Reb Zalman’s Last Breath

His leaving was as unconventional as his teaching and his life.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi wanted no casket, no plain pine box. For his funeral, held on the fourth of July, he wanted to be clothed in his white kittel (prayer robe), enfolded in his father’s tallis (prayer shawl), sprinkled with ashes brought from Auschwitz, then shrouded in white linen and lowered directly into the earth near his home in Boulder, CO.

He wanted the ashes buried with him in honor of his uncle, cousins, and the millions who’d died without receiving “a holy burial.”

It felt wrenching to shovel dirt onto his body. It also felt a privilege.

Carrying his body to the grave site.

Carrying his body to the grave.

The week before he died, I had planned to write a blog, “The Rabbi Has 9 Lives,” because each time he’d fallen sick—with heart problems, lung disease, cancer—he’d bounced back.

This time, in early June, after teaching at a Shavuot retreat in Connecticut, he came down with pneumonia. He’d sworn that he wasn’t going to travel anymore, but decided to go because he’d taught at this retreat for decades and felt he could manage it.

The pneumonia triggered his heart and lung problems, and he was rushed to the Intensive Care unit at a nearby hospital. He yearned to be at home, and after ten days, was deemed well enough to be medivaced to Boulder Community Hospital. Five days later, as his community rejoiced, he was cleared to go back to his house. His wife, Eve Ilsen, reported that he was getting stronger and clearer each day, he seemed to be out of the woods, and then he wasn’t.

The funeral was held at the Green Mountain Cemetery on Independence Day, a fact that many found significant. Three rabbis conducted the service, reflecting the many strands of faith Reb Zalman had woven together. There was a Chabad rebbe, Yossi Serebryanski, wearing a black wool coat and hat in the heat, a Conservative rabbi, Marc Soloway, and a Jewish Renewal rabbi, Tirzah Firestone.

From left, Conservative Rabbi Marc Soloway, Renewal Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, and Reb Zalman's wife, Eve Ilsen, at grave site.

From left, Reb Yossi (back to camera) Rabbi Marc Soloway, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, and Reb Zalman’s wife, Eve Ilsen.

Reb Tirzah was one of the pallbearers who carried Reb Zalman to the grave. Following tradition, they halted seven times to show their reluctance to set him in the ground. In her eulogy, Tirzah reminded the hundreds present that Reb Zalman’s innovations, which have now been adopted by mainstream Judaism and other faiths, were radical and heretical when he began introducing them in the 1970’s. They caused him to be denounced by Chabad, which had ordained him.

In developing Jewish Renewal, he wanted to encourage everyone to have a direct experience of God. To overcome the language barrier for those who don’t read Hebrew, he taught them to daven or pray in English, using the sing-song rhythms and body movements used by the Orthodox. He believed that body movement helped to lift the soul.

Reb Zalman told me that in the early days, Jewish Renewal was “wild and wooly.” He would darken the prayer room, set strobe lights flashing, and ask people to start “dancing in the dark with God.” He held Shabbat dinners where people didn’t feed themselves but fed each other, as, according to legend, it’s done in heaven. He conducted a seder where people took four puffs of marijuana instead of drinking four cups of wine. He was one of the first to count women in the minyan—the quorum required to pray, and welcomed gays and lesbians as full participants.

“Despite the pushback and condemnation that Reb Zalman received,” Reb Tirzah said, “he always moved forward.” This was possible because “his love outsized his fear,” she said. “He had remarkably little fear of social pressure and disapproval, because his commitment to the Living God was simply greater than any other force around.”

Reb Yossi invited people to give tzedakah, or charity, passing around the black hat Reb Zalman had worn at Chabad events.

Reb Zalman in Chasid garb.

Reb Zalman in Chasid garb.

It’s customary to give tzedakah, or charity, at funerals, and Reb Yossi told the story of Rabbi Akiva, who, when his daughter was born, was warned by astrologers that she would die on her wedding night. The rabbi prayed to God to protect his daughter, and rejoiced when he saw her alive and happy the day after her wedding.

