Leaving the stage

April 2, 2012

Since arriving in Israel, a week has not passed that I have not heard of a tragedy. The sheer numbers and concentration of Jews in one country make this statistically inevitable. It wasn’t like this in the UK. I have been told to get used to it, but I’m not sure that I want to.

I come from a very short-lived family. I only knew one grandparent as my maternal grandmother died aged 44; my maternal grandfather at 56; my paternal grandfather at 36; and my two uncles at 52. My mother was 59 and my father 61. I lost my best friend in his late 40s and my beautiful baby sister-in-law, the sister I never had aged 36!

A few weeks ago I forced myself to attend the funeral of a beautiful, intelligent, religious young man from a well known family in our neighbourhood who died after much suffering aged 15! It was a cold, dismal Friday morning and I sat on a bench outside the Yemenite shul and wept.
It was a harrowing, draining experience and the shiva visit wasn’t any better. I remained silent like Aaron Hakohen, my ancestor.

In fact most of the speeches at these tragic events annoy me intensely. They are usually given by rabbis who think that they have all the answers. Those with a kabbalistic bent deny the very existence of evil never mind the problem of its distribution. It’s all good. Maimonides, Yehuda Halevi, Saadia Gaon and the other medieval rabbi/philosophers needn’t have bothered.

Those with a Mussar bent see it as an opportunity to tell everybody to repent and increase their Torah learning and fulfilment of the mitzvot.

What can I say? Both these attitudes have their sources and they seem to go down well with the public, especially the Sefardim and Oriental Jews. Bless them for their emunat chachamim!

The niftar/nifteret is rarely mentioned nor does one hear a word of comfort until perhaps the very last sentance as a concluding after-thought.

I almost made a mistake and called this week’s blog ” Premature death”. But there is no such thing. HaShem does not make mistakes and He doesn’t take a person a day early or a day late. I strongly object to the phrase ” beterem ayt” (before their time) and it should not be allowed in the Jewish press or on Jewish gravestones.

What words of comfort can one offer, if one were forced to speak?

I prepared two and a half, just in case. I hope I never have to use them. I’ll stand at the back and keep quiet.

A young woman in Jerusalem lost her young husband in tragic circumstances. Although the family were not particularly noted for their Torah knowledge or learning, the venerable Rosh Yeshiva of Porat Yosef, paid a condolence visit. The young widow was overcome with grief let him have it with both barrels! He stood there in silence and took everything that she had to say. After she calmed down and composed herself he told the following story.

An elderly man got on the bus at Ramot to go to Gilo. That is from one end of Jerusalem to the other. When he got on the bus he was alone and for several stops. Then a smartly dressed, professional man got on the bus and decided to sit down next to him and keep him company. They struck up a most pleasant conversation.

But after a few more stops, the young man got up to get off at Binyanei Ha’umah.
“What are you doing?” asked the older man. “I’m getting off” answered the younger man. “This is my stop.”
“No, no, no. Please don’t leave me I was lonely before you got on the bus and we are having such a pleasant conversation.”
“I’m sorry,” said the young man, “but I need to get off, my business is here.”
“But you’ve bought a ticket,” parried the older man. “With the same ticket, you can go all the way to Gilo!”
“I’m so sorry,” said the younger man, “I have nothing to do in Gilo. My business is here.”

I think that the message is clear. But it is also legitimate to feel sad, lonely and abandoned when people leave us in the middle of the journey. It’s just that they have business to attend to in a different place.

This dvar torah was told by the Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron, also to a grieving young widow ( why do the men go first?!)

We learn in Pirkei Avot, chap 4 mishna 22:

Rabbi Elazar Hakappar used to say………against your will you are born; and against your will you live; and against your will you die and against your will, in the future, you will give an account and reckoning (of your life) before the King, the King of kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.

The Chevron Rosh Yeshiva raised an interesting point. What is implied by “against your will you are born” ? It seems that if one were asked one would refuse to be born!

Imagine the scene. Twins in the womb. One says to the other, soon we will be born. We will leave this dark place and enter a huge, bright world with endless possibilities.
Don’t be stupid, answers the other. What you talking about? There is no such thing. Anyway, we have everything we need here. Food on tube. No effort or work. And an angel teaching us Torah. Even if you are right in your crazy idea, what’s wrong with staying here forever?

After a person is born, would they choose to return to the womb and stay there forever?

Against your will you live. If you think about it the only alternative is suicide and that is strictly forbidden. Interestingly the instinct to live is very very strong. I havent organised a survey but most people who are alive prefer to remain so!

Against your will you die. We Jews believe that this world is not the only one. It doesn’t end here. This world is a place to prepare for the world to come. When one dies one goes to the world to come.
Some don’t believe that. They haven’t experienced it. But they are like the twin in the womb who could not imagine anything outside the womb. He hadn’t seen it. He hadn’t experienced it. The womb was all there was.

I paid a shiva visit to my brother-in-law. I didn’t see or enter the kitchen but I believe that there was one.

It’s hard to understand said the Rosh Yeshiva to the young woman, but the place to which your husband has gone is a world of total goodness and bliss. And just like people in this world don’t want to go back to the womb, people who have merited the world to come dont want to return to this world.

I’ve learnt that the Yemenite greeting of comfort is ” t’nuchamu min hashamayim” ( be comforted from heaven) – its short and to the point. But I prefer the Ashkenazi one!
Hamakom yenachem etchem betoch shaar avalei Zion veYerushalayim.
May the Omnipresent comfort you amongst the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

HaShem has no less than 70 epithets, so why use Hamakom in this context for HaShem?

Ain hamikre yotze mipeshuto. A word never loses its simple meaning despite the various layers of meaning. Hamakom literally means the place. Hamakom yenachem etchem…..
The place ( to which the deceased has gone) should be the source of comfort to the bereaved.

Let’s only share besorot tovot ( good news) with each other always.

Rabbi Meir Wise

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