Rafael Tzvi Hirsch z”l
First Day of Rosh Chodesh Tevet 5775
When the great trumpet will sound and the dead will arise from their graves, the shortest walk to the place of assembly will be for those who are buried on the Mount of Olives. They will then be joined by all those who have been laid to rest on Har Hamenuchot, just a short distance from there. Others will come from places even farther away – Spain, Portugal, Iraq, Iran, Western and Eastern Europe, Africa, the United States, and many other countries. They will all walk up to the mountain of Jerusalem, stretching their legs after resting for ages, and will enjoy the starkly beautiful landscape with its sweeping views of the surrounding hills overlooking the land of Israel. It will be a colorful sight, with millions dressed in their traditional attire – multicolored turbans, black silk top hats, various types of streimels and other head coverings. They will mingle with the other Jews and all righteous people. Some will be dressed in spectacular outfits that will reflect those countries where the sun shines throughout the day; others, coming from the northern valleys, will walk in modest, simple clothing; and there will be those who will stroll in long, flowing white robes – all echoing the civilizations in which Jews have lived for thousands of years without being fully integrated. And the world will be serene and silent.
Today is my father-in-law’s, z”l, 41st Yom HaZikaron, and this morning I had the zechut (privilege) to say Kaddish for his soul. Does it help him “over there”? I don’t know. Does he really need my Kaddish after so many years? Perhaps. Or, is it that I need the Kaddish so as not to forget him and what he stood for?
My thoughts are with him. He left this world as a young man, after having been stricken with numerous severe illnesses. He was buried in Haarlem, The Netherlands, but he never left his birthplace, Sklov – a town full of Jews, in Eastern Europe, which he escaped as a child so as to flee the Russian Army and later the Nazis. The truth is he never got used to The Netherlands, and his soul always resided in Sklov. More than 30 years after his death, we reburied his restless bones next to my mother-in-law, z”l, in his beloved Yerushalayim.
Bu the question is: Did he really die, or did he just move?
Not long ago I asked some of my best friends, who had just lost their husband and father, whether we can be sure that when somebody dies the person is actually dead. Sure, his body is; but what about himself?
When a child is born, his parents, relatives and friends are happy. We wish the family mazal tov! But is it possible that in some other world, which the little baby left in order to be born here, there is simultaneous mourning and weeping?
Maybe the same thing happens when one of us dies. We mourn the deceased. It hurts terribly. But who can prove that in some remote world into which our departed one was just born, they don’t toast drinks and congratulate each other with a mazal tov?
Perhaps dying is nothing other than coming Home. Death, then, is not simply man’s life coming to an end, but also entering a beginning.
Perhaps the death of a person does not only pose the question of where one is going, but is also profoundly related to the matter of where he was before he was born.
It could be that we are always on the road, traveling a great distance, taking a side path to this world and staying a few years before we continue our journey on the main road to some other great destination, which some call Home.
If we had eyes to view the process from beyond this world, we would probably be astonished by what we perceive: two highways with heavy traffic; one on which thousands of souls travel to our world every day, and the other on which thousands depart from our world to travel back Home.
In our Torah, people never die; rather, they are gathered to their people/fathers. (1)
Do our souls cease to exist after they leave our bodies? Does the spirit turn to ashes once it is on its own? How is it possible that souls speak immortal words, think eternal thoughts, create art and music, and then just evaporate into nothingness and vanish? A soul doesn’t grow out of nothing. It’s rooted in another world. Does it then perish and just disappear when it leaves this world?
ואחר, כבוד תקחני
Guide me with Your counsel
And afterward, take me with glory (2)
When my father-in-law became ill and underwent many difficult medical procedures, I used to walk with him to synagogue on Shabbat. It took him a very long time, since he had to stop every minute to catch his breath and allow his heart to continue beating. But to synagogue he had to go.
For him, the house of worship was not important because the world needed it; on the contrary, the world was important because the houses of worship existed in it. He realized that a world without such a house would turn into chaos, brought about by man’s arrogance in telling himself that he could do it all alone.
While he may not have realized it, my father-in-law taught us the same lesson that a fellow Jew, Avraham Joshua Heschel, taught us years earlier. We Jews are God’s stake in human history and we had better make sure to live up to it. If the Jew is not more than human he will be less than human, and in order to be a people we have to be more than a people. We must be a holy nation. He knew that there is a high price to pay in being a Jew and that we are by far the most challenged people in the world. The Jew, after all, is indispensable and never superflous – but only as long as he lives as a Jew. He understood this to be true and lived his life accordingly.
When wrapped in tallit and tefillin my father-in-law found his unconquerable freedom. Outwardly he was a small man and not very successful in his life. But inwardly he felt like a prince, akin to the King of kings, reminding us that our gravest sin is to forget what we Jews represent.
So it was good to say Kaddish. Perhaps he doesn’t need my Kaddish, but I certainly need to say it to make sure I remain a proud Jew.
May his zechut (merit) help my family, our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, all of Israel, and the entire world.
(1) Bereishit 25:8; Shoftim 2:10.
(2) Tehillim 73:24.