He asked if she’d done a good deed the day before. She said a poor, hungry man had begged for food at the wedding, and when no one else heard him, she took her own portion of the wedding feast and gave it to him. Later that night, she removed a gold pin that had held her veil in place and, in the darkness, stuck it in the wall by her bed. When she awoke the next morning and reached for her gold pin, she saw a poisonous snake had been impaled by it.

Rabbi Akiva told her that her act of kindness saved her life. So when Reb Zalman passed his hat at funerals, he repeated what sages have been saying since the time of Akiva: “Tzedakah saves from death.”

After hearing that story, we found it impossible not to reach deep and put money in Reb Zalman’s hat.

I’d often heard him say that the “exit moment” from life is important. He’d wanted to be held by his wife and hear Albinoni’s “Adagio for Organ and Strings.”

He quoted Woody Allen, who said, “I don’t mind dying, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But Reb Zalman said “I do want to be there. It’s such a holy moment… I want to watch the last breath going out and whisper the Shema. I want to merge back with the infinite… like a drop in the greater ocean.”

He began training for that moment when he was 16. Riding the subway to his yeshiva, he would close his eyes and imagine, “When I reach the Atlantic Avenue station, I’ll be gone. So let me say the shema, as I’ll say it with my last breath.”

He took his last breath on July 3, at 8:40 in the morning, while he was sleeping. His wife was there, and said later, “Who knows if he whispered the Shema in his sleep?”

I’m inclined to believe he did.

 

—————

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41 thoughts on “Reb Zalman’s Last Breath

  1. Barbara Currie

    It was only this morning that I heard you talk about Rebbe Zalman with Ian Lawton. I was touched in a way that very seldom happens. The tears were just what I needed to get rid of some funky days and open my heart to joy. I immediately checked on to your website to order the book and got the Kindle copy so I will be reading it today with thanksgiving to you and the Reb. I will now sit and let God love me as God is loving us all.

    I am a retired United Church of Christ minister maybe not quite in the December of my years, but getting close! Blessings to you. Barbara

    Reply
  2. Barbara Bolton

    Just hours ago I listened to your talk with Ian Lawton here in England. It resonated and I wanted to know more so came to your website to order the book and was stunned to see that Reb Zelman was buried yesterday. At the same time so very grateful that by joining the conference I was made aware of you and Reb Zelman. The Divine is truly in everything. If I purchase the book on Amazon.co.uk can I still get the MP3 download from you?
    My thoughts and prayers are with you at this time.
    Barbara Bolton

    Reply
  3. Eve Brandstein

    I am so grateful you wrote the December Project with him and I was able to read it before his passing. Last night I attended services at Romemu and of course he was present in our prayers and song. Thank you Sara.

    Reply
  4. Mark Battat

    Hi Sara – we met when you were in San Francisco and presented at Book Passage at the Ferry Building. I was the guy in the front row.

    I waited a while to read “The December Project” – I wanted to be in a place where I was undisturbed and had no outside distractions. This past week here at my summer place in the Napa Valley was the perfect spot to devour your beautifully written book. I finished it yesterday and finally got online to write to you tonight only to find out that Reb Zalman died on July 3rd. I can only imagine how wrenching that was for you to shovel that last piece of earth in his grave – what I’ve always called the final goodbye.

    Reading about your experience at the funeral yesterday brought me back to the chapter where Reb Zalman had himself wrapped in the traditional Jewish shroud (and the ceremony that preceded it) because he wanted to feel what it was like when he was alive rather than waiting until he died.

    What I loved learning about Reb Zalman is that he questioned, explored and experimented in so many overlapping cultures while continuing to seek, share and inspire so many people. My Grandfather used to say “at the end of our lives all we leave is our good name and our good deeds.” Reb Zalman left both.

    So I send you my deepest thanks for another treasured Sara Davidson book (and the beautiful inscription) and at the same time I send you all the warmth and comfort as you mourn the loss of Reb Zalman.

