By Rabbi Gershon Schusterman
Who was not traumatized to open COLlive and learn about the recent sudden and untimely passing of some of Chabad’s best and brightest in the United States, Canada, Israel, Argentina and as of this past Friday morning, also Australia.
The words sad, heartbreaking, tragic and devastating do not begin to do justice to how stunned and grief-struck we are. What we feel cannot be expressed in mere words. We are overwhelmed.
I was 38 years-old when my wife and Shlucha, Rochel Leah Schusterman O”H, passed away suddenly on a sunny Sunday morning, 28 years ago. She was 36-years-old and we had 11 children. What we experienced then is not forgotten — ever. And this gives me a little license to speak.
I want to share with you what I wrote to my children a while ago in a similar situation. You may find something meaningful in it.
To My Dear Children,
It’s a difficult time for all of us now. Our beloved friend’s (name withheld) sudden passing. Even as I type these words they sound hollow and absurd. I want to think that I will wake up from this bad dream… but I know it’s sadly real… and as indigestible as it is incomprehensible. I’m thousands of miles away, feeling frustrated that I’m unable to be there with his family and with you.
As we grieve for him and his family, we are grieving for ourselves too. An illustrative story: A Rebbe (the Rasha”b, during one of his early years?) was not in Lubavitch for Rosh Hashana. He was in a place where he was unknown. He was hosted by a local Erlicher Yid. Rosh Hashana after Maariv, the host, who had a family and other guests, waited a while, and when he saw that the Rebbe was still davvening (as was the custom of our Rebbeim to daven B’arichus and with B’chiyos the first night of Rosh Hashana), left him in Shul, assuming that he would finish soon and figure out how to find his way to his home.
A few hours later, when the meal was over and his guest had not yet come, he went to the Shul to see what happened to him. When he entered the Shul, he saw the Rebbe was still davvening and the Shabbos Goy, who had come to the Shul to put out the candles, was sitting on the back bench and sobbing.
The Balaboss asked the Goy, “Why are you crying so bitterly?” He responded, “I came to put out the candles and I saw the man praying so sincerely and beautifully, so I sat down to listen. Then he burst out crying, oh, so bitterly; I was saddened for him… and my thoughts went to my problems; my wife is sick… by horse broke its leg… my cow’s milk is drying up…. so I’m crying about my troubles, too.”
I’m sure in our tears for our friend there were more than a few shed for those tears not shed years ago; this hits much too close to home.
What does one say at a time like this?
Nothing might be the right answer.
When comforting others, we often engage in the Blunders of the Benevolent (phrase thanks to Rabbi Maurice Lamm in his “Consolation”). We may mean well, but that does not necessarily grant us the wisdom or eloquence to say something wise and real and comforting, especially when we, too, are overwhelmed.
And in this situation, let us be honest; we are grieving for ourselves, too; we are addressing our own uncompleted grief; some of the things we said, or want to say, we are saying to ourselves.
I’ve heard inanities, banalities and blasphemies… spiced with a few profanities.
Don’t worry: the Chazal have already said a person is not culpable for things [blasphemies] one expresses at a time of grief.
We have feelings and we have questions; we experience loss of control, we feel profound sadness and deep grief; we ask ourselves how are they [or we] going to cope? And the biggest question of all, WHY?
Some express bitterness; what is bitterness if not a repressed form of anger? Directed towards whom? Towards Hashem.
I remember like yesterday sitting in Memorial hospital on Nissan 4, 1986, right after Mommy’s P’tira and thinking: “I’m being called upon to put everything that I’ve learned and believed all my life into action; this is the test. Will I be up to it?”
What I mean when I said that perhaps the right thing to say is nothing, is that we don’t always have the answers, nor can we always have the answers, and when you have a test (and this is a test, too) one does not fill the blank with just anything; if one does not know the answer, it is perfectly acceptable, in fact, preferable, to leave the space blank.
In life’s tests, blank is not synonymous with stupidity or passivity; it is an active, profound submission to the Hashem’s will. When Hashem does something that overwhelms us and we really do not have what to say, our best strategy is not to rail against Hashem but to dive into the wave and submit to Hashem’s will.
The Shulchan Aruch says, “Say, ‘blessed is the true judge.'”
Greater people than us have shown the way. Iyov said, “Hashem has given, Hashem has taken away; may Hashem’s name be blessed.” Aharon did so, “Vayidom Aharon.” The Rebbe did so in 1956, when the Fadeyen killed 4 bochurim and their teacher in Kfar Chabad and the Rebbe was in seclusion for a few days; he later said that it was “as Vayidom Aharon.” We can do so, too. This type of silence, the silence of introspection and acceptance, is most eloquent.
We do not expect to understand all the ways of Hashem. Yet, it is our duty to find a positive approach to Him and His ways, even when the events are tragic.
And as the Rebbe counselled regarding the 1956 tragedy in Kfar Chabad, “B’Hemshech HaBinyan Tinocheimu,” in your continuing pioneering building of Kfar Chabad you will find comfort, we —all of us— too, in carrying on the ideals of whoever we lost, we’ll find comfort.
Hashem runs the world all the time; a Hashgacha Protis moment is merely when the window to this truth is opened briefly, and we get to see it clearly, too.
V’hachay Yitein el Libo; Al Kol N’shima U’n’shima Chayav Adam L’hodos L’Hashem.
My writing and sharing this letter is an attempt to be with you, to the best of my ability under the circumstances, in what we are all going through. Some of this has been waiting many years to be said.
DEATHS IN ADAR I & ADAR II 5774:
+ Rivkie Barber, 49, OBM
+ Yossi Fail, 16, OBM
+ Dina Dahan, 62, OBM
+ Rabbi Motti Gal, 62, OBM
+ Rashi Minkowicz, 37, OBM
+ Rabbi Yisroel Butman, 55, OBM
+ Reb Mottel Der Shoichet, 97, OBM
+ Rabbi Daniel Moscowitz, 59, OBM
+ Tzvi Ostrozynski, 60, OBM
+ Rabbi Leib Scheiner, OBM
+ Gedalya Greenzayd, 25, OBM
+ Mrs. Rivka Niyazov, 83, OBM
+ Norman Katz, 74 OBM
+ Refael Kaushansky, 17, OBM
+ Mrs. Goldy Krinsky, 87, OBM
+ Bryna Eisig, 79, OBM