David Avram Smoller, ז"ל*
Every chance I get, I tell people that it is a privilege to be a rabbi. Most treasured among the opportunities I treasure in my rabbinate are the people who let me into their lives. The more experience I accrue as a rabbi, the more I come to appreciate what I can learn from my "chavrei kehillah" -- the members of my congregation.
A young friend recently told me about an intriguing international program called "The Human Library," in which a group of people with varying life experiences each agree to tell their life story for about fifteen minutes to any individual who is interested. The visitor reads a synopsis of the person's life story on a card and decides to "check out" the human book. They have a fifteen minute slot for the "human book" to tell her or his story and then the "library patron" returns the "human book" and can check out another if he or she finds another potentially interesting story.
Over the course of time, I've acquired a few people who i've added to my permanent "human library." People who have taught me, shared with me, opened vistas for me.
David Smoller was one of those.
If you were to assess the man in the photograph above, you'd probably guess that this was a happy man, a friendly man, a guy, perhaps, with a good sense of humor. You'd be right. What you would not guess from this great photograph of David at a Torat Yisrael end-of-summer barbecue a few years ago, is that David faced his own mortality with courage and determination and optimism and courage and sheer will since he was a teenager.
David would tell me: "There's no other way to do it." David would power through any and all onslaughts to his physical well-being with one single goal: to get back to his real life of loving and caring for and supporting Susan and Michelle. "Life is good." David would say.
Other people in David's circumstances would (and do) complain, whine, suffer under a burden of fear, lash out in anger and frustration, shrivel in helplessness.
David swaggered through every challenge with a smile on his face, putting his faith in God, counting the blessings in his life, embracing every opportunity for friendship, mentschlichkeit, joy, love, generosity and a good laugh.
I sat at his feet; a neophyte in the art of living and loving life.
As we approach the end of the book of Bamidbar ("In the Wilderness)/the book of Numbers, we witness the death of two iconic leaders: Moses' sister, Miriam and Moses' brother, Aaron. The accounts of the deaths of these siblings are stark and thought-provoking. Of Miriam we read: "The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there." (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:1)
Verse 2 takes us to a new subject: "The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron."
On the surface, it seems as though Miriam's death goes unmarked, she is buried and we move on to the crisis of water. The classic commentators on this passage were moved to associate these two passages and concluded that the people were without water as a result of Miriam's demise, that a well would magically appear wherever Miriam was situated, so that the people always had water as long as Miriam lived. Miriam's Well became a midrashic symbol enriching and entrenching the image of Miriam as the spiritual leader of the people who nourished their souls through her special gifts of song and of water.
Moses and Aaron are depicted as engaged in a defensive position coping with the anger and fear of their parched Israelite charges. The brothers consult with God at the Tent of Meeting and God instructs them:
8 "You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts."
9 Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him. 10 Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" 11 And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.
Moses does indeed produce water from the rock, but instead of "ordering the rock" as God instructed, Moses "struck the rock twice with his rod." Moses seems to have lost his composure . . . and I think we are given a glimpse of the very human Moses in this moment.
Moses is usually very conscientious about following God's instruction to the letter: in Moses' approach to the Israelites, in his approaches to Pharoah, in the management of the plagues and in orchestrating the Israelite departure from Egypt, Moses did not put his "personal spin" on anything explicitly described by God.
But in this moment, Moses strikes, rather than instructs, the rock that will produce water.
I see Moses in mourning for his sister, Miriam, in this moment: in his grief and in the anger over his loss (an emotion many of us experience after the death of a loved one), in the intensity of having to lead while still mourning, Moses strikes out. The circumstances of this incident could only have deepened his grief: his sister, Miriam, who watched over him when he was consigned to water as an infant; his sister, Miriam, who provided water for the people in the wilderness . . . it is due to her death that he must now produce water himself: he strikes out in grief and anger instead of maintaining his facade of measured, precise leader and obedient servant of God.
Perhaps if Moses were permitted the seven days of shiva which wraps us in an embracing cocoon of family, friends and community when we mourn, he would have been spared his outburst of grief. The wisdom of our tradition, guiding us to put aside even the most pressing professional obligations, abdicating our control of logistics while family, friends and community cook and clean for us . . . all of this is the tangible expression of the insight afforded to us by this moment of Torah: we need time to mourn, to contemplate our loss before we return to the pressing world of work and responsibilty. Even as he mourns and suffers, Moses is our teacher.
Parashat Shemini Torah Reading: Leviticus 9:1-11:47
One of the facets of Judaism that I value most is our tradition's engagement in real life. We are not encouraged to view the world through rose-colored glasses. The protagonists of our Torah are not a group of paragons: they are human beings who display faith, avarice, hypocrisy, courage and weakness. During their lives they endure barrenness, imprisonment, persecution, famine and the death of loved ones. When we are encouraged to look to the Torah for wisdom and guidance and insight we are being sent to a sacred text that understands the lives we lead.
This week's parashah includes one of the Torah's most painful passages: the death of Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu. The account of their death is puzzling and much rabbinic ink has been spilt in the effort to understand why these two young men lost their lives.
What is not as frequently examined is the fact that their father, Aaron, has endured the death of two of his sons.
The Torah relates that Aaron stood in silence in response to their deaths. We speculate on this response: why does Aaron not cry out? why does Aaron not collapse in grief?
The modern biblical commentator, Joseph Hertz wrote:
According to ancient Jewish custom the ceremony of cutting our garments, when our nearest and dearest on earth is lying dead before us, is to be performed standing up. This teaches us to meet all sorrow standing upright. The future may be dark, veiled from the eyes of mortals--but not the manner in which we are to meet the future. To rail at life, to rebel against a destiny that has cast our lines in unpleasant places, is of little avail. We cannot lay down terms to life. Life must be accepted on its own terms. But hard as life's terms are, life (it has been finely said) never dictates unrighteousness, unholiness, dishonor.
Rather than interpret Aaron's silence as indifference, Rabbi Hertz helps us to appreciate the depth of Aaron's response in loss as righteousness, holiness and honor.
This insight also encourages us to be sensitive to the mourners among us. Those who have suffered the loss of loved ones look "normal" on the outside, just like Aaron. They go to work or school, they go food shopping and they dust their coffee tables . . . but all the while there may be a turmoil of loss surrounding their hearts. People of faith may blame God for their loss or they look to God for strength as they endure their loss . . . or they may do both. We can't tell any of that by looking.
So look around you and consider the mourners in your circle of family and friends. Be gentle. Reach out and provide companionship. Long after the shiva week is over.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.