The whole world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is to not be afraid ~ Rabbi Nachman of Breslav
כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלוּ גֶשֶׁר צַר מְּאֹד וְהָעִיקָר לאֹ לְפַחֵד כְּלַל
This was one of the favorite quotes of my rabbi, Marcus L. Burstein, z”l
As this past day of Yom Kippur ended, and after the gates closed at Neilah, the soul of a tzaddik (a righteous man) went back to its Source to make sure we would be sheltered under the sukkah of peace.
He had been my rabbi since 2013. At a time when things were not very easy for us, he came with a mission to serve us and lead us towards change.
He had the smile that made you forget about grudge or bitterness, he had the heart that made you melt even when you were angry or upset, he had the listening skills and the wisdom of a very old and gentle soul.
I will always remember when he arrived in our congregation and the first Shabbat service as our new rabbi: because we were worried about the dwindling attendance at Shabbat services anyways, and moreover that Shabbat falling on the Fourth of July weekend, we feared about being not able to welcome him nicely with at least more than a minyan, so we had made sure to communicate well about that service: what we had not understood yet, was that this particular rabbi had already established such a personal connection with each and every one of the congregants, during the preliminary meetings and not only for the search committee members but for all who had been able to attend those “Meet the new rabbi” events (not more than two or three, if my memory serves well) so the sanctuary was filled to capacity and beyond!
And the ambiance was astounding in that room, our cantor was on fire and the ruach (spirit) was stronger than it had been in a very long time.
Rabbi Burstein was the first one to be delighted and surprised: he had no idea we were so musical, and so passionate maybe, but he also had no idea he had the power to bring the very best out of us. That was the first public encounter with our congregation. From then on, until his very last worship with us on Rosh haShanah second day of 5777, he radiated only love from others and the perfect connection with everybody. This is a gift that is rare.
And this was only at the end of his first week of working at our congregation.
Rabbi Burstein had also asked me to assist him setting up his computer on his first day. And I will remember that day all my life too.
You see, that day was a Monday, July 1st, 2013.
I do remember exactly that Monday morning because torrential summer storms had battered our county. I had made an appointment maybe around 10 am with the new rabbi and was still at my gym when it poured. At about the same time, Rabbi Burstein was still at his home and the same storm had suddenly flooded his basement. He made it to our appointment late because of the incident and arrived a bit shaken. He told me how he had nearly died because he foolishly tried to stop the water from rushing into the place, but the force of the current was terrible and dangerous; he escaped harm but it had truly been frightening.
At this point of his retelling the story his office phone rang and because it was his first day he asked me to answer (we had no caller ID on those phones) and it turned out it was his mom so I left the office for privacy and they talked while I went to work in the main office on my computer.
Rabbi Burstein came then to let me know he had finished his conversation after a while and that I could come back to set up his computer and just by his looks, I saw that he needed to be somewhere else than in an office setting up a computer: I asked him:
– Rabbi, would you like your mother to hug you right now? I am good at this and can provide too!
He laughed with his absolutely wonderful laugh and without missing a beat gave me a “Marcus Hug” and I held him tight in what felt like one of the most reassuring hugs I could give when my son has escaped a great danger. We went back to his office, sat, and I said that we should recite the gomel, which we actually did at that Shabbat service I mentioned earlier!
We had started the most amazingly significant relationship that day. I was crying writing this memory during the shivah period because I knew that his soul was still remembering with me and I want to never forget those feelings for they are such blessings.
Rabbi Burstein impacted me as a person in the much too short years I got to know and learn from him. He made me a much better person and a certainly better Jew.
There are special moments in the too short period I got to call Rabbi Burstein, z”l “our rabbi”.
“BLTs” as illustrated by the very nice picture that is opening this blog post embody the spirit that I want to convey so well. BLTs here stands for Breakfast and Learning Torah (or Brunch, depending on whether the Talmud Torah was taking place early before a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony or later when there was only a 7th Grade class that Saturday morning).
This was a new program Rabbi Burstein had started. Before his arrival, Torah study took place on Sundays during Religious School. For some reasons, parents did not really sign up for that class when it shifted to Saturday morning, so for a couple of years most of those Shabbat mornings were my “date” with my rabbi and I loved it!
