Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shlomi was a most amazing man. Born in Poland in 1924, he was raised in Vienna, where his father, a member of the Hasidic sect, was immersed in both Orthodox Judaism and the intellectual and political life of the city. With the rise of the Nazis, Zalman’s family moved repeatedly — to Belgium, France, North Africa and the Caribbean—before landing in New York City in 1941. Along the way, he came under the influence of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was to become the 7th Lubovitcher Rebbe, and when Zalman and his family finally arrived in America, he went to Brooklyn and studied with the Lubovitchers until he received ordination as a rabbi.
But his life did not follow the path one would expect from an Orthodox rabbi, a Chabad Lubovitcher rabbi, no less. In the 1960’s, at the height of the sexual revolution, Zalman arrived in San Francisco, teaching—and learning—in Berkeley and in Haight-Ashbury. He explored the spiritual teachings of other religions; Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism and Native American tradition. He formed friendships with Thomas Merton, Ram Das and the Dalai Lama, and even took LSD with Timothy Leary, after which he came to believe that, “what I’d experienced in prayer and meditation before—the oneness and connection with God—was true, but it wasn’t just Jewish…I realized that all forms of religion are masks that the divine wears to communicate with us. Behind all religions there’s a reality, and this reality wears whatever clothes it needs to speak to a particular people.”
Reb Zalman, as he came to be known, left the world of Chabad to start a new movement in Judaism; which we now know as the Jewish Renewal movement. “It can’t be the same Judaism as it was before,” he said in a videotaped interview in 2010 with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It has to come to terms with the emerging times.” Zalman’s influence has been felt throughout the spectrum of all of the Jewish movements as well as in other faith communities, with the introduction of chanting and meditation, spiritual study and exploration, drumming and dancing. Our own Sacred Chant and Drum service is an example of Zalman’s influence upon us.
I don’t really believe in coincidences, so I just take it one of life’s mysteries that when I was in Toronto, I worked with a woman named Marcia Gilbert. Marcia was one of the teachers in the Jewish Information Class, the Reform synagogues’ conversion program. She was a gifted teacher and we became friends, and, as it turned out, she was married to Reb Zalman’s son, Sholom. And then, in another coincidence in which I do not believe, it turned out that Zalman was the mentor of my friend Rabbi Jerry Steinberg, who many of you know. It was Reb Zalman who set Jerry on the path to becoming a rabbi, a “rogue rabbi” like Zalman, himself. As a result, I had the privilege to visit with Zalman when he came to Toronto from time to time, at Marcia and Sholom’s home or at a lecture that Zalman was giving.
Reb Zalman was not a big man. But he was a big presence. I loved to sit and listen as he would tell stories or talk about his life, or something that he was thinking about or doing. He had a way of looking deeply into you when he was being serious, and a mischievous smile with a twinkle in his eye when he was being playful. He had a way of asking the most thoughtful and challenging questions, while you hardly noticed that he had worked them into the conversation. Most of the time, I just tried to listen, and make myself like a sponge, with the hope that I would absorb a drop or two from this fountain of wisdom.
Reb Zalman died in July of this past year at the age of 89. Zecher Tzadik Livracha—May the Memory of the Righteous be for a Blessing.
One of the last things that Zalman worked on was his “December Project”, his attempt to respond to the physical decline that he was experiencing in his later years, a decline that left him with no doubt that his death was approaching. The December Project was his attempt to prepare himself for that which was inevitable, and for what would come next. And, together with his journalist-friend Sara Davidson, he offered his December Project as a model for all of us to cope with the realities of our own “December” years, and the challenges, the questions, anxieties and fears that we will all face as we approach the moment that will come for each and every one of us.
For two years, Reb Zalman and Sara met each Friday, and they talked about their December years; the physical struggles, senior moments and memory lapses, the fear of debilitating illness and Alzheimers.
One Friday, Sara found Reb Zalman coughing and short of breath…
“He’d been carrying one of his cats up the stairs from his basement when the cat started squirming and clawing. ‘So I started going up faster, and when I reached the top, I was gasping so much I felt, if I had to climb one more stair, I would have a heart attack.’
