They’re Singing My Song

Today is my last day of work at my first full-time rabbinical position. It’s been, thankfully, a long goodbye, which meant that both my congregation and I had a lot of time to prepare for my leaving. They also had a chance to throw me an incredible send-off party, complete with speeches and songs and a level of kavod I thought I’d have to wait for retirement to experience!

Still, I’m nervous, not just about change in general, or about the challenges of this new opportunity in particular. I’m scared to leave this people I’ve come to love and the community I’ve poured my heart and soul into over the last five years. What will become of the classes I taught, the services I created, the relationships I’ve built?

I found some comfort last Shabbat at our Family Service. It was my turn to tell the story, which is one of my favorite things to do. If you’ve known me for a long time, you know that I don’t like to do anything without notes, so telling a story, from memory, with audience participation, helps me celebrate how much I’ve grown during my time here.

I chose a story I had heard from a classmate at Brandeis ( which can be found in Three Times Chai as “The Melody”) in which a man gets lost in the woods and happens upon a group of men singing a beautiful melody. He doesn’t want to forget the enchanting niggun, and so for the rest of the story, whenever someone speaks to him, he answers, ai ge-dumbadi dumbadi dai, ai ge-digi digi digi digi dai…

This goes on for quite awhile (as Jewish stories tend to do). Finally, when the man is about to shipped off to an asylum, because everyone thinks he’s lost his mind, the people of the village come to say goodbye. As the carriage pulls away, the entire village begins to sing  ai ge-dumbadi dumbadi dai, ai ge-digi digi digi digi dai…

The man yells, “STOP!”

Everyone turns to look at this man, who hasn’t spoken for weeks, in amazement, “Nu?” the driver says, “Now you can talk?”

The man responds, “When I first heard that beautiful melody, I was worried I might forget it, so I sang it every chance I got. But now I know that everyone in the village knows the tune, so it can never be forgotten. Now I can stop!”

It is a fun story to tell, because each time you repeat the melody, more and more people in the congregation start to sing along, almost without thinking about it. So, by the time you get to the climax of the story, when the carriage is pulling away, you can point to the congregation and they will play the part of the villagers, singing the tune on their own.

(This story is also a great illustration of how easy it is to learn a new melody!).

When I chose to tell this story, I thought that I was telling it to comfort my congregants. Yes, I’m leaving, it seemed to say, but you know this melody now. You can sing it without me. It’s yours now.

But I needed to hear that message too, as well as another one: You’ve been singing your song for five years now, Leah. It’s not necessarily going to stay the same after you leave. People will forget parts and add parts and improvise on the theme. Soon someone new will come in and may teach them a different tune. But they all know your melody now. They can sing it without you. Now it belongs to them.

I also came to realize that teaching the melody goes both ways. My congregants say they have learned a lot from me. But I have learned just as much from them. Each of them has brought their own expertise to the table–their professional knowledge, their intellectual interests, and their life experiences–but they have also taught me plenty about being a rabbi: how to listen, how to question, how to teach, how to learn, how to admit that I don’t know or that I’ve messed up.

They’ve been patient, compassionate, and supportive as I perfected my song. Each of them has brought their own melody to the mix, teaching me the songs of their hearts, and now I can take them with me, wherever my path may lead.

All together now:

Ai ge-dumbadi dumbadi dai, ai ge-digi digi digi digi dai…

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