The appropriate response is certainly silence. The problem is that I’m expected to speak. A good Rabbi steps up to the plate the Shabbos after a tragedy like the one in Newtown, Connecticut, and provides perspective to his congregation.
I began by sharing that many years ago I was considering a shidduch with a young woman who was the child of Holocaust survivors. My potential future in-laws were elderly and were closer in age to my grandparents than my parents. I went to ask Harav Moshe Shapira if this was cause for concern. He responded using just six words. “Mi yodea mi zaken umi tza’ir? — Who really knows who is old and who is young?” Subsequently, I realized the poignancy of his statement; Rav Moshe had lost a daughter at the tender age of 16. We have all learned with recent events that being just six years old can in fact be “very old.”
The loss of a child is probably the most painful loss that can be experienced in life. Yaakov Avinu states it clearly in Vayeishev upon hearing of the loss of Yosef; he refused to be comforted, saying, “For I will go to the grave mourning for my son.”
When we see pictures of so many pure little children who are no longer with us, besides mourning the loss of all these precious children, we all feel vulnerable. When I walked into my daughter’s elementary school the very next week, I couldn’t help but worry that such horrors could transpire in Manhattan. In truth, nobody really knows what is coming next. We get lulled into a comfort zone and feel over-confident. An incident like this quickly puts us back in touch with reality.
Harav Yonasan Eibeshutz was walking in Poland and being tormented by a non-Jewish governor. The man asked the Rav where he was going. The Rav responded that he did not know. The governor was infuriated as he felt he was being mocked, so he had the Rav incarcerated.
A few days later, after calming down, the governor went to talk with the Rav. The governor commented that he was shocked by the Rav’s response to his query, as certainly the smartest of the Jews must know to where he is walking! Harav Yonasan responded, “You see, I thought I was heading to the study hall, but I ended up in prison. So in truth, I really did not know to where I was heading.”
I recently had a conversation with a woman who was bemoaning her child’s difficult plight in shidduchim. She remarked that this is the only realm in her life that she feels she has no control over. She went on to share how every other aspect of life she seems able to maneuver or orchestrate with her talents and skills. I did not have the heart (nor did I think she was open to hearing) how misguided her approach and attitude truly were.
This reality of lack of control demands a special life orientation. If we’ve lived long enough, then we are almost certain to have been blind-sided by some life event. One never knows what tomorrow may bring, and therefore it is incumbent upon each of us to live each and every moment to its fullest.
Life’s fickleness demands concrete action. Harav Nachman of Breslov (who parenthetically died at the age of 38) stated that the “entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the main thing is not to be afraid at all.” The narrow bridge communicates the dangers of life, but we still must move forward and progress without being paralyzed by fear.
We do not control nor can we answer the “Why?” or the “Lamah?” but we can control the “What?” or the “L’mah?” We can choose to respond to this tragedy by stepping up and living our lives to the fullest and not cowering and therefore falling short of what we are destined to become.
Another fundamental response to recent events is the realization and internal concretization of the realities of techiyas hameisim and the World to Come as basic, immutable tenets of our faith. My experience is that those who have experienced the loss of a loved one are often more in tune with these principles.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, zt”l, writes that our transition to the next world is similar to a baby transitioning from the world of souls into this physical world. Initially it is dark and scary, but ultimately the baby is welcomed into the light and greeted with open arms, and comforted. In the end, we all will be comforted and re-united with our loved ones.
Additionally, the institutions of Yizkor and yahrtzeit are meant to keep us connected with the deceased while they are not physically present. I’ve always thought that on the Festivals, when we reach elevated spiritual heights, we are more able to connect with the world of the neshamos, and therefore we recite Yizkor to invoke the memory of departed loved ones. On a yahrtzeit, we daven and do mitzvos in their merit, reflecting our belief that we can impact their reality in the World to Come. We comment at a funeral that the departed serve as a meilitz yosher for us. These complex aspects of our observance reflect our deepest belief that our loved ones are “alive and well” and “with us” in spirit though not in the form we once knew.
Harav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook writes that the “purely righteous do not complain about wickedness, rather they add righteousness.” I once heard about a man who authored over 100 books in his lifetime. When asked how he was so prolific, he shared that in his youth his twin brother had suddenly passed away, and he had always felt the burden to accomplish for both of them.
We too have lost a little brother, named Noah Pozner (who, in fact, has a twin sister who survived the shootings). Each of us has a responsibility to pick up the slack left by Noah’s death and add vigor, joy, energy and mischief to our lives and to the world, in his place.
This is echoed in the explanation that some give for the recitation of Kaddish upon the loss of a loved one. Every Jew is a walking, breathing Kiddush Hashem. When such a person is removed from the world, we must “replace” him or her by reciting the Kaddish, which brings glory to Hashem and fills that gaping void.
A final point of reflection is the importance of memorializing loss in ways that are genuine and authentic for the mourners. This is not always easy when dealing with the loss of a child. We cannot assume that “one size fits all.”
Many years ago I attended a funeral for a teacher of mine who died at a young age. Her son, a teenager at the time, was a friend, and I was standing near him at the conclusion of the service. A local rabbi came over and whispered into the boy’s ear, “Turn fate into destiny.” I was perplexed by the message and later learned it was a quote from an essay of Harav Joseph B. Soloveitchik regarding tzaddik v’ra lo.
This statement about fate versus destiny sheds light on an apocryphal story about a baby born with a terminal illness. The doctors inform the parents that despite all the vast medical research, there is no cure for this unique illness. When the parents inquire as to the name of the illness, they are told that it’s called LIFE.
Fortunately, we all have this illness, but we must remind ourselves each day that it will not last forever. The dictum goes that there are only two absolutes in life — death and taxes. Let us be galvanized by recent events to seize the day — or as they say in Latin, carpe diem — and transform our ultimate fate into our eternal destiny.
Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen, Esq. is in his seventh year serving as the Rav of the Young Israel of the West Side in Manhattan. Using his master’s degree in family therapy, he recently began developing a curriculum for people in shidduchim and has a growing practice working with singles, engaged couples and newly married couples from across the religious spectrum of the Jewish community. He is a popular lecturer across North America on relationship issues and other relevant contemporary topics.