme of the music of our lives. To bring people close. To create community. To educate and inspire. To communicate a faith we only glimpse ourselves. To give.
The author of Tuesdays with Morrie has created a satisfying work here, no small task when dealing overtly with death. I’d recommend Have a Little Faith for anyone who wants to get inside the mind of a pulpit rabbi, for anyone who wants to see what faith looks like from an insider’s perspective, and for anyone who wonders what would happen if he would ask a stranger, “Will you do my eulogy?” I think you’ll get something out of it.