    Mark

    Reply
  5. Janice rous

    Thanks for this lovely blog post, I was a. Student of ten Zalman s and ahuge fan of his work and his teachings. Thanks , thanks thanks for all you bring to give us a last taste

    Reply
  6. Debbie Sarnoff

    Thanks so much, Sara. I was at your book talk for the Aquarian Minyan, after which I read about a third of your book. The night before Zalman died, I picked it up & read a few chapters. The next morning, after he passed, I unknowingly finished the book. Now I am working on the exercises at the back, very reflectively.

    Reply
  7. Ruth Sharon

    Thank you Sara for a beautiful book and a heart warming blog about Reb Zalman. His is a very important messaged of our times and I am honored to have known him. Reb Zalman first came to me in my meditations in 1990’s, then I studied with him and joined RebTirzah’s community. We are all bound together in love and shared life purpose to free ourselves from attachments and suffering. May his memory be a blessing for now and evermore.
    Peace to all who know him in your hearts! B’Shalom.

    Ruth Sharon

    Reply
  8. Joseph A. Horn

    I will purchase a copy of the December Project @ my local Barnes & Noble store. I came across Rabbi Zalman thru a link in the New York Times obituary column.
    I am writing this because Rabbi Zalman strived to have people have a direct experience of God. I too have have a direct experience of good. God used comedy, because I like to laugh and that is a format that strikes home for me and then God repeated the experience, because I am a doubtiing Thomas named Joseph. I have scientific bent and I feel that God did not want me to take it as a fluke .occurrencee. Immediately after this experience, I told God: “You are a cool Dude.” “Dude” in my lingo is gender neutral and refers to a conscious entity. Why God would bother with a silly creature such as my self is totally beyond me. However, deep down, where I live, it has given me a sense of my own worth and a sense of the preciousness, worth, and respect for all sentient creatures, one of which in my better moments, I am.
    I look forward to reading December Project. I hope you have a good Sabbath. Be well. Joseph Horn

    Reply
  9. C. Christopher Epting Assisting Bishop Episcopal Diocese of Chicago

    I was introduced to you both on the recent Spirituality and Awareness online conference. So impressed was I by you both that I ordered (and have read) “The December Project,” have started meditating again, and made sure my funeral plans, will, etc. were all up to date! I hope your friend’s last breath was a mindful as he always hoped it would be. Sounds like it probably was! Mazel tov…and Shalom…

    Reply
  10. JoAnn Richi

    That is so beautiful. I have been reading your books, and now your blog with a kind of life-long fascination. A fascination with your life, which throughout the decades of publications you have described in such vivid detail that it is like strolling along next to a dear friend. I’ve read our recent entries and have been meaning to write to you. To express my joy and gratitude in the words you give us, the pictures you create in your readers’ minds.
    I am sorry for your loss, I know you were very close to him and he meant the world to you.
    I know you will keep writing, know that I will keep reading.

    Reply
  11. Richard Rossner

    Thank you for this important telling. I, too, had the privilege of spending some time with Reb Zalman, while interviewing him for a video project for Rabbi Ayla Grafstein. It was an amazing three days, and I have treasured that time ever since.

    Your story was the first I heard of Reb Zalman’s passing. I was shocked, as I also thought that if anyone could go on forever, it was he. And as I carry my memories of Reb Zalman from our one shared experience, I shall carry the stories and the lessons you shared in this blog.

    We have lost a good man and friend to all. And we have all gained great gifts from his time and exemplary life.

    Reply
  12. Rabbi Marc Soloway

    Thank you so much for writing the December Project and for your post about Reb Zalman’s funeral. How sweet and precious it all is beyond the pain….
    Not sure if you saw it, but here is the piece I wrote after the funeral, which includes an account of the taharah he asked us to do with him before he died.. http://boulderjewishnews.org/2014/laying-our-rebbe-to-rest/#comments
    Blessings of strength and comfort to all of us and may we continue to be nourished by Reb Zalman’s delicious memory!
    Many blessings

    Reply
  13. Terry Jennings

    Ive been weeping through this writing. It must have been heart wrenching to write. What a gift your writing is. It took me there right to the burial. Thank you

    Reply
  14. Kathy Goodman

    This is such a beautiful and deep blog. It’s a gift for those of us that were not there. On the next edition of your very moving book it could serve as an epilogue.

