By Robin Goldwyn Blumenthal
Birth is G-d saying you matter.
I learned that from my first teacher of Torah, Rabbi Simon Jacobson, a scribe for the Lubavitcher Rebbe and author of Toward a Meaningful Life, an introduction to Jewish philosophy.
But if that’s true, does death mean the opposite?
Only if you see life as starting at birth. Indeed, Jewish wisdom teaches that the soul comes down from its lofty place, where it has been basking in the radiance of the Divine presence, to elevate this lowly world and make it into a dwelling place for God. When the soul’s “unique and indispensable mission ends, it continues its spiritual journey in other realms,” having left a lasting impact on this world, Jacobson told me.
Of course, this presumes the existence of a soul. But although we don’t yet have the tools to measure it, as anyone who has ever regarded the body of a deceased loved one can attest, the animating force, the spirit that we respond to with love, is no longer there.
Death is perhaps the greatest mystery of life. It is always tragic, but as the anniversary of the Tree of Life synagogue attack nears, and as I reflect on the senselessness of recent violence and of the deaths of those close to me, the subject holds even greater relevance.
This year, 79 people were killed in mass shootings, including Lori Kaye, a founder at Chabad of Poway, who also derived great comfort from the teachings found in Toward a Meaningful Life. She was killed during Passover as she was preparing to honor her mother with a Jewish prayer to remember the dead. Last October, 11 worshipers were gunned down at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and my young daughter-in-law was killed by a drunk and unlicensed driver. Not long before that, I lost my husband of 35 years to cancer, and my mother.
How to make sense out of any of this?
By turning to the teachings of Torah. Rachelle Fraenkel, whose 16-year-old son Naftali was murdered along with two other teenage boys by terrorists in Israel five years ago, told me: “Don’t ask, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ We are encouraged to ask the question, ‘Where am I going to take this?’” Fraenkel, a Torah educator who embodies grace and joy, continues to feel the pain of her loss. But she refuses to let it dominate her life. Blessed with so much, she said at Sinai Indaba, “it seems like the height of ingratitude to just take a can of black paint and throw it all over my life.”
Similarly, one week after the Chabad of Poway shooting, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein appeared on the program My Life: Chassidus Applied, and told its host, Jacobson, “We suffer, we question, but we’re not going to be defined by our questions.” When tragedy strikes, we ask, “What are we going to do about it?”
Goldstein, who transcended himself to spread a message of hope even after his terrible experience, was inspired by his teacher, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who taught that a little light dispels a lot of darkness.
The Poway rabbi’s approach was influenced by the example of the Rebbe, who responded to a 1950s terrorist attack in Kfar Chabad in Israel in which five students were murdered while at prayer by immediately establishing a vocational school and a printing house in their memory.
These reactions seem almost superhuman. But Jewish wisdom dictates our response. I remember paying a condolence call to Jacobson after his father died many years ago. It was early in my journey toward Jewish observance and I was apprehensive about how to relate to my teacher during a time of grief. But the entire family seemed so composed in the face of their personal tragedy. I had fallen apart at the death of my own father several years before, and I marveled at their equanimity in the face of their loss. This helped inspire me to continue my journey toward observance.
There are myriad stories of Jewish sages and rebbes who provide lasting examples of how to deal with the inevitable pain and suffering that touches us all. A story is shared about a Lubavitch rebbe who was arrested and taken to a Soviet prison where he faced an almost certain death sentence. His crime? Bravely spreading the knowledge of Torah when the teaching of any religion was expressly forbidden. When his accusers threatened him with a gun, saying, “This toy has made many people talk,” the rebbe answered, “This toy may frighten one who has many gods and one world; but I have but one God and two worlds, so if you take this one away from me, I still have the next, which is the eternal one. My life is granted to me for the purpose of teaching Torah to my fellow Jews, and if I cannot do that, then my life is worthless to me.”
These illuminating principles are readily accessible to us, as are many wonderful teachers to help guide us in the optimal way to approach life and death. The mourner’s Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, makes no mention of the mourner, the one mourned or our sorrow. According to Maurice Lamm, author of The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning, Kaddish is “a call to God from the depths of catastrophe, exalting His name and praising Him despite the realization that He has just wrenched a human being from life.”
But the Master of the World mourns too when one of His children dies. G-d suffers, as it were, just as we do. All who experience such loss can take comfort from the idea that, as Lamm writes, “when human beings recite the Kaddish, they offer G-d consolation for this loss.”
Robin Goldwyn Blumenthal, a former senior editor at Barron’s magazine, is a playwright who writes about Jewish themes.