A Blessing Onto Itself
Shemini Atzeret 5767
Over the past few days there have been many tragic incidents but the one the shook me the most was the recent deaths of Rav Eitam and Naama Henkin, z”l, who were murdered on chol hamoed sukkot as they were driving in the Shomron. I have long been a fan of the scholarly writings and teshuvot of Rav Eitam’s father, Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin. I have also been a great admirer of the revolutionary work of Eitam’s mother, Rabbanit Henkin, the dean of Nishmat. She is a true visionary who transformed the Jewish community with her programs for advanced Talmud studies for women and her introduction of the concept of a yoetzet halakhah. We extend our deep condolences to the Henkin family as well as to Naama’s family and her parents, Chanan and Hila Armoni.
But most of all we extend our love and sympathy to their four children who witnessed their murder. I read reports that their nine-year old son, Matan, recited kaddish for his parents at their funeral. Hashem Yirachem.
But this is not only a loss for the Henkin and Armoni families. This is a loss for the entire world and especially the Jewish people. Rav Eitam and Naama were filled with talent and were making enormous spiritual contributions to the world. If one goes to Rav Eitam’s website, one sees deep and powerful scholarly articles on matters of Jewish law and history. A great source of pure spirituality has been taken from our world.
When I heard about this tremendous tragedy, I was at first numb and overwhelmed with deep emotion.
But then I thought that we should turn for guidance to the words of the psalm of chodesh elul, from psalm 27—“Ki avi va-imi yaazvuni, va-hashem yeiasfuni, when my father and mother will abandon me, Hashem will gather me in” (10).
We started reciting psalm 27 on Rosh Chodesh Elul and we concluded our recitation on Shemini Atzeret. So today is the last time for this year that we recited this psalm as a congregation. This year since the death of Rav Eitam and Naama, these words took on an even deeper meaning with me.
What do the words mean: “ki avi va-imi yaazvuni, va-hashem yeiasfuni”?
Metzudat David suggests a literal explanation of the verse: even when my parents did not give me enough to eat, God still provided me with sustenance.
However, Malbim says that the verse is referring to the embrace of God. He says it is like an orphan whose parents have left him and then God arrives and brings the orphan into His house and embraces him.
After this horrible tragedy, this verse can be a guide to the Jewish community as a way of expressing communal mourning for the loss of two precious souls.
One day this summer I got a call in the early morning hours that my uncle had died. I immediately jumped in the car and drove to the funeral in New Jersey. As I drove to the funeral I was reflecting upon the life of my uncle.
My uncle was a person who had a hard life. He remembered vividly the Nazis coming to his home and beating up my grandfather. He remembered his difficult travels as a refugee from walking through Europe in great danger and then talking a boat to Cuba. When he finally arrived in America he was soon after drafted to survive in the Korean War. Thankfully, this is a different type of childhood than the one that I and my children know. I remember thinking that it was a special merit for me that I was able to do a mitzvah for my uncle at the end of his life. He was in a nursing care facility and my father told me that my uncle had misplaced his tefillin and I so I was fortunate to be able to lend him an extra pair of my tefillin.
While I was driving and reflecting on these thoughts I was listening to a concert by the singer Mordechai Ben David and he told a story, which had a big impact upon me. I don’t know if the story is true but this is what he said:
There was a person volunteering in a Jewish nursing home in Baltimore and one day he stopped by a patient’s room and he asked the patient if he wanted to lay tefillin. The patient started screaming at the volunteer. He said, “Let me tell you about tefillin. When I was a little boy I was in a concentration camp it came time for me to become bar mitzvah. My father heard that there was somehow a pair of tefillin in the camp and made up his mind to go and get it so I could put on the tefillin in honor of my bar mitzvah. My father went to get the tefillin and on his way back to me he was shot and died. Since then I have never put on the tefillin and I am not going to start now.” The story continued that a few days later they needed a minyan in the nursing home to recite the mourners kaddish and this patient reluctantly agreed to go. The volunteer passed by and he saw that after the minyan ended this patient was just crying and crying. A few days later the patient got sick and he was taken to a hospital where he soon after died. After the funeral the volunteer was contacted by the daughter of the patient and he was told the following story. As her father got sicker he made a request for a pair of tefillin. As he was about to die, he asked that the tefillin be placed upon him and so he died while wearing the tefillin.
This is the story that Mordechai Ben David told. Like I said I have no idea if it is true. But regardless, something about the story moved me a great deal. I called several people in Baltimore. No one had ever heard of the story. But, no matter, I find it to be a compelling story.
Here is what the story means to me: The story is about a person feeling disappointment with life; disappointment with the way God has treated them; and disappointment with the way their parents have left them and abandoned them. But the story is also about the comfort of the embrace of God. Even when our loved ones are no longer with us we can find warmth in the embrace of Hashem.