    Reply
  15. Aryeh

    Thanks so much for sending this out. You did such a good job with the December Project.

    You may have answered one of my questions in this piece. I remember about 25 years ago I was with Zalman at an Aging and Sageing two-day workshop at Fort Mason in San Francisco. At that event Zalman was asked about psychedelics. He said that he usually dodges this question, but since he was in San Francisco he felt that he had to answer. He then mentioned, what you wrote about Aldous Huxley. He talked about how Huxley ‘went out’ after the LSD injection and he stated that he did not plan to go out ‘straight’.

    I wondered if Zalman went out straight. It sounds like he did, but then could the word ‘straight’ ever be used about Zalman?

    Thanks for your work and thanks for this blog post.

    Reply
  16. Sallie Togel

    I wanted to tell you that your piece was so well done! I feel like I knew him. I’m sorry for your/our loss.

    Reply
  17. Susan Schwartz

    What a beautiful tribute,
    and profound inspiration.

    Thanks for the piece…

    And looking forward to reading the book!

    Reply
  18. Nancy

    In March I came to hear you and Reb Zalman speak in Boulder. Later that week, I shared with my terminally ill father, Reb’s comment about having selected the music he wanted to hear as he was dying. My dad loved Bach Cantatas and on the day we knew he was close to death I grabbed a boxed set of Cantatas and randomly played them. Seconds after my dad took his last breath I realized the room was filled with the sound of ‘Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.’ A fitting piece for my father, a retired Lutheran minister. I will always be grateful for the suggestion of music.

    Reply
  19. Amy

    I feel blessed to have shared various high holidays with Reb Zalman and listen to his wisdom and to have seen his beautiful countenance at your speaking engagement most recently at Temple Emanuel in Los Angeles. His smiling face via Skype is one I will hold for many years to come. Thank you Reb Zalman (and Sara for your help in sharing his light with the world) for all your wisdom. Your memory will always be for a blessing.

    Reply
  20. Liz Quigley

    So sorry to read about the loss of your friend. So happy you had the privilege of knowing him. I loved the details that you shared about him. My condolences to his family and friends.

    Reply
  21. Sharon Alexander Dreyfus

    I understand that Reb Zalman was actually practicing taking three final breaths, intoning the first half of the shema while inhaling and the second half while exhaling. In a moving blessing he composed for specifically for one’s time of transition, his last words were: “I let go…I let go…I let go.” And his wife, who was curled around him at the time of his passing, reported that he indeed took three final breaths in his sleep and was gone. I choose to believe that he left us in exactly the manner he had practiced. Truly a final story of a great Rebbe. His tlmidim and everyone he touched will miss him.

    Reply
  22. Gail Storey

    Sara, thank you for this stunning account of Reb Zalman’s dying and the celebration of his life. I treasure your wonderful book, The December Project, to remember him and be inspired by his wisdom, exuberance for living, and grace in dying.

    Reply
  23. Sara Davidson Post author

    Several years ago when Reb Zalman was in Los Angeles, I attended a service which he conducted. In the middle of the service the rabbi asked the gathering if anyone has a serious problem which they wish to resolve. A young man stood up and stood next to the rabbi. Reb Zalman asked him to open the Talmud to any page where he would find the answer to his concern. After the holy book was opened and the rabbi asked him to
    express his problem. Then the rabbi read from the open passage which immediately provided the answer. The young man expressed his gratification with the passage. It was a most illuminating moment for me.

    The service was a new age spiritual experience for me. The good Reb will be missed.

    I want to thank you for providing the news of the Rebs death.

