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Making Sense of Death (Yizkor Passover 04/07/18)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Making Sense of Death
Yizkor is a moving service to honor those precious friends and family members whose presence is so sorely missed over the holidays.  Some of them passed away at a ripe old age, and some, way too young.  Can we make any sense of this?
The second night of Passover I utilized a fun and engaging Passover Haggadah from  In one remembrance-themed section of the Haggadah, it quoted a story from “Memories after my Death” by Yair Lapid.
They marched us down the length of Pozohony Street, toward the Margaret Bridge and that was when we understood they were bringing us to the edge of the Danube, where they would shoot us and leave us to die under the ice. When we arrived at the foot of the bridge, a Soviet reconnaissance aircraft appeared out of nowhere over our heads.  The death march stopped, and there was a moment of chaos while the Nazi guards sought refuge in the entrance to buildings and shot their submachine guns skyward. Mother and I were standing next to a small public toilet of metal and painted green and mother pushed me inside. ‘Pretend you’re peeing’ she said.  I stood there frozen with cold and fear, but I could not pee; when you are thirteen years old and frightened you cannot pee.  The Soviet plane had meanwhile disappeared and the march resumed.  Not a soul noticed that mother and I had remained in the toilet.  Half an hour later, not a single person from the march was left alive. This was a key moment in my life, the moment that defines me more accurately than any other – more than anything I ever did, more than any place I ever visited, more than any person I have ever met. Not because I was spared – every survivor has his own story or a private miracle – but because I had nowhere to go… in this big wide world there was not a single place for a Jewish boy of thirteen whom everyone wants to kill.
Years later on a trip I took to Budapest with my son Yair, we took a walk and found ourselves, without planning to, at the Margaret Bridge. We strolled along, chatting merrily when suddenly I stopped and, shaking, pointed at something ahead of us. At first Yair could not understand what it was that I was pointing at, but there it was: the public toilet made of metal and painted green.  We stood there, two grown men, hugging and crying and stroking the green walls of the public toilet that saved my life, while the Hungarians who passed us on the street did so with caution, convinced they were looking at two lunatics.  “My boy,” I said once I was calm enough to speak, “it was in this place, without my even knowing it that I became a Zionist. It is the whole Zionist idea in fact, The State of Israel is a problematic place, and we’ll always have our arguments with it, but this is the very reason it was established. So that every Jewish child will always have a place to go.”
It’s a moving story and powerful incentive for the existence of the State of Israel. But what does it say in terms of the meaning of life and Divine Providence?  What if the plane hadn’t flown over that moment?  What if they were 10 feet past the toilet, would someone else have survived?  We can only wonder.
The Haggadah contains a section called “Destiny”:
Because they had no love and felt alone in the world
Because they were afraid to be alone and tried to stick it out
Because they could not ask
Because they were shunned…
We can perhaps understand why these people gave up the fight for life.  But then the Haggadah continues:
Because they acquired friends and drew others to them
Because they drew attention to themselves and always got picked
Because they took risks
Because they were too stubborn and refused to give up…
Here it’s just the opposite: well-liked and courageous men and women perished because of their popularity.
It seems as though there’s no rhyme or reason to death. The ignored and lonely die as readily as the beloved and brave.
This past Thursday morning, I was exercising in the gym and I noticed some Yeshiva students being interviewed on the news.  Since I used to be one of them, I paid more attention to the story. Tragically, a young, engaged Orthodox couple, just 20 and 21 years old, died in an auto accident on the Nassau Expressway that night.  They were killed at 1:40 AM in a five car collision involving some who were driving while intoxicated. If they had left 10 minutes earlier, they’d probably be alive.  Where’s the justice, where’s the sense?
The Talmud, the bastion of Jewish theology, even feels this way as well.  Rav Yosef, when he would come across this verse in Proverbs 23, וְיֵשׁ נִסְפֶּה בְּלֹא מִשְׁפָּט, “…and there are some that die without justice”, he would cry.  In a world that seems chaotic, we turn to religion to give us meaning and faith. Here, even our faith comes up empty, admitting that there are losses that just make no sense.
I personally interpret this Talmudic statement to mean, that to our eyes, there’s no justice. We can’t fathom why an aspiring couple so perishes so young.  We also can’t understand why some are granted the saving grace of a metal public toilet and others are not.  But I refuse to believe G-d does not have a reason.  We may not understand the reasons, but I trust in G-d that there is one.
Since death doesn’t distinguish between the young and old, the healthy and unhealthy, the righteous and the not so righteous, we just have to accept it for what it is and not try to make sense of these things.
What we can do is appreciate the life we have. Is there a significant other in our lives that we truly cherish and love?  Do we have doting parents or adorable children and grandchildren?  Do we have a comfortable home or caring friends?  We can’t figure why life ends, but we can certainly appreciate and be thankful for the gifts of life that we do have.
Yizkor may not help us make sense of our loss, but we should utilize it to make us feel more appreciation for the blessings and love in our lives.

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