I’ve buried relatives and friends – some old, and some not old enough. For the first time, I have buried a student. The grief of his sudden passing comes over me in waves, and is like nothing I have experienced before. They carry a pain that rises to the surface in tears that feel like an outpouring from the depths of my soul. Perhaps this is a result of the special bond between teacher and student.
Danny Pollak was a regular at my weekly city Talmud shiur (study group) for several years, and that is how we met. I did not even know he had been seriously ill with cancer for the last ten years; he was not the type to wear it on his sleeve. Indeed, if I had known, I would have probably treated him differently, and he would not have wanted that from anyone.
He was a keen student, and an active participant. The tractate we learnt dealt in the laws of damages and liability, and with Danny being one of several lawyers in the class, we regularly gained insights into the nature of Jewish law compared with the western legal system.
When I think about Danny, a famous quote from the Talmud (Taanit 7a) comes to mind: “I have learnt much from my teachers, more from my peers, and the most from my students“. The basic meaning of this is that one gains a greater understanding about a topic only having taught it to others. But on a deeper level, it gives us an insight into the relationship between teacher and student: as much as the student seeks to gain knowledge from a teacher, the teacher has a need to impart knowledge to a student.
Taking this concept further, there is so much we can learn from Danny as a person, and perhaps a tragedy that the lessons only come after he is no longer with us physically. Rabbi Yossi Fromer said at the funeral that he did not understand the exhortation to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19) until now. What else would anyone choose when life and death are placed before you? Danny faced exactly such a choice in the way he would approach his life, with a terminal illness hanging over him. He did not choose to be a victim, to wallow in self-pity, or to put everything on hold while he dealt with his illness. Nor did he choose to live every day as if it were his last.
Rather, he chose that whatever days he were granted, they were filled to the maximum with whatever life could avail him. He studied at every opportunity. He advanced his career. He married and started a family. If Danny could do all that, with such uncertainty hanging over his tenure on earth, how much more can the rest of us do with our lives?
At a time of the year when G-d decides “how many will pass on, and how many will be born; who will live, and who will die …” (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy), the fragility of our lives is made very clear to us (indeed, when people die in the weeks approaching Rosh Hashanah, I often reflect that their fate had actually been determined nearly a year earlier).
However, no matter what G-d decides for us, we all have a choice as to as to how we live the life we are granted. May Danny’s legacy be that we all actively and consciously “choose life”.