    Reply
  24. Sara Davidson Post author

    I know you are grieving, and that he had special meaning to you even beyond what you conveyed in your book. You have my sympathy…and also empathy knowing how much you gained from him. But then, I know he gained much from you during your time together in the final years.

    Reply
  25. Baillee Serbin

    Sara, I just read the above post. And I ordered your book immediately upon hearing about, through Kindle. I’ve been loving the book, your writing and especially a closer being in the conversation between you and Zalman.

    I live in the Bay Area, Marin, and one of the rabbis that has written about Zalman at this time is Rebbe Michael Lerner, who was ordained by Rebbe Zalman. All of the words about Rebbe Zalman are so wonderful, divine and illuminating.

    I have been working for 42 years in the Arica Work, looking for the divine connection to God. I have found it. And it is a direct connection to the Jewish faith, Kabbala , Scarab, etc

    I was trying to remember some of your friends that were with me in May, 1972. Winnie Rosen, Sally Kempton, Jake Brackman. You were kind of around all of us at that time, on the side lines, I believe.

    You and I are similar in some ways, so when you write, it feels like I am in communication with a dear, close friend. I’m 75, but feel age less. Raised in a reform jewish home, but searching really hard for God. I knew our God existed, and that this was not my first life, but I later found out that all Mystical aspects of judiasm were removed 250 years ago, in the Reform Limb.

    I am at the chapter of “Can we choose to Die?” Oh I love your writing so much.
    And another touchstone we have in common is that I have children 54,50, and 48. And My mother Mollye had Alzheimers, and died at 76. And I am prepared for life/death, and will remember to repeat the Shma. Please write back if you wish, and please excuse the spelling, I am recovering from a concussion, etc.

    We Are One
    Baillee Serbin
    21 Woodacre, CA
    and P.O. Box 127
    Woodacre, CA 94973-0127

    Reply
  26. Neshama Waller

    Dear Sara,
    I was blessed to have been able to attend the event at the JCC in New York last winter celebrating publication of the December Project. I am so grateful for the video call there in which Reb Zalman spoke with us, grateful to have been again in his presence. I thank you for these notes on “Reb Zalman’s Last Breath.” On Friday afternoon I listened for the first time to the beautiful MP3 which comes with the book. I was overwhelmed once more by Reb Zalman’s generosity of spirit, by this last gift through which he shares with his students practices to attain release from the fear of death.
    I received certification in 2002 from the Spiritual Eldering Institute as a Sage-ing Seminar Leader, and in Colorado in 2004 at a large gathering of Sage-ing leaders, Reb Zalman honored me before the group by giving me my new name “Neshama.” Reb Zalman has said that his Spiritual Eldering end-of-life teaching is the work he considers most important of all that he has done. The Spiritual Eldering Institute is no more, but the work continues through many trained leaders. Last winter at Romemu congregation in New York City I facilitated the beginning of a Romemu Sage-ing Circle, and your and his collaboration on The December Project carries the work even further.
    My heart is filled with joy and with sorrow. My deepest sorrow is for Reb Zalman’s wife, Eve, who will no longer be blessed with her husband’s bodily presence.
    Love and blessings,
    Neshama

    Reply
  27. Barbara Meyer

    Sara, it’s been so long since we connected with each other. I appreciate your devotion to Reb Zalman, as he is one of my most esteemed rabbis. I only regret that I have not had as much contact with him in recent years, but I am very close to one of his students who has a very flourishing Renewal shul in NY. I bless you with strength to keep up your good work!
    -Barbara (Friedlander) Meyer

    Reply
  28. Rabbi Dr Leslie Schotz

    I am very grateful that you wrote about the funeral. As I met a friend to share news of my two books I discovered him reading the December Project. As a rabbi my time is spent tending to the immediate needs of my congregation. Yet I not only found time to read your book I had to pace myself since I did not want it to end. In January I was the last Spiritual Direction class that Reb Zalman witnessed. Also I was the first to receive a doctorate on ministry through this course of study. Reb Zalman said he would give me a blessing for my doctoral studies leading to a book of the same name entitled Spiritual Direction for Jewish Children. I reference Reb Zalman including a bibliography of many of his titles. Love and blessings.

