Many years ago I dated a 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 a great rabbi if this was cause for concern. He responded, “Who really knows who is old and who is young?” We have all learned with recent events that being just 6 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. The Biblical Jacob states it clearly in the Torah portion, Vayeshev, upon hearing of the loss of his son, Joseph: ….he refused to comfort himself, and said, “For I will go to the grave mourning for my son.”
When we see pictures of so many pure little children that are no longer with us, we all feel vulnerable. 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 the reality.
There is a great story about a scholarly Jew walking in Poland and being tormented by a non-Jewish governor. The man asked the Jew where he was going. The Jew responded that he didn’t know. The governor was infuriated as he felt he was being mocked, so he had the Jew incarcerated. A few days later, after calming down, the governor went to talk with the Jew. The governor commented that he was shocked by the Jew’s response to his query, as certainly the scholar must know to where he walks? Whereupon the Jew responded, you see, I thought I was heading to the study hall, but I ended up in prison. So in truth, I really didn’t know to where I was heading.
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. This is communicated effectively through some creative poetry I once came across on a synagogue bulletin board, “yesterday is history, tomorrow a mystery and NOW a gift, and that’s why it is called the PRESENT.”
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Cook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, writes that the “purely righteous don’t complain about wickedness, rather they add righteousness.” He authored more than 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 felt the burden to accomplish for both of them. We too have lost a little brother in Noah Pozner and mourn for all the innocent victims. Each of us has a responsibility to “pick up the slack” or “add righteousness” to the world in his place.
There is something else we can do. It’s important to memorialize loss in ways that are genuine and authentic. This is maybe a bit easier when dealing with the loss of a child. There is a couple in my broader community that lost their two-year-old daughter, Ayelet, to leukemia. I asked them if our synagogue could dedicate a program in her memory. After much thought, they turned us down, pointing to the fact that the program “wasn’t Ayelet.” This same couple came up with the brilliant idea of “Tacos for Noah.” Noah Pozner loved Taco’s and they created a virtual web site for people to send a “condolence taco” (http://www.tacosfornoah.com/) to Noah’s family. This teaches a most important lesson about mourning properly and not assuming that “one size fits all” and certainly to ensure that the feelings expressed are genuine.
There is a story told of a doctor who informs parents upon the birth of their baby that the child won’t survive. Despite all the vast medical research, there is no cure for the serious illness. When the parents inquire as to the name of the disease, they are told that it’s called “Life.” Fortunately, we all have this illness, but we sometimes need a reminder that it will not last forever. The clock is ticking; time to step-up and seize each and every day that we are gifted in life.
Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen, Esq. is rabbi of the Young Israel of the West Side in Manhattan and has a private practice in family therapy.