Mike and I started our path to Torah observance around the same time at Aish HaTorah in the late 1980s. It was impossible not to like Mike. He was bright, considerate, smiling and happy. As baalei teshuvah, we were on parallel paths transitioning into an enhanced life, growing daily, integrating Torah into our lives. Mike’s yeshivah learning eventually led him to semichah. I am not surprised; he had the strength and passion to become a rabbi. I recognized this from playing basketball against him once a week, when a bunch of guys from yeshivah would play basketball.
There is a line in the Gemara which teaches that a person’s true character can be learned by how he behaves when it comes to money, alcohol, and anger — b’kiso, b’koso ub’ka’aso (his pocket, his cup, and his anger). To this list I would like to add my own personal perspective, that you can learn a lot about a guy from how he plays basketball and I learned a lot about Mike by how he played and, more importantly, how he treated others on the court. We were built similarly and often guarded each other. He played with intensity, passion, power and purpose. It is easy to lose one’s temper (ka’aso) in the midst of a heated game but despite the fact he was much more talented than I, he was always humble and a mentsch on the court. I have no doubt that these very same midot are what has made him, together with his wife Denise, so successful in kiruv, founding the Aish HaTorah branch in Philadelphia and working with Jewish neshamot in the Milwaukee and then Boca Raton communities.
From what I have read, their daughter Shoshi, a”h, was everything wonderful I remember about her father and more, benefiting from the inspiring influence of her mother which will be borne out in the following story.
As one can learn much about a person’s midot in sport, one can learn about a person in how they handle sorrow. According to an eyewitness, the detective informed Rebbetzin Stern that the driver was neither speeding nor impaired and though everything went tragically wrong, the driver did nothing wrong. There was no one to blame, no “comfort” or “rationalization” to be found in finding a villain. In response, Rebbetzin Stern said to the detective the most generous words that I have ever heard. She asked him for the driver’s phone number. She wanted to get in touch with him to tell him that we are people of faith, people who believe in G-d’s Plan. She wanted to assure him that the Sterns did not think this was his fault, and they did not want him to allow this to ruin the rest of his life.
Up in Boston, a day later, three people lost their lives and scores of others were maimed, dramatically changing the rest of their lives when terrorist bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston marathon. The sensational subsequent details of the manhunt, deadly shootout, and capture are known to all. Less publicized were the numerous acts of chessed done in the aftermath of the tragedy. Runners, upon completing the marathon, a 26.2 mile run, continued running an additional couple of miles to donate blood. As Boston was in a state of lockdown, runners and spectators now faced the problem of where to go. In response people opened their homes to strangers; community centers and shuls opened their doors to those in need of refuge. Acts of heroism and generosity by strangers for strangers eased the pain, the gift of human kindness providing a silver lining on a blackened day.
People familiar with both tragedies were doubly assailed by the tragic story of a single little girl and the singular story of the single largest successful act of terrorism on American soil since September 11th. The senseless tragedies and suffering of each triggered incomprehensible despair; the response offered hope in humanity. Both in Boca and Boston, support was offered by “community,” present or virtual, through media and the internet. “We are ALL Boston” became the theme of America this past week. “B [for Boston] Strong” was the slogan emblazoned on T-shirts, hats and signs. No doubt most of the thousands wearing and chanting “B Strong” were not personal witness to the terror yet now they are lending community to those who were.
In Boston, as opposed to the tragedy in Boca Raton, there is an address for the anger — the
two terrorist brothers from Chechnya. Before the terrorists were identified, there was a compounding terror in the atypical silence of this unattributed act. Generally a terror group, or groups, comes forward to claim responsibility for the event. When the responsible party was known there was relief.
But is there “comfort” to be derived from an address for blame? Is there comfort from a tragedy to be found in anger? What are the lessons to be gleaned from tragedy? Are there answers?
Faith, though challenged by the Boston bombing and the tragedy in Boca, found support in the strength of love, the dedication and the selflessness that dwells in the soul of mankind that emerges in its greatest form in times of greatest tragedies. But is it necessary to experience tragedy before we merit witnessing the transcendent strength and beauty within mankind?
I suspect in most cases, only when greatly challenged will greatness emerge. But in the case of the Sterns, greatness is the constant and “greater” greatness the product of challenge.
I suspect, I pray that throughout my life I will return for strength to the words of Rebbetzin Stern “…we are people of faith, we believe in G-d…” Her words inspire me and exhort all who believe in G-d to transcend blame and address our energies, in the face of unthinkable challenges, to maintaining faith.
Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel, with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com