Ki avi va-imi yaazvuni, va-hashem yeiasfuni!
There will come a point in all of our live where our parents will no longer be with us. That is very sad but that is the way of the world. And of course it is not only our parents but also all the people we love. There will come a time where we will be abandoned. They will move on to the olam ha-emes. We will be here on this earth bereft of them. Then, when we are all alone, we can take comfort in the fact that Hashem will gather us in and embrace us.
It is our relationship with Hashem that has the potential to be the greatest source of strength and comfort especially when that embrace of Hashem encompasses continuing the spiritual work of our ancestors.
The Mishnah in Nazir (30a) teaches a very esoteric law about which there is a profound spiritual lesson that relates to loss and comfort.
The Mishnah says, ben megaleach le’aviv. This refers to a case in which a man is a Nazir and as part of his Nazirite vows he consecrates animals as sacrifices. Then before he can actually offer the animals, the man dies. The Talmud teaches that the law allows the son of this man to say, “I will be a Nazir and bring to the altar the animals that my father has consecrated.” This is a very unusual law as normally one cannot bring the animals that have been dedicated by another person.
But in this case a child may step into the spiritual shoes of his father and become a Nazir and bring his father’s offerings.
The deeper lesson here is that when we fill the spiritual space left by a loved one we are doing two things:
1)we are filling a void in the world as the departed have left a spiritual vacuum; and
2)we are also bringing the greatest sense of comfort to ourselves by strengthening our own spirit through the spiritual connection with our departed loved ones.
Rav Shlomo Wolbe, zt”l (d. 2005), cited this example when he sent a letter of comfort to a friend who was in mourning for his mother: (quoted by Dafdigest.org, Nazir 30)
“...Comforting a mourner does not entail enabling him to forget his mourning, as many mistakenly believe. We see this from the verse … ‘And Yitzchak was comforted after his mother...’ He was comforted when he returned to the tent and saw that everything was on exactly the same spiritual level as when his mother was alive. From here we learn the definition of true consolation. When someone loses a relative, they often find that they had been leaning on the parent to enable their spiritual level. For this reason, people often fall spiritually after the death of a close relative. This, then, is the definition of consolation and comfort: to encourage the mourners and help prevent them from falling spiritually.... This is an aspect of: “ki avi va-imi yaazuvuni—for my father and mother have abandoned me, but Hashem will gather me in’...”
This is what the Mishnah means when it says that a child can fulfill the Nazirut vows of a parent. It means that a relative and a community has the opportunity to take upon themselves their loved one’s spiritual work and such an effort will provide the truest measure of support to those in mourning.
Ki avi va-imi yaazvuni, va-hashem yeiasfuni. When we are all alone, it is the spiritual connection to our Hashem that will guide us and help us. It will remind us that by continuing the spiritual work of our loved ones we will no longer be alone.
Leaving the holidays behind gets harder and harder every year. The more I love the holidays the harder it is to leave them.
I miss the rituals and the time in shul and the tunes that we sing on only special days. I miss the opportunity to spend time with family and close friends. I miss the opportunity that I take on the holidays to remember my loved ones who have departed and have gone to the olam ha-emes. I remember all the times I spent on the holidays with my grandparents and I appreciate the opportunity to remember them as I am very embarrassed to say that too often during the year I can go days and days without thinking of them.
One of the spiritual challenges we face in our life is how do we maintain the spiritual intensity and fervor of the holidays as we return to the daily routine of life. This is not an easy thing to do but it is essential for us to maintain this energy and vibrancy and not let the impact of these past few weeks be diminished.
The question of how we keep alive the spirit of the holidays during our return to routine is actually a much deeper question of how we hold on to any loss in our life. When a loved one departs how do we keep their spirit alive within us?
The holidays allow us to keep our loved ones alive because we are continuing in their spiritual path. We are like the offspring of a Nazir who takes upon himself the vows of a Nazir.
The Talmud in Sukkah (48a) tells us that Shemini Atzeret has a beracha bifnei atzmo, its own unique blessing.
Beracha bifnei atzmo. It is a beautiful idea. So many things and people are individual blessings onto themselves. Rav Eitam and Naama were such a blessing to the world and now they are gone. Our challenge is to recognize those blessings and to help continue to bring to the world those unique blessings that had previously been the contribution of our loved ones.
I was inspired when I read that Rabbanit Henkin said that this Simchat Torah we should all hold the Torah a little tighter and a little closer. Her words are echoing this theme: we must continue the spiritual work of the Henkins of blessed memory.
As we move from Shemini Atzeret to just our regular lives this is the verse we must remember:
Ki avi va-imi yaazvuni, va-hashem yeiasfuni, for even though we have all been abandoned, it is the spirituality of commitment to the deep spirituality of our loved ones that will gather us in and sustain us.
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