He said he’s been thinking hard about what he needs ‘to meet the steep decline of the body.’ When he lies down and imagines, ‘Okay, this will be my last breath,’ there’s no problem, he said. ‘I have all kinds of serenity about dying, but I do not feel serene when I can’t get enough air or my inner organs don’t feel aligned and I can’ move freely. I start to worry, am I gonna get cystic fibrosis?’…
What kind of awareness do I need so I don’t get freaked out? When I’m struggling for breath and adrenaline is rushing through me saying, ‘Warning, red alert!’ how do I manage that? I need a kind of spiritual armament that I don’t quite have yet…Picture a woman giving birth. When the contractions and pain come, you can’t do anything but ride them. But in between the contractions, you can meditate, pray, attune to the soul. In between, I can do that. But when it’s happening…”
The December Project, p.47f
Sara told Zalman that she was more worried about the decline of the mind than the body…
“Most people, I’ve found, are more frightened of losing what they consider their mind—the ability to think, remember, and speak—than of physical illness, because it seems like it would be losing one’s core intelligence, becoming an imbecile…” She told Reb Zalman, “I can feel my memory slipping—yours is in better shape than mine, and you’re two decades older. I want to be at ease with what’s going to happen but…how do I face this with equanimity?”
“Zalman said there is a bright side: people with dementia are living completely in the present… Who is Zalman,” he asks rhetorically, “what is he made of? He starts by looking at his body, his mind, his feelings, then goes deeper until…he arrives at an interior space where the outside is not so interesting…If we cultivate the interior—where the One who makes it all happen is present—we don’t need the outer memories…All the details—who is that woman and when did we meet—are not so important. What’s more important is: Do I sense the field around me? Do I appreciate the specialness of the moment? Do I feel consciousness, awareness, presence—it goes by many names? All these wonderful things…they don’t happen on the outside.”
“When I have a memory lapse, I don’t lose the sense that I exist, that I am…So when you have a memory lapse, think about meditating between the contractions. Go to your heart and connect with ‘I am.’”
They spoke of changing relationships with family and friends, guilt and regret over events that had taken place long ago, forgiving and seeking forgiveness—and forgiving themselves.
Looking back over one’s relationships is a part of the December Project that Zalman calls life review. Sara told Zalman…
“I am loath to do it. Just thinking about it makes me anxious. I [don’t] want to relive all the times I made a hash of things, [messed] up, yelled at my children, argued over nothing, married a man for the wrong reasons, and turned down a job that would have led to wealth and opportunities.”
“…[I]t’s best to this with a loving friend who can help you see how you’ve evolved, acknowledge what you’ve learned—especially from your mistakes—and forgive yourself. It’s critical because if you don’t face those negative emotions and release them, they’re going to haunt you some more.”
Zalman to Sara that forgiveness is “a crucial part of the December Project”, but that it is also a healing and freeing practice to do at any age. And he shared with her the prayer that he offered each night before sleep:
Source of creation, I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or hurt me, in this incarnation or any other. May no one be punished on my account.
And if it be Your will, may I be forgiven for the hurt I’ve caused others and myself, and may I not revert to the old habits that led me to do harm.
Ibid. p. 173
They spoke about their relationship with God, and their hopes and fears about the after-life, about letting go.
When the dark moments come, accompanied by pain or deep depression, Zalman advises that we “kvetch to God,” that we talk to God about our misery.
“Let it out,” he says, “all your sorrows, complaints, self-pity, anguish, how you just can’t take it anymore! When it’s all been voiced and you’re spent, lie or sit quietly. Turn your attention to gratitude…then smile, even if you’re faking it, because smiling releases endorphins. Open yourself to presence, to receiving love. Imagine the warmth traveling through your veins, bathing every cell. And if you still feel stuck in darkness, go back and kvetch some more.”
But it is not only about complaining to God. Zalman also suggests that we find time and develop the skill of just sitting in solitude and letting God love us.
“‘All the beautiful attributes you feel—warmth, gratitude, love—that’s furniture for the sacred place inside.’ He used to tell his students, ‘You won’t understand prayer unless you set up that inner sanctuary. For instance, when I’m lying down to rest, I’ll start my afternoon prayer, and it might not be verbal. I might hum or meditate or just commune with God.’ He especially likes what Rumi wrote, quoting the Quran, that God is nearer than the vein in one’s neck. ‘I don’t have to climb to the highest heavens to meet God,’ Zalman said. ‘All I have to do is go into that sacred inner place. So let’s furnish it well.’”