The first one who would arrive in the morning would prepare the coffee. I had my mug, and rabbi Burstein had his, I knew how he liked his bagel, he knew which ones I did not like, we discussed the merits of the cream cheese choices and of course talked about food on that occasion, a topic that gave him a chance to talk more than I since he was a cook and I was not, but I could bring up sephardic menus as I recalled them from my family and sometimes we even exchanged recipes. Because do not be mistaken, cooking is torah!
Once our breakfast would be prepared, we would sit and say the bracha laasok bedivrei torah and go into the portion he had prepared… or not. Because sometimes, we had many other things to discuss as soon as the first verse we had read was taking us to an idea, or because I needed some spiritual guidance in a time that was not easy for me to navigate: you see, I was not very happy with the direction the congregation was heading to and I was struggling with negative feelings a lot.
Rabbi Burstein did not only listen. Sometimes, he opened up about his own struggles.
Often, we traded roles because I was happy to bring some of the interpretations of the text I had studied with my previous rabbis. Rabbi Burstein’s openness was the most wonderful thing I can remember. I never felt judged, I never felt I was wrong (nor right, in that matter! it was just a shared discovery because most of the times, the ideas we were laying out were taking their own path to make new meanings that neither of us had anticipated and it made us simply happy!).
It was often too short. I was always surprised how refreshed I felt after our BLTs. I know that after we cleaned up there was either a service that I would enjoy and sing my heart out or if it had been after a class, I would go back home and have the rest of the Shabbat with my boys and continue to think about all we had brought up. And it was helping me grow.
Rabbi Burstein was so humble and accepting.
When my father died, in April 2014, shortly before Passover, I told him bluntly that no rabbis were allowed because my father was such an apikoyres that I did not want his soul to be upset if a rabbi officiated at his shivah!
Rabbi Burstein stood with us in my condo among all the other friends who had come to comfort me, and my son lead the service with me. But I still asked him to sing the El Male Rahamim for us. This was so special too. A memory that I can only cherish. On my father’s first yahrzeit, I recorded Kol haOlam Kulo, which rabbi Burstein had taught me to understand and love.
When you have to cross a narrow place, you should not fear having to do it. Keep going.
Even if scared.
Just keep going.
Rabbi Burstein did just that. When he learned of the dreadful diagnosis that explained why he had not felt so good for a few months, around the time of Rosh haShana 5776, he went for very aggressive and devastating treatments to fight the tumors from the rare form of cancer that had taken over his body. Even when he was afraid, he kept being the same giving person, listening to us, thanking us for our notes and making plans for his congregation that was going through a significant transition, that felt difficult for many of us, especially without his guidance and physical presence.
We had mourned our cantor less than a year ago, and some of us had lost their best friend and musical director when Kathy Storfer died also prematurely in November 2015. Our sanctuary had closed and we were worshipping in a very different place with different customs. Each time, Rabbi Burstein was joining us, he was delivering a powerful message of hope and resilience, and always making sure we were okay.
I have been struggling to publish this post for too long now. I wanted to give some of the memories that were personal to me, like the hydrangeas that he brought me when I returned from burying my father in France. We then shared the stories that this plant was bringing to my mind, from the time my father was a young teen in occupied France during WWII.
I wanted to share how grateful I was that he had played such a significant role in my own son’s life as a teenager who faced heartbreak and had to navigate his age’s turmoils without a father figure around, and rabbi Burstein played this role so smoothly and without being asked, it was the best gift I could receive and I had very few words to express my gratitude in an appropriate manner.
I prepared to chant some verses of the first chapter of the Torah on the second day of Rosh haShanah. I had not expected rabbi Burstein to attend the service because I knew how exhausted he was at the time nearing the end. But he was there. It was truly special, I could spend a few private time with him when he gave me the book I had asked him the references, as I wanted to make sure I would remember the sources of the teachings I had loved most from his sermons for the High Holy Day seasons he had served our congregation. Not only he gave me the actual book, with his handwritten marks and post-its still in it that will guide me to the places he valued or questioned most, but he inscribed it with the loveliest of inscriptions for me.
Rabbi Haddon summed up the essence of Rabbi Marcus Burstein, z”l by saying that he was the essence of tsimtsum, צמצום / the contraction: allowing others to grow through his own contraction. As Rabbi Haddon added: “Quite remarkable”.