I felt profound sadness. And I felt inadequate to the task.
Mostly, I just listened. My job, as I saw it, wasn't to teach or guide — it was to be there for Bill and his family. I practiced what some call the "ministry of presence." Sitting by the bedside. Touching Bill's shoulder.
Soon, Bill could no longer speak at all. I began spending more time with Susan and the kids than with Bill himself. The family was devastated. The oldest son was leaving for college in the fall and the younger one was in high school. Neither child could speak to me without crying. Susan struggled to keep herself together and shared her thoughts about the next steps for herself and the boys. The three of them weren't just entering a new chapter, she said. They were embarking on a completely new life.
After Bill died and I officiated at the funeral, I reflected on the role that he and his family had played (and still play) in my life. Despite my ambivalence about working as a pulpit rabbi, my relationship with the Diamonds — and the experience of trying to help them through their harrowing journey — reminded me of the great responsibility of my vocation and the possibility it offered me to give my presence, and support, to those who are struggling. Only a religious community possessed that sort of power. Only a spiritual bond could bring total strangers that close to, and responsible for, one another.
While my own chapter with the synagogue was coming to a close, I could think of few other career paths that would provide me with the opportunity to enter the life of a family and to strive for positive and lasting impact on the individuals within it.
It has been several years since I have worked as the spiritual leader of a congregation. There is a lot that I do not miss in the slightest — the overall lack of commitment, the internal politics, the sense of entitlement, the overemphasis on bar and bat mitzvahs. What I do miss, however, and what I miss greatly, is having the platform and entry point to serve and comfort those who are in need. I have worked in other contexts since my interactions with the Diamonds, but none of them has been as meaningful, or made me feel as connected to a moral universe. And I wonder if the price I have to pay for participating in such a fulfilling world is my acceptance of imperfection.