There are a handful of men in my life who know my strengths, flaws and conflicts, for whom I share a deep love. These are men with whom I laugh and cry, whose counsel I seek, and who help heal my wounds.
One of them was Rabbi Aryeh Hirschfield who I met 25 years ago in a sweat lodge during a sun dance ceremony in Oregon’s Mt Hood National Forest. In the darkness of the lodge, a beautiful voice joined me in singing a Hebrew song. After the ceremony, a small, wiry, fuzzy-haired man walked up to me and said, “I didn’t know you could sing Hebrew songs in a sweat lodge.” I told him my understanding was that singing songs in the lodge in your own tribal language was actually the fulfillment of its purpose: to purify, heal, and bring together the clans of the four directions, each singing songs in their native tongues because that would usher in the messianic age of peace.
That evening after we talked, he invited me to join him at dawn at his campsite to recite the Hebrew morning prayers. I told him I hadn’t done that in 20 years and that most of my spiritual needs were now met in Indian country. He said, “We’re here in Indian country — what’s to lose?” Why not indeed, so the following morning I joined him, and together we chanted the morning service. In the middle of it, we heard and watched 50 sun dancers march in single file into the great arbor, blowing eagle-bone whistles. We were together in a harmony of whistles, drumbeat, guitar, and the songs of my fathers. The tears rolled from my eyes; it was the first time I can remember ever crying during a Jewish service.
Aryeh touched my Jewish soul, and over the next 25 years we truly became brothers. We fished, swam, laughed, cried, played basketball, talked endlessly, and sought each other’s counsel. Aryeh lived his passion for life intensely.
So last week when I learned he died suddenly, my despair at his loss was devastating. I am ashamed at my selfishness when I say that my first thoughts were the magnitude of my loss — that at this age and with my style, I would never find another Aryeh.
I needed to be with others who shared my grief so profoundly, so I flew to his home in Portland to be surrounded in spiritual community. Hundreds of people were at his memorial service: Jews, Christians, a Muslim Imam who spoke, there were Eagle feathers and cedar branches, and a choir that sang the music he composed. It was a community of love that paid tribute to this remarkable man.
After the tears and laughter, I went to his home and played basketball with his seven-year-old twin sons. They played feisty just like their dad; they scrapped for loose balls, dribbled furiously, and cheered wildly when they got a shot over my head. We laughed, double-dribbled, held on to each other’s legs and gave each other a high-five after every basket. In the middle of the game I heard Aryeh laughing and saying, “You still can’t dribble to your left.”
Close to midnight, I sat with Aryeh at the funeral chapel before his burial in the morning (it’s customary not to leave a body unattended). I talked with him about our times, the stories and visions, and singing Grateful Dead tunes in the starlight. I told him I just played basketball with the twins, and they could run around me just like him. I said I missed him already, but could still hear his voice. And I prayed for him, “May you fly with the eagles on wings of peace, my holy brother, and may those of us you leave behind continue to draw water from the wellspring of your soul.”
I am with you Aryeh Lev ben Sarah Leah v’ Yakov ha Levi, my dear friend, my beautiful one…and as long as I can still play basketball with your boys, I will be with you again and again.
Aryeh wrote an enchanting song called “Wings of Peace.” The chorus is “Draw water in joy from the living well.” This is Aryeh’s legacy . . . find the wells of your love and draw water from them every day. They will never run out.
P.S. Aryeh was a committed peace activist, and it is fitting that we honor him today as we also honor Martin Luther King, Jr. If you would like to hear Aryeh’s music and learn more about him and his work, visit his website at www.rebaryeh.com