Friday, March 23, 2007

“It Happened Again”

Reflections on Purim Past

I am torn.

We are to be joyful during the month of Adar.

After all, isn’t it the month when we celebrate Purim as an observance of national salvation, when good overcame evil and Haman and his sons died on the gallows he had built for Mordecai?

They hanged Haman and his sons al ha etz, on the gallows. Conversely, the Hebrew etz also means a tree, a symbol of the Jewish people itself, as is Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life.

And if you are wondering about God whose name does not appear in the Megilat Ester, the Scroll of Esther, He was there, just hidden but indisputably present, steering the helm of history through His masterfully skillful use of nissim, His vast, miraculous wonders.

The demise of Haman parallels that of Pharoah. The evildoers met their ends, each in a different manner of death, but which, in both cases, had been intended for the descendants of Jacob whom they despised.

It worked out nicely for us. We survived and the would-be slayers were themselves slain.

However, there remains behind a problem for people who grieve insofar as the injunction to be joyful poses an emotional conundrum for them. While each joyous holiday in Judaism forges a link in the mesorah, the heritage, of our collective past, we need to remain mindful of our obligation to share the simchas ha yom with our children.

Veshinantam levanecha v’dibarta bam… but,

What if a child dies? What if tragedy of that magnitude befalls us? What then? How can the presence of grief be reconciled with the joy we are supposed to feel at holiday time? Can happiness be mandated? Are we capable of switching grief on and off and setting it aside until the holiday is over or does it even matter any more after a child dies?

The Fortune of Friendship

I am rich.

We all have, I hope, a quintessentially invaluable friend without whom we would have to redefine our lives. And no, I’m not talking about a spouse or, for that matter, anyone in your family. Though I suppose it possible such a friend can be a family member, I have found the bond to be paradoxically stronger when, in the absence of blood ties, there is no familial obligation.

I have such a friend.

He and his family have been my lifeline and connection to my community.


It is an absolute prerequisite to be able to grieve healthily. To think we can grieve by ourselves is a mistaken and costly approach to grief management. Life and the pain of death are qualitatively better and more manageably experienced when we share them with caring people in a community. My shul is my community and its rabbi, my dearest friend.

Rabbi Boruch, whose remarkable family, caring attitude and irrepressible good humor have lifted me up on countless occasions, has been there for me through times thick and thin when, during these past ten years, I have faced a crumbling marriage and divorce, my son Benjamin’s struggle with diabetes and epilepsy, his death and the onset of my Parkinson’s Disease.

Certain moments become fixed in our memories, brief interactions yet leaving long trails behind.

It happened one morning after minyan years ago. We were chatting in the fleishig kitchen, just Rabbi Boruch and I, about our children, naturally. We did this sort of thing almost daily but especially on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays when we typically had a few extra minutes before each of us had to run of to work. On Mondays and Thursdays we did not have the extra time due to the morning's Torah reading.

I listened intently while he spoke beamingly of his older son, Moshe, who was studying in Israel when suddenly he stopped talking. It was not a mere pause.

“Rabbi, what? You were saying about Moshe?” hoping to encourage him on.
“No, I can’t,” he responded, determined to remain silent.
“Your son is not here anymore. I don’t want you to feel bad!”

This is the sort of person Rabbi Boruch is.

The Beginning

Two years before I met Rabbi Boruch, I used to daven in a small chapel where gathered the daily traditional minyan of the conservative shul to which I belonged.

Steamily hot one summer Shabbat morning, the heat of the morning’s sunshine pierced the brightly illumined stained glass. The chazzan droned on and on by Musaf. I was sitting in the front row. The stifling heat weighed heavily upon the silence of the room. I looked behind me. Comprised as it was almost entirely of elderly gentlemen, including several Holocaust survivors, every one of them had fallen asleep. The whole minyan except the chazzan and me though I think I was more awake than he. I looked around. There would be enough for a minyan if I left.

And so I did.

Happening by Rabbi Boruch’s Shul

I needed fifteen minutes to arrive at my destination even at a feverish pace, but I knew happily where I was going as much as where I wanted to be.

Having passed through a wooden archway just off to the right of his garage, there was nowhere else to go but down the steps leading to the basement where I hoped to find the shul.

“This has ‘gotta’ be it,” I muttered to myself.

As I soon discovered, I opened a door to a place oozing with haimishness. Peeking inside, I espied a bearded man with an infectious smile, his cape-like tallis afloat in the breeze of his eager gait, tzitsis flying, heading toward me invitingly.

“Come in. Come in. Bruchim Habaim!”

That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Before he undertook to build a synagogue, Rabbi Boruch had opened up his home to the congregation where it met in his converted basement.

Grieving in Shul

It seems invariable.

Melancholia overtakes me whenever I am there.

I don’t think it debilitating, short-lived as each instance is, but it remains a constant in the equation of my grief. Yet, I know this is where a grieving Jew should be because it is a makom kodesh, a holy place, wherein I feel the presence of my son Ben in its most intense manifestation. I’ll even venture a remark that may seem odd to some. As strong a pull as it is to stand before Ben’s grave, I struggle to sense his presence. Oh yes. I know his body is beneath my feet, but that’s just it. Ben’s body remains, but his neshuma is elsewhere.
I believe that it hovers in shul when I am there. Ben spends time with me that way, I suppose. It is his way of making up for the time when I sit alone.

I felt it recently on Purim. It is different than any feeling I experience anywhere else including Ben’s room from which I write these words. You see, no sooner than I take my seat in the row behind my dear friend, Rabbi Boruch. I look over the mechitza to the yahrzeit panels on the south wall and see Ben’s name, the eleventh one in the first column on the first panel. Though I fully expect this grief, I am thankful to take my seat each time We have a tradition in shul life that one's seat becomes his set place, a makom kavua. I should tell you Ben was not a regular shul-goer. His seat is next to mine.

Nobody else sits there.

Whether it be the mystery of Purim, the revelry of Simchas Torah or the trepidation of Yom Kippur, my son remains by my side. Other fathers have their sons sitting next to them. I miss that but I possess something they do not-the certainty my son lived a life abundant in loving-kindness.

Time moves forward inexorably. It pauses for no one. That Purim morning I lamented how much time has passed without Ben.

I am reminded daily his absence is forever. No matter though how many years have already gone by or however many are yet to come, Ben's death will always be for me in the present tense.

I will never say:

“Once upon a time I had a son named Ben.”

I won't tell you I'm not glad to be alive because I know I am a better person for having known and loved Ben.

He taught me so much.

Still ... know there are moments when I am filled with guilt that it was he and not I.

Alan D. Busch

Glossary of Italicized Terms

Adar: Hebrew month during which Purim is observed.

Al ha etz: on the gallows

Etz: tree

Etz Chaim: Tree of Life

Megilat Ester: Scroll of Esther

Nissim: miracles

Mesorah: heritage

Simchas ha yom: joy of the day

Veshinantam levanecha v’dibarta bam: Thou shalt teach them to thy children and speak of them

Shul: synagogue

Fleishig: having to do with meat

Daven: pray

Minyan: a prayer quorem of at least ten men

Chazzen: cantor

Musaf: additional service

Haimishness: social atmosphere characterized by warmth, togetherness and hospitality

Tallis: prayer shawl

Tzistis: wound and knotted ritual fringes looped through the four corners of the tallis

Bruchim Habaim: Welcome

Makom kodesh: holy place

Neshuma: soul

Mechitza: partition dividing men’s from women’s section in an orthodox synagogue.

Yahrzeit: anniversary of a death

Makom kavua: a set place

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