    Reply
  29. Joey Bortnick

    I am truly sorry to hear about Reb Zalman’s passing. I am grateful that I got to have the experience of meeting you and seeing him (on screen) in Marin. I enjoyed the book and discovering him through you. I imagine this is difficult for you; losing someone so special. Just know I am thinking of you and sending you good thoughts. Take care, Love, Joey

    Reply
  30. Jamie

    I’d heard about Reb Zalman’s death though a e-mail from Michael Lerner, but your description of the funeral, and the specifics of how he died… and maybe more pertinently, how he prepared for death (it’s funny… I’ve always made a big point of trying to be sure there’s music in the room when people are dying, probably from the same sense he had of it heightening and dignifying the experience)… all of this was a joy to read, and very illuminating. I send my sympathy, but also, as many other people must have, my happiness that he was able to die at home, and presumably in and at peace, without struggle. I share your confidence that you don’t have to be
    conventionally conscious to hear music and say prayers. Warm thoughts to you… Jamie

    Reply
  31. Terrry

    Ive been weeping through this writing. It must have been heart wrenching to write. What a gift your writing is. It took me there right to the burial. Thank you,

    Reply
  32. Candace Howard

    O Sara, thank you for sharing Reb Zalman’s passing.
    I had to brush away tears and yet I was smiling. What a wonderful experience, what we want for ourselves when our time has come. As someone past middle age with a husband who is older, I have reason to reflect on these things…
    God bless you,
    Candace Howard

    Reply
  33. Roberta

    First I just want to let you know how deeply sorry I am for this enormous loss in your life. I truly hope the sweetness and joy of your memories of our beloved Reb Zalman bring you comfort, wisdom and smiles as time passes.

    I was at Reb Zalman’s memorial service and went out and bought your book that day in his memory. It was adorable, profound and most of all, so real. I felt there was no bullshit in it. You had been, I think, deeply honest and that was so moving.

    I also connected, the day of the service, with someone that Reb Zalman told me years ago to seek out as a spiritual learning partner, and of course, I never did. I did that day and I hope something comes of it.

    I wish you great financial success soon! You already are a success in the inspiring writing you do.

    Reply
  34. Bernie A.

    You were privileged to spend a lot of time with someone I consider one of the greatest men who walked this earth. HE MADE A DIFFERENCE in the lives of many. Please let me know if you plan on posting any more about Reb Zalman or writing any more books on the knowledge Reb Zalman passed on to you.
    I am not a spammer. I am in the December of my life and am currently reading the December Project on my Kindle. I have “issues” preparing for my end on earth primarily leaving my wife of 42 years.
    I knew about Reb Zalman a long time ago. I was a fan of Reb Shlomo Carlbach who was a good friend of his. Reb Shlomo’s music and Reb Zalman’s wisdom were a wonderful combination. I shall miss them both now.

    Reply
  35. RODNEY KNOLTON

    JUST THIS MORNING I SAW THE PBS PROGRAM, THE DECEMBER PROJECT, AND LOVED IT! I LAUGHED AND CRIED AND WISHED I’D HAD THE CHANCE TO MEET THE RABBI. WHAT A WONDERFUL SOUL!!! AT A TIME WHEN THERE IS SO MUCH PAIN AND SUFFERING IN THE WORLD AND THE MIDDLE EAST PARTICULARLY, IT WAS QUITE REFRESHING TO HELP (IN MY OWN HOME!) CELEBRATE THIS MAN’S LIFE AND HIS BRAVE AND GRACIOUS APPROACH TO DYING. I’M CERTAIN THAT GOD MUST HAVE BEEN WAITING AT THE GATE TO HEAVEN TO WELCOME HIM IN PERSONALLY!!!

    Reply