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Stories For A Shiva

Stories For A Shiva

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

As we say during Passover’s Prayer for Dew, “With His consent, I shall speak of mysteries.”

The death by lightning’s fire of Scarsdale’s Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein and his wife, Deborah, in the midnight hours of Shabbat April 12, were strangely a reminder of how wonderful this world is.

I, and all of us, must surely know at least a dozen fathers or mothers or children who died before their time. We know of natural disasters, fatal accidents and murders. We know, at least intellectually, that both you and I are tragedies in slow motion, doomed to die (too young, no matter the age). But this world is so invigorating, our spirits so resilient, our lives so rarely disrupted, that we’re shocked to hear of unexpected death, as if we can’t be hearing right.

I wasn’t always so resilient. Once, as a teenager, on a long-ago Friday evening, not yet dark but after candles, I heard fire engines and sirens go by my window. The phone began ringing incessantly, it was Shabbos, I didn’t pick up and when I picked up a voice said there was a fire in my grandparent’s apartment, down the block, a fire from Shabbos candles. My grandfather’s robe caught a spark. My grandmother tried to smother it with an embrace.

I’d been there only 20 minutes before, my grandmother reciting a favorite couplet, my grandfather readying for prayer, soup on the stove, the challah veiled.

After the ambulances left, the apartment was peaceful, almost nothing out of place. There was a silver candlestick lying on its side, a sooty handprint on the wall, soup on the stove, the challah veiled.

Did I just say the world was wonderful, a few paragraphs ago? I didn’t know the world was wonderful at the time, let alone that death was so ordinary; sadness so happenstance. And what of the theology of it, death by Shabbos candles? Surely some young kids in Scarsdale are wondering how lightning could kill their rabbi and rebbetzin; “lightning will strike you” being almost a parody of God’s anger.

I knew Rabbi Rubenstein in only the most peripheral, casual way. If we’d have met a few weeks ago on Weaver Street, we’d have said, most casually, “Wonderful day, aint it? What are you doing for the seders?”

Some things aren’t for the living to know.

All of us have only a limited number of seders left; we can almost count them. And yet, like the angel touching our lips at birth, giving us the gift of forgetting, the seders fill us with wonder, and we’ll be shocked anew when the phone call comes in the night. Such is the gift of angels, perhaps a parting gift from the Angel of Death.

To be honest, running into Rabbi Rubinstein would not have meant any more or less to me than running into any other casual acquaintance that I saw on the day of his funeral – on the avenue, at the Little League, at an engagement party, at the grocer.

It’s interesting how much love can be felt for even a casual acquaintance when looking through the eyes of goodbye.

You might know someone only casually – someone you’d never call on the phone, someone with whom you’d rarely, if ever, share a confidence — and yet, for shiva, we can walk into each other’s home without knocking. People you’d never think will come, will come. Untold others will want to come, but can’t, but they’re thinking kindly of you. Most of us are loved and cared about far more than we suppose.

Some conversations are too awkward for the living. I see people in the park, acquaintances from over the years, we’ll be sorry to see each other go. They mean something to me, but I’ll never say so.

I’ll tell their kids and next of kin when it’s time to walk in without knocking.

I regret that during my grandparents’ shiva I hadn’t yet made the acquaintance of Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy. If I could go back in time I’d give my younger self a short story of his (not so short, actually, it’s a Russian story, after all) from 1881, “What Men Live By.” With this link I give it to you. It’s for anyone who ever asked, what are you doing for the seders?; for those in hospital vigils, falling asleep in chairs by the bed; for those of you who may be in a vigil for yourself; for those who love with resilient spirit. With your consent, we’ll speak of mysteries.

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