And then there is the letting go. Sara tells a story of Zalman, at the age of 80, practicing his death. He arranged with the local funeral home and chevra kadisha to allow him a “trial run”, in which he was ritually washed, covered by a white sheet, while the proper prayers and psalms were chanted, before he was dressed in his kittel and laid out on a table. He explained that when the time came, if indeed he was able to observe in an “out-of-body” way that many people who had had near-death experiences described, he wanted to be familiar with what he was seeing.
Letting go, for Zalman, also meant putting your affairs in order. Writing letters to family and acquaintences, dealing with unfinished business and leaving something of yourself—an ethical will to transmit your values to your children, instructions for your medical care, your wishes for your funeral and burial—for after you are gone.
Letting go also meant confronting your fears. When Sara asked Reb Zalman to record some inspirational words for people facing death, he spontaneously created this poem.
“Lying down, he closed his eyes and imagined he was about to depart. He began by thanking God for being with him through his years, then said:
It was a wonderful life. I loved and I was loved.
I sang, I heard music; I saw flowers, I saw sunrises
Even in places when I was alone,
You, in my heart, helped me to turn loneliness into
What a wonderful privilege this was!
I still have some concerns for people in the family,
for the world, for the planet,
I put them in Your Blessed Hands.
I trust that whatever in the web of life needed me
to be there is now completed.
I thank You for taking the burden from me,
And I thank You for keeping me in the Light,
And I let go, and let go…and let go.
And in the end, they offered as series of exercises, a path for our December years, for each of us to ponder, to explore, to experience directly, or to share with our loved ones as their Novembers turn to December.
Give thanks. Make friends with Solitude. Meditate between the contractions. Forgive, forgive. Kvetch to God. Review your life. Hang a bell. Let go.
I forgot to talk about “hanging a bell”. I am told that Zalman kept a bell hanging from the rear view mirror in his car. Whenever he would go over a bump, or stop suddenly, the bell would ring. The ringing of the bell reminded Zalman that there was more to that moment than getting from one place to another. “It is a mitzvah to turn your attention to God.” So when the bell would ring, Zalman would simply say, “Thank You, God,” or “You are One.” (Try it sometime…when you are in traffic…“Thank You, God,” or “You are One.”)
Our rabbis teach, in Pirke Avot, that “this world is the vestibule for the World to Come” and that we should “repent on the day before we die.” Their idea was that all of life is, in some way, preparation for our death and what will follow, and that, since we cannot know when we will die, we should live each day as if it were our last—to the fullest, and that we should be in a constant state of preparing. They didn’t mean it in a morbid way, but in a deeply spiritually comforting way, and as a guide to living the best life we can live.
In a sense, the rabbis were teaching that we should all be engaged in our own December Project, throughout all of the days in the whole of the twelve months of our years. And each year, on a completely sure and reliable schedule, Yom Kippur arrives to help us with this task.
Yom Kippur completes the 10 Days of Repentance. Our Book of Life remains open, and we stand in judgment in a “trial run” for the judgment that will come at the end of our lives. We dress in white, some wearing tallaisim or kittels because these are the clothes in which we will be buried, and at least symbolically, we are standing ready for that final judgment tonight…”who shall live and who shall die…”
For these next 24 hours, we will engage in a kind of December Project: Give thanks. Make friends with Solitude. Meditate between the contractions. Forgive. Ask for forgiveness. Kvetch to God. Review our lives.
May this be sacred time for us. May our fasting help us to focus on the task at hand. May God grant us the strength to do the work with sincere hearts and open minds. May we be hard on ourselves, and compassionate with ourselves. May we free ourselves from the burdens, the fears, all that restricts us or holds us back from being the best we can be and enjoying the life we are given. May the memories of our loved ones return to us with their sacred teachings, their scoldings, their outpourings of love. And may we be sealed in the Book of Life for good.
Ken Yihi Ratzon