This has certainly been a different type of High Holy Day season for me. I always enjoyed being on the bima on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur but “to everything there is a season”s and I know that the time had come for me to make some changes. So, having retired from the position of rabbi at Beth Israel in June, I spent Rosh Hashana as a congregant rather than on the bima.
It really was not too difficult to make the change. I had to restrain myself a couple of times from calling out page numbers and I actually think I nodded off for a moment at one point- something which never happened to me while leading services. But, all in all, it was a very meaningful and inspirational experience. Most importantly, it felt right.
I had resisted using the word “retirement” for months. But, after speaking with so many people who had gone through this transition, I realized that “retirement” doesn’t mean sitting and watching TV or playing golf all day. For most that retire, it is a time to explore new opportunities and have more time to be selective about what one wants to do and to = sit and think much more patiently and quietly.
So, here I am, sitting in my home office on a day between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur taking deep breaths and reaching down every so often to scratch Sami who loves to sit on the floor next to the desk.
Every day hasn’t been so idyllic. But, each day has brought something new.
One of my goals for this period of my life was to try to try to discover some “spiritual experiences” beyond Jewish ritual and prayer. That is not meant to be a rejection of ritual and prayer. But, it is true that after being a “professional Jew” for over 40 years, there is a yearning for something wider as well.
I had found some of those experiences during my years in the rabbinate. I have often written about my love of astronomy and watching the movement of the stars and experiencing the glory of creation from New England mountain tops, the cliffs above Lake Michigan or countless other places has always stirred in me those spiritual feelings that we need as human beings.
But, there is more time now and I have started to pursue some other avenues.
I’ve been trying to learn more about classical music and found moments in an introductory lecture series I watched online when I truly felt elevated by the beauty of the music and complexity of the orchestra.
I’ve been trying to read and understand more about science in order to more deeply appreciate the connection between the natural world and my belief in God.
And, finally, and perhaps most dramatically, there are the primates.
One of the first things that I did when I ended my full time rabbinate was to register as a volunteer at the Toledo (Ohio) Zoo. I’ve always wanted to work in a zoo and now I have the chance. So when they asked me where I’d like to work as an “exhibit guide”, there were so many good options. I listened to the list and jumped when I was told I could work in the primate exhibit.
And, what an experience it has been.
While I only am there once a week and have no more direct contact with the animals than any other zoo visitor, I have learned to recognize the different personalities of the gorillas and orangutans and after a few visits, I am starting to feel part of some wider family.
Each day I am there, that feeling grows stronger. I feel more and more of a connection with these majestic, beautiful creatures and I find myself saying the blessing: “Blessed are You O Lord our God ruler of the Universe who varies the creations”.
Becoming more intimately familiar with these animals has solidified even further my belief about creation. If, as I believe, human beings were the purposeful and deliberate act of a creator, so were these magnificent animals. How could I think otherwise?
And, then something happened yesterday which I will always cherish.
I was spending some time in the orangutan exhibit area watching one of the males, Bajik, as he sat eating fruit right up against the exhibit glass. He was very calm and kept looking at me and I kept looking at him. Then, I started to walk away and heard a strange noise. I turned around and Bajik was knocking on the glass quietly with his hand. When I walked back to him, he looked at me and stopped. Then I walked away again, and he knocked again. I walked back to him and he stopped and looked at me.
I was stunned and filled with joy.
Finally, we went our separate ways.
When I got home, I was telling the story to the family and I know there was some feeling that maybe I was exaggerating. So, I looked up some information about Bajik online and read this sentence: “A common thing he does is sit at the window and tap on the glass when visitors are near.”
I don’t care if Bajik had done this hundreds of times before.
That one was for me.
And, I will never forget it.
After so many years of connecting with human beings on a very meaningful level and after so many years of forming bonds with our animals in the house, this was something that I never expected.
I am humbled and in awe.
I love to teach Torah and am glad that I will be doing so at Beth Israel and several other places over the year to come. I hope I can continue my writing on Jewish issues and while I’m taking a step back from making comments on current events and issues, eventually that will come too.
But, I will forever remember that knock on the glass and seek to deepen this new connection that is out there for me.
It’s been a great start to the new year.