His response was the greatest lesson of the many I learned from him. “The saddest of all human happenings is separation,” he said.
I picked him up at the airport. He was arriving in Baltimore, where I was then a rabbi, to deliver an address and then return home to New York.
The plane was late, so that when he came, I told him that we would have to hurry to be at our destination on time. He was already showing signs of age, so that walking quickly was hard for him. We moved rapidly past the gates where other flights were disembarking, including one at which the arriving passengers were being welcomed warmly by friends and family.
That is where he stopped, transfixed. He could not take his eyes off the scene of the small crowds embracing and kissing each other tearfully and emotionally.
He was Rav Avraham Pam, of blessed memory, the late lamented sage, dean of Yeshiva Torah Vodaas, mentor to hundreds of rabbis and scholars, and, above all, gentle soul. When we finally were in the car and on our way, I asked him what it was about the airport scene that so fascinated him.
His response was the greatest lesson of the many I learned from him. “The saddest of all human happenings is separation,” he said. “And the most wonderful of all is reunion. Whenever I see people, of whatever religion or background, who are joyfully coming together after a long separation, I feel spellbound [that was the word he used], and I must stand by and witness that pure innocent joy as long as I can.”
Separation is the greatest human tragedy, although a very common one. Reunion is the greatest joy, rare though it often is.
This week’s Torah portion allows us to further reflect upon separation, in Hebrew, p’reida. The Torah describes the close relationship between Abraham and his nephew, Lot. It is a relationship which began in the “Old Country” and continued through Abraham’s adventurous journey to and through Canaan.
This decision to separate was a fateful one for Lot. He settled in Sodom, rose to a prestigious position there, and we will learn more about his new life in next week’s portion. He tried to mitigate the effects of the separation by remaining loyal to the precepts he learned in Abraham’s tent, a difficult challenge in his new circumstances.
At the same time, Abraham stayed in touch with him from afar and rushed to his aid when Lot was captured by a marauding army.
This dramatic story of the separation of two close companions may be the first on record, but it is certainly not the last.
There are poignant examples of separated individuals who, despite growing up in radically different environments, end up so similarly. How well I remember an adolescent psychotherapy patient of mine who was adopted in infancy by a professor of physics and his wife, a noted art historian. They were frustrated by this teenager, who was interested neither in intellectual nor cultural pursuits, but whose goal in life it was to become a fireman, and who spent all his spare time as a fire department volunteer.
After several years, I received a call from the young man telling me that he had since successfully located his biological father. Wouldn’t you know it: His father was a veteran firefighter.
Separation is part of human life, so much so that in Jewish mystical liturgy, this world is called the “world of separation,” alma d’piruda.
Reunions are thrilling experiences, but we fear finding out how different we have become from those with whom we once shared such similarity. Abraham and Lot once were very similar. They separated, intentionally. Yet there were bonds that linked them, invisible and mysterious bonds. Others surface generations later, with the story of Ruth, the descendent of Lot’s progeny, Moab, and her reunion with Abraham’s people. Ultimately, King David himself becomes the symbol of the reunion of the uncle and nephew of whose separation we read this Shabbat.
No wonder then, that the mystical text that calls this world the alma d’piruda, calls the next, better world the alma d’yichuda, “the world of reunion,” the world in which we will all be together. l
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is the executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.