The Unetanneh Tokef prayer says it so powerfully and poignantly: “On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed … who will die at his predestined time and who before his time“. There is a natural order to the world: people grow old and die, and their children bury them. When that happens, it is sad, not tragic. In recent weeks, that natural order has been thown out the window in our community. Three lives have been cut short in their prime. Parents are sitting shiva for children. That is tragic. It is truly unfathomable. How can one begin to comfort parents, a young widow, and young children in circumstances like these?
Individually, these are a calamity for their families and friends. I can barely process the sudden passing of my childhood friend Chaim New. Our families were joined at the hip for decades, with friendships spanning three generations. Barely a month ago his parents comforted me sitting shiva, and now I must reciprocate to them? This is absurd! It is topsy turvy! We instinctively respond with shock, and then anger, often directed against God. What does He want from us? What is His plan?
Taken collectively, these deaths feel like some awful heavenly decree against out community. What have we done to bring this on? What can we do to remedy it? There are no answers to these questions, but we ask them anyway. Suggesting causes or attributing blame is dangerous territory – we cannot second guess God. At the same time, it tests our emunah. Our community is bereft of leadership to help guide us through this and to give us some direction. Should we run to the sofer to have our mezuzot and tefillin checked? Should we run to the doctor to have our health checked? Should we run to the accountant to make sure our affairs are in order? Should we run to the shul and pray? Perhaps it’s all of the above, or are these knee-jerk reactions?
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. They are the first of the five stages of grief. It’s quite reasonable for us to have these feelings.
So what to do? How to respond? How to move forward?
The first thing is to prioritize. There are grieving families in our community, and the most important thing we can do is help them. When words are difficult to find, the sentiment that we are with you, and that we are there for you can help spread an individual’s immense pain across a loving and caring community. This isn’t just about shiva. When a family has been disrupted in such a way, moving forward after shiva is so much harder, and friends will need our ongoing help and support.
The second thing is the community response. It’s easy to look around and say ‘we’ should do this, or ‘they’ should do that. But a community is composed of individuals, and that is where the response starts. Rabbi Groner OBM would say at funerals: “v’hachai yiten el libo” – “and the living should take to heart”. The term is expressed in the singular. It is for each of us to consider how we can be better versions of ourselves, and how we can reassess what is important in life. God is the only true judge.
Our community has experienced more than our share of turmoil over the last couple of years. Tragedies like these put everything else in our lives into perspective. Let’s hope and pray we can move forward to better times.
Update: A beautiful tribute to Chaim written by Rabbi Shmully Hecht, who was in Melbourne for a year of study about 20 years ago. Chaim was a real “white hat”.