I went to an unusual shiva yesterday. Sarah Siderson who studied in the Moreshet program had recently gotten engaged. She was authentic success story; after finishing Moreshet, she got a credential and actually was teaching in the Israeli system. Her death was swift, unanticipated, and an undisguised tragedy.
I wasn’t that close to her, and hadn’t kept up at all in recent years. Nonetheless, when Rabbi Kass told me what happened I felt like it was almost a physical blow. I couldn’t even begin to think about how her family took it in. It was only after I had been to the shiva, and later heard more about what had happened there from Mrs. Kass, that I could see anything beyond the event itself.
The family lived in Edmonton (what? You don't know anyone from Edmonton? Isn’t it the Flatbush of Canada?). They had previously lived in Montreal, which is where their lives began to change. It was Chanukah, and Chabad had erected a large menorah. It grabbed them in the deepest sense, and something about it demanded that they find out more about what being Jewish is about. The “I am what I do” definition that so many people settle for wasn't good enough anymore... Even after moving to Edmonton, the family became closer and closer to the Torah and to living with Hashem moment by moment. Sarah was the first girl in Edmonton to come to Israel to seminary. Suddenly when it looked like the happy ending to her story was about to happen, it was all over. Her mother's comfort is that she died happy and with a sense of completion. Instead of the bitterness that so many others might have chosen, she chose an entirely different way of responding, one that was focused on her daughter's life's fullness, rather than her own loss. "Hashem's love for us is the only thing that is getting us through this all," the father said both at the funeral and at the shiva. "We are proud to be baalei tshuvah".
Death is a great teacher. I learned this when I was a child.
Growing up in Flatbush had many advantages that I only appreciated much later. In those days the neighborhood was defined by its large number of non-orthodox Jews. They were by and large more than happy to identify as Americans who happen to be Jewish, rather than as Jews who live in America. The narrative that their kids grew up with was that being a good person and succeeding were life's twin goals. Judaism was useful to the degree that it brought you closer to achieving these elusive ideals. Most of the kids got there; we were good people who believed strongly in living successful lives (and for some of us who grew up in the sixties, success was only number two-on the short list of goals that was engraved on our hearts from as long as we remembered ourselves. ’Meaningful” became the most popular substitute for "successful"). One of the rather macabre pleasures that I had as a child was exploring the non-Jewish cemetery that I passed on my way to Flatbush Avenue, the shopper's paradise of that era. Reading the epithets told me about what was important at the end. Some of the lines were clichés, others were whimsical. They were like the first episode in an unending soap opera, Why was Mary Elizabeth "unforgettable". What made the folks who wrote, "A better match was never hatched" on Vincent's tomb have in mind? On the rare occasions that we visited the Jewish cemetery in Riverside, the epithets evoked deeper questions. "What is "the bond of life"? Why did non-observant Jews care where they were buried?
In this week's Parshah, Ki Teitzei, one of the mitzvot involves the way the Torah demands that we treat the dead. Even someone convicted and executed was properly buried. Although after his execution, his body was hung, the Torah explicitly says to cut down his body and bury him. Rashi gives you a beautiful parable. There were twins. One grew up to become a government minister and the other became a highwayman. Eventually the thief was sentenced to death and hung. When people saw him, they said, "the minister was hung!" because he looked exactly like his brother. The meaning of the parable is that every human being is in G-d's image. There are people who commit such atrocities that you can find yourself wondering whether they are genuinely human. Step back. Think more deeply. The reason that you are horrified by their atrocities is that you have expectations from humans. You wouldn't feel revulsion if an animal were to cause a brutal and painful death to your fellow human being. You know very well that there isn't such a thing as an evil tiger or a heartless inhuman bear. Animals are animals. It's only human beings who are in G-d's image who awaken moral outrage. When you think of a person as being a clever animal, you have lost track of the Divine image within him. The body is finite. It needs to be buried to release the soul. Even the worst Jew still has the Divine image in exile within him, and once his body is buried in the ground, will eventually find rectification in the world to come.
The person you chose to be is revealed at the end of your story. Once you come to terms with this, your definition of success and failure changes.
Adam was given an assignment. Conquer the earth! Face the concealment and prevail over its limitations. Don't be crushed by it! He was told that he is there to "Work it and guard it". Chazal say that the "work" is spiritual. The positive mitzvot that gives your soul expression is what "work" is really about. Guarding against self-diminishment means that you have to keep the negative mitzvot. To give your mission here challenge and meaning, Ohr HaChaim tells us, Hashem sometimes sends you to a place of profound darkness in order to give you a chance to explore and discover your life's true purpose and ride with it. This may mean not only seeing a menorah, but letting it speak to you like Sarah's family did. Look at where Hashem "planted" you and look for meaning and purpose there. This is what life is really for; this is the only definition of real success that lasts.
Don't think that you already arrived.
Teshuvah means return. Even the greatest tzaddik is commanded to do teshuvah - it's one of the 613 commandments. Hashem is infinite, you can always discover more, and move further.
Enjoy the rest of Elul. Have wonderful trip upward.
P.S. Baruch Hashem, I have just completed a new book called "Return." It is about how to move forward. It will be in the stores in two weeks. You can order it via my website.