Lake Merritt in Oakland. (Flickr/Hitchster CC BY 2.0)
Lake Merritt in Oakland. (Flickr/Hitchster CC BY 2.0)

How did we get from ‘Rabbi, I hate your sermons’ to ‘I’m sorry for your loss’?

I wish I had learned long ago that no matter how smart, how perceptive, how intuitive we believe we are, we can never know what is going on in another human being’s mind or soul.

I wish I had learned that a lot sooner. I would have been a far better person.

I believed — until that fateful moment in 1983 — that our brains are hardwired to figure out what to expect from people.

At the time, I was serving as rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette. Occasionally, I would drive from Lafayette to Oakland for a 3-mile run around Lake Merritt. This gave me a chance not only to get my heart rate up but also to catch my breath and keep up with an arduous schedule: hospital visits, classes to teach, sermons to write, staff and committee meetings, Shabbat and holiday services to conduct, along with births, weddings and funerals, counseling sessions and more.

Much as I loved my life as a rabbi, jogging around Lake Merritt for an hour or two, with no one knocking on my office door or phoning me, was an unmitigated relief. At the lake, I could be my own person, devoid of someone else’s expectations, even my own. I could enjoy the comfort of sharing space with hundreds of folks, and geese and ducks, all asking nothing of me.

Then came that day in May when George appeared at the lake in his orange sweatshirt.

I recognized him immediately from his occasional appearances at Temple Isaiah. As he drew nearer, I smiled and called out, “Hi, George. Shalom!” What I got back from him as we passed each other was not “hi” or “Shalom” but, “Rabbi, I hate your sermons!” Then he ran by me and was gone.

So he doesn’t like my sermons, but he has to yell that at me?

I thought to myself, “What did he say? So he doesn’t like my sermons, but he has to yell that at me? Here? And now? With no opportunity for me to ask why he said that?” Was it a joke? I didn’t think so. The rabbi in me, a man of compassion, understanding and patience, was nowhere in sight. The best I could muster was, “George needs a therapist, that jerk.”

Several months later, in late 1983, my father died after a long battle with cancer. I flew to Jerusalem to attend the funeral and sit shiva with my family.

I decided to return to California several days early, figuring I needed some space and quiet to sort through my mail, return phone calls and prepare for forthcoming services and classes. And also to give myself a chance to accept that Dad was really gone, forever, buried alongside my mom in the cemetery at Givat Shaul, overlooking Jerusalem.

That first morning back home in Lafayette, I walked slowly along Mt. Diablo Boulevard to Temple Isaiah, less than 2 miles from my home. It was 6:15 in the morning. Not a soul in the streets.

As I approached the path leading up the hill to the synagogue, I made out in the dim sunlight the figure of a man standing at its top. A man dressed in an orange sweatshirt!

Oh God! Oh no! Not him. Not here. Not now.

Twenty feet to go. Ten. Five. I said to myself, “Go ahead, George, say something really stupid. My dad just died and I have to endure this abuse? What do you want from me? Why are you here?”

A few more steps to go, and like a bolt of lightning, George thrust out both his arms and embraced me, and whispered he was so sorry for my loss. I stood there in his arms and wept.

No, we never know what’s going on in another human being’s mind or soul. It is time, perhaps, to eschew the lopsided view of reality that comes with judging others, and awaken our hearts to embrace the other, as did the man in the orange sweatshirt.

Rabbi Shelley Waldenberg
Rabbi Shelley Waldenberg

Rabbi Shelley Waldenberg lives in Oakland and is rabbi emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.