I just got word that my first and most influential rav, Rabbi Alan Lew, died this morning. I’m a little bit in shock–he was only 65, and from what I understand this was not anticipated from anyone. From what I understand, he died while taking a walk, serving as a teacher at a rabbinic training institute. In his last day, I’m told, he taught, meditated, davenned, and went for a run–kind of a classic thing for the man.
I saw him last in early November, when I was in San Francisco for a book event. He showed up, looking quite just as he’s looked the whole time I’ve known him, since I first darkened the doorstep of Beth Sholom in ’97–or maybe a little happier, more relaxed as he’d had a break of a few years from the stresses of pulpit life. He laughed and glowed and told me he was proud of me, that he loved my book. I told him that the only reason he liked it was because he was featured so prominently in it. It was really nice to see him.
He was my rabbi from the first time I went to Beth Sholom, shortly after I arrived to SF. He taught me through his sermons, through his prayer, through his meditation, through his Torah classes, through our regular one-on-one spiritual direction meetings, through the way he spoke with his congregants and comported himself. How he tied his shoes, truly. I studied with him for the five years between getting to Beth Sholom and leaving for rabbinical school, and I sought his council after I left. His Torah is the reason that I’m religious, and the reason that I’m a rabbi. It was and is nourishment and sustenance of a rare and special kind.
People make a big fuss about his background in Zen practice that predated his rabbinic training, but really? It was more that the things he learned about clearing the mind gave him such a bright, crystalline way of seeing things than anything, and I think that’s what had such a powerful impact on his Torah. That and the commitment to practice as discipline as practice.
I wrote some of my tributes in Surprised by God. I’m glad he got to see them.
May his memory be for a blessing. May Sherril and his children receive as much love and comfort as is possible to take in.
Here are some of his words of Torah, from This Is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared:
Suddenly we understand why the Great Temple of Jerusalem was an elaborate construction surrounding nothing. There at the sacred center, at the Holy of Holies, a place we only entered on Yom Kippur, and even then only by proxy, only through the agency of the high priest, there at that center, is precisely nothing–a vacated space, a charged emptiness, that surrounds this world, that comes before this life and after it as well….
And now we understand why we rehearse our death on Yom Kippur–why we say Vidui and wear a kittel and refrain from eating–why in the middle of this day, we send our proxy, now the cantor, into the dangerous emptiness at the center.
We need a taste of this emptiness, to give us a sense of what will go with us, what will endure as we make this great crossing. What’s important? What is at the core of our life? What will live on after we are wind and space? What will be worthy of that endless, infinitely powerful silence?….
What lives on of the people we have loved and lost? What breaks our hearts when we think of them? What do we miss so much that it aches? Precisely that suchness, that unspeakable, ineffable, intangible quality, which takes up no space at all and which never did.
That’s what survives that great crossing with us. That’s what makes it through the passage from life to death.