When I was a child my family lived in East Flatbush. Flatbush Avenue was shopper’s paradise in those years. My mother and her sisters would get together every week or so to march down the Avenue in unison, window shopping (and sometimes actually making a purchase, but that was by no means necessarily more than a minor part of the fun). They would finish up at Garfield’s restaurant where they would sit down (sometimes all 7) for little cartons of chocolate milk. I usually tagged along, because as an only child the alternative (being alone in the apartment) wasn’t that attractive, and the chocolate milk was. I would however sometimes make a little detour. There is a non-Jewish cemetery that we passed on the way. I loved going in and looking at the gravestones. Some were very ornate, others very plain. Some had rather moving epithets, others names and dates. This is a habit that I never quite abandoned. I go for the obituary articles in the frum papers, and find them to be full of marvelous insights into what is really important at the end of the road. I also would contrast them (sometimes) with the kind of obituaries that appear in the New York Times, where achievements that are totally irrelevant in death are often highlighted.
Yesterday I went to a really great memorial service. I know how bizarre that sounds, but bear with me. A private car met near the Kotel to take a minyan of men (most of whom never met the woman whose grave we visited), and about 15 of her friends to the cemetery on the slopes of Mount Olives. On the way up we passed the tomb of prophets, tzadikim, and in my case, people who are the closest to me. We finally arrived at the sunny expanse of flattened earth where Marcie Alter is buried. We read psalms, her son Ben said Kaddish, and then we returned to central Yerushalim. What brought us there?
Other than Ben, only one of us knew Marcie before her body was devastated and became something of a prison to her free and determined spirit. She had suffered an aneurism and undergone several surgeries that left her almost completely paralyzed. She could move one hand with great effort, but it made it possible to communicate using a word board. She shared her love of learning with me, her love of shopping and adventuring with others. None of us saw a trace of embitterment, or submission. She had her own mini-world in the small room in the Hospice of St. Louis in Jerusalem (where she spent the last years of her life); her siddur, the books the “girls” (most of us are 50 plus) would read to her, the pictures her grandchildren drew and the chart of the 7 Noachide commandments that were there for the non-Jews who work in the hospice to see.
After the service at the cemetery (arranged by Rebbitzen Tehilla Abramov, one of Marcie’s most devoted fans), some of the girls gathered in my house. We ate (of course! We’re all Jewish!), said brachos in her memory, and reminisced. My son in law Shmuel (who never met Marcie, but knew her well via his wife, Guli) spoke about how the way she lived can remind you of the way the Kohein Gadol served in the Bais HaMikdash. The most sanctified service of the entire year was the Yom Kippur service. After a weeklong preparatory period, and five immersions in the mikveh, the kohein gadol (highest kohein) entered the holy of holies. Alone. Briefly. No one saw him, and no one could enter his mind or heart. This is how Marcie served….
Today is Israel’s Memorial Day. Over 3,500 people, civilians and more or less the same number of soldiers were killed over the last 70 years because they are Jews. And live in Israel. The civilians (like the people killed or wounded in the Har Nof massacre) didn’t choose their role. On the way up from Marcie’s grave, I passed my grandson’s friend, Benyosef Livni who was killed while praying at Yosef’s tomb. He was a gentle soul, a Breslov Chassid, the father of tiny children. He would have chosen life, but the Arab who killed him didn’t ask him what his preference was.
The soldiers who were killed also would have chosen life, but they knew that they also were choosing to face possible death. Rav Chaim Shmuelvitz zatzal, the famed Rosh Yeshiva of Mir would compare them to the two brothers whose story is narrated in the Talmud. During the Roman oppression a Roman soldier was killed in Lud. The commander said that if the perpetrators didn’t turn themselves in, that the entire city would be killed. This threat was completely credible. Two brothers, who had nothing to do with the death of the centurion, turned themselves in and took responsibility for a deed that they had not done, dooming themselves to death. The Talmud goes on, and tells us that they were killed, but that this is not the end of their story. They reached a place in Gan Eden where only the patriarchs can reach. “Every soldier knowingly puts himself in the position of being like those brothers, facing the possibility of death to save the rest of us” the Rosh Yeshiva said.
I am going to end the letter now, because the siren that is sounded to make us recall their memory will be heard momentarily. I will say Tehillim and reflect on the wonder of being part of a people who are so inspiring even in death.