Unusual circumstances often yield unusual insights. I remember when, about
14 years ago, we lost our child one week before it was supposed to be born,
how surreal it felt. These types of crises, until that time, had always
happened to someone else’s family, not to mine. Until that Erev Shabbos,
tragedy had missed my own personal family, for which I had always been grateful.
Even more bizarre was the timing of the event: right after Tisha B’Av. As a
result, as the rest of the nation was leaving mourning and preparing for the
joy of Shabbos Nachamu and Tu B’Av, my wife and I, together with our
relatives, went deeper into a state of mourning. It took a while for us to
get out of it again.
So, I did what I always do, especially during emotionally confusing times. I
wrote. I wrote about the loss, and what it meant to me, and how life now
looked from the inside of a tragedy. I just let my emotions flow from my
heart through my fingers and onto the page. Whatever resulted, that was
going to be it, and hopefully, somehow, it would be meaningful for others as
well as for me.
One thing that I had not been looking for was sympathy. I had just wanted to
make sense of what happened, especially in terms of Hashgochah Pratis—Divine
Providence. Were we to blame? Did we do something wrong? Could we have done
something better to avoid the whole thing? Was there anything positive in
any of it to hold onto while we weathered the emotional storm it created for us?
A lot of questions remain unanswered simply because no human being can
answer them. We can suggest answers in the meantime, and all of us did while
consoling one another. However, all I know for sure, at this time, is that
the dvar Torah that emerged from the incident has been used countless times
by others who have gone through similar crises, and have needed
strengthening. On some level, it put some meaning into what otherwise had
seemed like a meaningless pregnancy and pre-natal death.
Two days ago, my father broke his hip. Though he had been very active and
healthy for most of his life, his health had not been so great towards the
end of it. He had always taken good care of himself and was an example of
responsible eating and exercise for the rest of us, but so many aspects of
health are beyond our control, and some things are already set in motion
before we are even born.
As a result of his fractured hip, it was decided that he needed a new one.
Since his heart was not strong, the doctors ran many tests to see if he
could withstand the operation, and they did whatever they could to
strengthen him for it. Finally, it was decided that not having the operation
was just as dangerous as having it, perhaps even more so, and so they took
him in for surgery Wednesday evening, Toronto time.
The doctor was confident enough that my father would survive the surgery
that he tried to send my mother and sister home for some sleep in the
meantime. My brother, who is also a doctor, was satisfied with the
situation, and the surgery went ahead at about 8 pm Toronto time, 3 am
Israel time. It was supposed to have lasted about three to four hours
I got up early this morning as I usually do, and headed for the Bais Midrash
on schedule. I had my father in mind all the time, especially as I learned
before dovening and during dovening itself. I learned a bit more after as
well, and by the time I sat down at my computer to start the other part of
my day, it was about 7:15 am. Everything was going as expected.
Until 7:30 am, when I got a long distance call.
I recognized the number as being from overseas, and anticipating that it was
my mother to tell me the surgery had gone well, I jumped in and told her
that she could have called even earlier. However, it was a man’s voice
instead, which threw me for a moment, until I realized that it was my
brother, calling from the hospital, to tell me that my father had not
survived the surgery. Sometimes, towards the end of the surgery, his heart
gave out, and they could not resuscitate him.
It did not take long for me to realize what I had lost. My father was not
only a great father, but he was also my best friend. The teenage years were
not always easy for either of us, but once I became Orthodox, and he
accepted my change of life, our relationship just got stronger and stronger
with each passing day. We had a lot of great times together, even after I
moved to Israel, vis-a-vis Skype. He even helped me edit my weekly parshah
sheet, until he became too tired to do so, listening patiently as I read it
to him, each Wednesday morning his time, over Skype.
One of the amazing things is that, even after becoming religious, many of
the things that my father taught me over the years remained true, and are
still guiding principles in my life. And even though as my knowledge of
Torah grew, he came, over time, to look at me as the teacher, and at himself
as the student, so much of what is good in me remains from him. My mother is
the reason for the rest of it, and Torah helped to tweak all of that.
But again, I am writing neither for sympathy nor condolences, but to derive
a meaningful lesson from a difficult event that I can tie back to the
parshah. If it wasn’t for the fact that I am still in Israel, and that the
laws of aninus don’t really apply to me until I get Toronto, I wouldn’t even
be able to write any of this right now. It is such a human thing to look for
meaning in important events.
As we discussed the reasons why the operation should have worked, but
didn’t, and how the doctors did everything they could to revive my father,
but couldn’t, it became increasingly clear that his moment to leave had
come. They say that a person begins to sense his day of death, in order to
be able to get his affairs in order in time, and it certainly seemed that
way with my father. We were the ones who kept reading more years into his
life, not so much out of intuition as much as out of hope.
And, as I spoke to my brother and in my mind went through all the things I
did yesterday that I could have done better, and began to blame myself for
not taking the situation and risk more seriously, I also reminded myself of
what I have learned through the years, especially on the level of Sod, and
how one’s moment of death is decided for a person even before he lives. Our
choices can affect the circumstances by which we leave this world, but not
the actual moment of departure.
