by Rabbi Shmully Hecht – Senior Shliach at Yale University
It was 25 degrees, brisk and blue skies. A sharp windchill in the air. But no one was thinking about the frost. The fellow to my left wasn’t even wearing a coat. A mere unassuming scarf was wrapped around his neck and a pair of sunglasses slid down his nose, hiding his tears. He wore no socks. No doubt he’ll suffer frostbite for a couple of days. In a solemn state of fatalism, I assume he intended it that way. Resignation to our mortality and the mystery of it all.
You could touch the pain. Thick as a concrete wall. Impenetrable. So aching in everyone’s hearts no one could look each other in the eye. Short breaths. A snuffle. A short breath. A gaze at the grass. A communal stare at the little card inserted in the peg emerging from the pile of earth that had just been placed in the ground. Moshe ben Menachem Mendel it read in our ancient sacred tongue. I wondered if it was printed in yesteryear. Indelible yet simple, black and white angelic font.
Tears filled everyone’s eyes yet no one could cry. An occasional tear rolling down the cheek of a child. Freezing on an innocent face. Were we to weep, we would not cease to sob. A man is not supposed to bury his newly-wed son. A mother is not supposed to bury her first born. Underage siblings are not supposed to be at funerals. Twenty six year olds don’t have burial plots. Children don’t attend their friends’ funerals.
The pile of fresh soil on the grave stood out like a striking bald spot on a skull full of hair. Unexpected, undeserved, unnecessary. Preventable, some thought. No, death is not preventable. Death can not be timed. It is simply a scar to be dealt with by greater powers. Powers way greater than us mortals. I saw no graves around the most recent addition to Old Montefiore cemetery. Of course not. Just a barren plot reserved for the innocent. Barren indeed. Moshe’s parents are alive. His young innocent widow Bassie is in her twenties. His surviving friends are just finishing school and starting their first jobs. His siblings and friends are just emerging from their youth, off to a bright tomorrow. Yet sadly wounded and scarred forever.
They handed out the sheets. The Chevra Kaddisha never fails. Same familiar faces. Rain or shine, squelching heat or frosting cold. No tears. No emotion. Just the rules of engagement. The ritual. The readings. Tradition. The shovels, and then a sudden announcement from the Rav. “Please back up 15 feet, repeat after me, don’t hand the shovel to your friend, just put it back in the mound, keep the line orderly, be courteous of others. Return the printouts.” Routine? Heaven forbid! Not today. This moment in the annals of our Chasidic history will be forever different. A tragedy of errors. Yes, ours!
“Yoshev b’seser elyon…” hundreds began to read.” He who dwells in the sublime…” invoking G-d at this moment of truth. In unison we read. Loudly. This moment of finality for Moshe the son of Menachem Mendel and Basya. Believers and agnostics all ruminating the crime scene of society, on this freezing winter day in Queens.
“Hazur tamim paoloi” The Lord’s work is complete. The whole G-d has acted. In unison we all cried out the eternal words of our Prophets, Kings and Sages. In the recesses of our minds there was one common thought. Dear G-d why would you do this to a family? To the best of families! To the kindest of your children! To the most loving and sharing of humankind! To the finest of the Chassidim! What could possibly have driven you to take this innocent man in the prime of his life, from his beautiful wife, from his young, tender sisters and brothers who loved him so dearly … From his innocent grandparents and loved ones!
We continued to read, “Adam Ben Shanah Yehyeh oy elef shanim yehye.” A man can live one or a thousand years, to what benefit, it is all for naught. G-d is perfect, G-d gives, G-d takes, G-d judges, G-d decides, G-d is merciful, G-d is just, blessed be G-d, everything is for the good, everything is for the benefit of man, man is to be judged but justice reigns, G-d is righteous and not to be second guessed. The fair Judge, the true Judge. On and on we mumbled the text. Some with deep intent, most, ignorant of the meaning of the sacred penetrating verses we Jews have read for generations.
Sure G-d, I thought, please take this 26 year old innocent man from among us. Have you forgotten he is not even a complete man, rather a young lad? The sweetest chap who could not hurt a fly, always with a smile, always eager to help a stranger, the best of our youth, the most innocent of our kind. Was this a mistake dear G-d? You are aware that he is not the first. Our children called from around the world today, eager to hop on flights to be there with us on the grass of eternal life. Teenagers booking flights to join the funeral of a friend…? Oh Lord, You have done this before, will you do this again? Please Father, may this be the last. We abide by the conviction that G-d rules and man is a simple bystander. Mankind can’t even weep today. Chasidim are silent today. Only the wind speaks. The pain is simply to much to bear.
