Our High Holy Day Machzor is Now a Living Monument to a Great Rabbi
I received the shocking news this past weekend that my friend and colleague, Rabbi Ron Aigen, had died of a massive stroke. Ron was the rabbi of Reconstructionist congregation Dorshei Emet in Montreal, Canada for the past forty years. You all know his work from our High Holy Day Machzor, Renew Our Days. Ron was a model of Reconstructionist spirituality, of open-heartedness and intellectual honesty, a beloved rabbi, teacher, mentor, and friend.
Ron was about to celebrate his coming retirement. His sudden death has brought deep personal loss to me and my colleagues, accompanied by a state of awe at the suddenness and randomness of his death.
We extend our deepest condolences to member Merle Wolofsky who was close to Rabbi Aigen. He introduced Merle to Reconstructionist Judaism, and it’s thanks to him that Merle found her way to HBT when she left Canada to be near her children. Merle will be returning to Montreal for the shiva.
Ron was a mensch, a tsaddik, a gutte neshama (a good person, a righteous person, and a good soul). In addition to the Renew Our Days High Holy Day prayerbook, Ron published a Shabbat prayerbook and a haggadah, Wellsprings of Freedom. We are blessed to have his insightful, spiritual, and poetic commentaries accompany us during the holiest days of the year.
I urge you to continue reading the blog post that Ron composed last month, after suffering a heart attack. He continues to teach us how to live each day with vitality.
Since my heart attack last week, which came suddenly out of nowhere with ferocious speed and near-lethal results, my favourite prayer is “asher yatzar”: “…who formed us with wisdom creating a myriad of ducts and vessels, and should but one of them rupture or become blocked it would be impossible to stand in Your presence. Praised are You who heals all flesh and does wondrously.”
We all take for granted the incredible intricacy of our bodies and the true wonder of human health-until we are shocked into acknowledging how fragile this thing called life really is. We are encouraged to be more mindful, more appreciative and grateful for what we have with daily blessings like asher yatzar and with Torah portions that we prefer to avoid, like this week’s Metzora in Leviticus 13, 14 that speaks about fearful diseases.
The priest’s job in biblical times was to help manage the disease on a spiritual level and ultimately bring the afflicted back into the sphere of the community and the full realm of life. “Put Israel on guard, warn them (ve-hizhartem) against their spiritual disconnection with the Life-Force.” Today, we are all priests; our job is to dedicate ourselves to promoting our own lives and the lives of others to their fullest capacity.
The Zohar, classic of Jewish mysticism, tells us that the warning of the priest (hizhartem) connotes zar, “stranger, strangeness. “Don’t make those things that you consider negative, fearful, disgusting a stranger.” Rather than reject what we dislike, in us or in others, making it a stranger to us, we should open ourselves to examine it with curiosity. Is this true? Is it really so? In this way, says the Zohar, we maintain a connection with the vitality of Godliness that dwells in us.
Can we actually play a role in controlling the inner workings of our bodies? Neuroscience today has reported on the many incredible health benefits of meditation. Specifically scientists claim that meditation can lower stress and the risk of cardio-vascular disease. Although I practice meditation regularly, teach it and lead a weekly meditation minyan, as I did that morning, it didn’t prevent my heart attack. Nor did the regular half hour jogs that I do several times a week, as I did effortlessly that morning. As the rabbis say, ain havtahot le-tzadikim, “there are no guarantees in life, even for the righteous.”
In my case it was a fluke. In some people the plaque that builds up from normal amounts cholesterol that exist in all of us can sometimes get dislodged for some unexplained reason. When that happens those loose particles of plaque rush into the next available artery. In my case it was the LAD, the main artery to the heart, that was 100% blocked by the time I arrived in emergency. Fortunately, I was already in the ambulance with the defibrillator attached when the really critical condition occurred, and the stents were deployed before any major damage to the heart set in.
Meditation could not have stopped it from happening, but it did help me to remain totally focused and surprisingly calm. It perhaps helped me to be more aware the moment the discomfort in my chest began to arise and that I had broken out in a sweat while sitting at my desk sending an email. Perhaps it helped me to know it was time to call for help.
Now that I am breathing much easier, I am back to meditating, and eventually expect to get back to jogging—hopefully with a greater sense of connection and appreciation for the Life-Force.
Yehi zichron tsaddik livracha — may the memory of the righteous bring blessing to our world.