That’s when I thought of next week’s (as of writing this) parshah. As the
first Rashi of Sefer Vayikra points out, the fundamental difference between
the prophets of the Jewish people and those of the nations of the world,
like Bilaam in this week’s parshah, is the way they relate to Hashgochah
Pratis—Divine Providence. For the nations of the world, and those of us from
the Jewish people who forget, life often looks random, as if God does not
involve Himself in every detail of life. However, for the Jewish people,
“not even a finger can be raised if not decreed first by Heaven” (Chullin 7b).
The fact that Bilaam did not understand this, and Pharaoh before him, meant
his own destruction. He wanted to believe that God was not all-knowing, and
that He was not orchestrating every last detail of history so he could make
changes to the script to his liking. In the end, he just became a pawn in
God’s master plan to carry out that which he had schemed to stop, albeit it
with some deviations along the way.
The Jew is supposed to look at history differently. This is why we
pronounce, upon hearing of the death of someone, “Boruch Dayan
HaEmes—Blessed is the Truthful Judge.” It is as if to confirm that, as
random as the events of life may seem to be, they are not. Though things
happen in ways that do not seem planned or meaningful, every last second and
act is planned by God, and made to occur because of how they fit into His
master plan, even though they seem to interfere with ours.
This morning, as I was learning in the place where I doven prior to the
arrival of everyone else, except for one other person, I experienced
something that usually happens only once in a while, at least in this way.
And, whenever it does, it is always exhilarating, and a reminder for me
that, even when I learn alone, I do not learn alone.
Usually, when learning before dovening, I start off with a couple of pages
from the Jerusalem Talmud, before doing the same in the Babylonian Talmud.
However, since the latter is much longer than the former, it is not really
possible to coordinate between the two of them, especially since not all
sections found in the “Bavli” are also found in the “Yerushalmi,” and
vice-versa. Therefore, what I learn in one area of Talmud rarely overlaps
what I learn in the other, at least in the same morning.
Today, however, was different. Today, I happened to come across, in Tractate
Shekalim of the Yerushalmi, the following well-known statement of Rebi
Pinchas ben Yair:
Torah leads to watchfulness; Watchfulness leads to alacrity; Alacrity leads
to cleanliness; Cleanliness leads to abstention; Abstention leads to purity;
Purity leads to piety; Piety leads to humility; Humility leads to fear of
sin; Fear of sin leads to holiness; Holiness leads to prophecy; Prophecy
leads to the resurrection of the dead.
Now, normally, after learning from the Yerushalmi, I continue with two pages
from the Bavli, which lately, has been from Tractate Sanhedrin. However,
because of the length of the pages in Sanhedrin where I happen to be at this
time in the tractate (Perek Chelek), and the shortness of time in which to
learn them before dovening, I decided to change my order that morning and
learn from a different tractate that I am also learning, this one called
My starting point that morning was the the 20th page, and to my surprise,
within about five minutes, the Bavli also quoted the exact same statement by
Rebi Pinchas ben Yair, which delighted me to no end. In fact, I was so
excited by the Divine Providence (the odds of this happening are very
small), that I turned around to share it with the only other person in the
Bais Midrash at that time. I only held back from saying something because I
realized that by the time I explained what had happened, especially in
Hebrew, the rest of my learning time would have been consumed. So, I kept
the magical moment to myself instead.
That was about 4:20 am Israel time. According to the doctor, my father went
into cardiac arrest about 5:40 am Israel, just as my minyan was stepping
into Shemonah Esrai for Neitz (Sunrise). Even as I prayed for my father’s
welfare, and after dovening, learned for him as well, his soul had already
begun its journey to a higher level of reality. The timing of both events
was not lost on me, especially when my brother told me how rare what
happened to him during surgery actually was. For me, it was as if the former
had been preparation for the latter.
Though we talk about how Bilaam was so impressed with the level of modesty
of the Jewish people, ultimately, what impressed him was our relationship
with the Master of the Universe. He envied our frequently and easily we
interacted with God. And, though modesty, as Rebi Pinchas ben Yair implies,
is crucial for such a relationship with the Almighty, ultimately, it is our
ability to trace all events of life back to Him, that allows us to build and
maintain such a close and defining relationship with Him.
Indeed, it is only once we remove the illusion of randomness from our lives
that we are able to see everything as being from God, as being part of a
glorious master plan that supercedes the life-and-death cycle of this world.
It is this knowledge, this approach to reality that allows us to transcend
it, to find meaning where others only see tragedy, and to find Godly
perfection where others think that they sense Divine flaw. Only then do the
negative events of life stop appearing like broken threads in the tapestry
of life, and instead, are perceived as necessary elements to help keep the
bigger picture together.
And, it is only then that we can we truly find comfort amongst the rest of
the mourners of Tzion v’Yerushalayim, and to gain from what, at one time,
seemed only like loss.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.