I look up from the Tehillim and the scene is striking. The sheer numbers. Hundreds. An old friend hunched over beside me whispers, “Shomrei Hadas was packed today.” He couldn’t enter the edifice. More packed than he has ever seen it. This coming from one that has seen many a funeral. Today it was more packed than he has ever witnessed. I sure hope so. This should never have been. Most came in disbelief. An injustice, yet we are the witnesses. Perhaps the perpetrators. I look around in amazement. I see old Jews with beards. Random folk with pony tails. A few modern fellas in jeans, middle age Chasidim. Roshei Yeshiva. Shluchim. I spot a friend from Montreal. Men, women, girls and boys. A few from Florida. No shortage of the New Haven crowd. School teachers, Moshe’s classmates, co-workers, cousins, neighbors, musicians, a middle aged black gentleman, trimmed beards, women in modest dress.
Every one is shell shocked. A silence. Sheer silence. Knitted ski caps, borsalinos, tichels, baseball caps, bareheaded, pierced noses, hoodies, jeans, kapotas, LL bean jackets, You would have mistaken it for the Mayor’s funeral, the President of the Shul or head of the community council. Perhaps Moshe in a proverbial sense was all of the above. The best of us all. Innocent and pure. One of us. One of our own.
Puzzled. Amazed, dumbfounded, shocked, speechless, deep melancholy, anxious… we line up to pay respects. Frozen in body and soul. There are no answers. There is no consoling the masses. There is no reconciliation with the Creator. No ridding that terrible ache in the very fiber of our existence. Better to leave the gated walls of this last stop on earth with a few questions, but hopefully this last time with a few resolutions.
Only one thing comes to mind as I discover a hint of consolation. I am guilty. Not the Lord. I must repent. I must return. I must confess and I must beg forgiveness. And may I propose that all of us share that collective guilt. Tomorrow will come in a heartbeat of time as we move on with our daily lives. But we have been to a crime scene. We will be quizzed only by our conscience. We must be cognizant that we are accomplices to the delinquency of the day. A few sleepless nights would be appropriate. The wrongdoing of communal manslaughter has descended not as a heavenly decree, rather a manifestation of our collective misconduct.
We are not innocent bystanders. We have shown up today to pay tribute, to mourn as friends. Yet, in our hearts we know we were silent for too long. We have been indifferent. We have excused ourselves incessantly as we have remained simply inattentive. Busy with our own lives, our own jobs, our own children, our own shlichus, our own communities. Yes, self-righteous.
We shall be haunted knowing that alongside the body of Moshe son of Menachem Mendel and Basya, buried below that pile of earth just 15 feet from where we stand, now lies a piece of each and every one of us. We cannot and shall not attempt to redeem or liberate ourselves until the resurrection. The resurrection will only come when we unite.
When we are less busy, less preoccupied, when we feel the other, when we actually hug the stranger and love the neighbor, when we emerge from our lofty nests and isolated cocoons of our self-righteous schools, shuls, seminaries, camps yeshivas and learn to love again and unite as Chasidim. When we, as the holy Friedieker Rebbe said, truly love our siblings the way two Chasidim once loved each other… How profound, simple and yes attainable. If only we try.
A human circle surrounds the pile of earth, a quorum or two, and then an outer ring of yet another quorum and then another. Concentric circles of human spirits, friends and family, young and old from far and near. In the penetrating silence we can hear the calling from the ground, a silent murmur, an echo of Moshe’s life, so dense it locks us in our place like the G force of a roller coaster at maximum speed.
Moshe didn’t die today. Moshe Deitsch will live forever. Moshe Deitsch will live in our hearts and souls as a constant reminder of our communal obligation to others. Moshe’s life will remain that undying voice from the depths of earth and celestial heavens to reach out and hug the quiet unassuming fellow standing right next to us in plain sight.
Yes, the person who may not look like us, think like us or live like us. To truly feel the pain of strangers and love each other the way Moshe loved others. To care for others the way Moshe cared for others. To hug others the way Moshe hugged others. And only if we heed that cry in our souls and alter our past ways will today be the last time we stand on that desolate parcel of frozen ground, reserved for our elders not our innocent youth.