Dreaming of Moshiach

Monday, November 27, 2006

Kaddish For Me?

"D" had known from the moment he awoke that something was seriously wrong. The dream was too real, the vision too clear -- unalleviated by the usual non-sequiturs which are the mark of dreams -- to be passed off as merely a nightmare.

He had joined the early minyan and managed to catch the rabbi, the venerable 90-year-old worldwide Jewish leader, before the sage left his home to daven at the yeshiva. He had quickly recounted to the rabbi what he had seen in his dream, together with the final ominous words uttered by his late father: "One more day, my son, and when night falls you will be with me."
The rabbi thereupon had asked him several questions concerning his father's attire, his appearance, and the exact wording of his pronouncement. He had then leaned forward and taken both his hands into his own, and with an unspeakably kindly yet earnest expression in his aged face, had sighed and intoned, barely audibly, My child, it is so -- today is your last day.

He had broken down and cried; and once having somewhat regained his composure he had blurted out, "But I am only 45 years old! I am in excellent health -- I have never been seriously ill!" Yet the rabbi had only shaken his head sadly and said nothing.

"But I can pray, can't I?" he had pleaded, desperately searching the great eyes fixed upon him, for some sign of hope. But the rabbi had only ever so slightly moved his head from side to side and said, "It is after the decree has been given. Nothing can avail."

Again he had broken down, this time into convulsive, uncontrollable fits of soundless despair, until the rabbi had laid his hand soothingly on his shoulder and stilled his tremors. The great man had looked deeply into his eyes, and after a long pause had spoken: "Do not act so. Most -- the overwhelming majority -- are not granted your opportunity. Make good use of this final day -- it is a great merit you have been granted."

Those were the rabbi's final words, and with that their meeting was over.

It was nearly eight o'clock as D drove out of the sequestered side street and turned into the main thoroughfare. He headed north without the slightest conscious awareness of where he was going. He stopped mechanically as the lights turned red, and moved on just as blankly when they changed to green. Several miles up the road he abruptly turned off the main boulevard toward B Court, where his new home was under construction.

D parked his car at the site and walked across the spacious tree-shrouded lawn. Directly before him was the outer shell of the magnificent unfinished structure, the home he would not live to see completed, the home he would never call his own. An overwhelming sense of futility seized him, and he wept bitterly for several moments.

In truth, he cried not for the sweet hope he had nurtured for so long that was now suddenly dashed; on the contrary, he cried for having conceived and undertaken the project to begin with! What had he lacked in his present home to warrant building a new one? Was the space insufficient? Were the neighbors a bad influence? No! he cried -- no! no! and again no! It was the desire for material magnificence, for ever greater luxury in more prestigious surroundings.

And how could he compare the quality of the Jewish community in the new section with that of the old? None of those whose hearts were in the right place would move, even were it to cost them nothing at all. And he -- he had sacrificed the spiritual benefits of remaining in the heart of the Jewish community for the material draw of the new suburb without any hesitation. And when at the yeshiva parlor meeting he had been asked to increase the amount of his pledge, he had begged off because he was "over-committed." Well, why -- yes, why -- was he over-committed? -- because he had poured needless thousands upon thousands into this project to feed his materialistic desire. He glanced at his car: six months old, luxurious in every way.

Tears came to his eyes. How had he become like this? Where had he learned this manner of living? -- not from his parents; not from his rabbis. From whom, then? -- from friends he had no business calling friends; from associates with whom he should not have associated.

How utterly apparent now was the self-deceiving fallacy; how deep the pain that he had been blind till now. He turned and slowly walked back to the car.

There were only so many hours remaining to the day -- his last day; once again the enormity of it overwhelmed him. What should he do? How should he spend the fleeting minutes which even now raced by him beyond recall? His immediate impulse was to dash home and fall into Ruth's arms: she would comfort him -- she always did. She would soothe the pain; she would tell him -- Oh, what would she tell him? What could she tell him!

He checked himself. The rabbi had said that he had been granted a distinct merit -- that he should put it to good use. Yes, he must make a personal accounting of his life. It was too late now for almost anything. But there was still time for teshuvah, repentance. He must go some place where he could think where he could review -- where he could cry undisturbed...

He thought of old F Park, where he and his father had sat when he was a child; where he and his father had gone in later years when he came home from vacations, and his father explained to him what it meant to be successful in life: It had nothing to do with honor or material wealth; those were, he cautioned him, false and dangerous standards. Each individual was endowed with God-given strengths and abilities, and when the time came to leave this world, he would be asked how well he had made use of his opportunities. Upon that answer hinged success or failure in life. For him that time had now come.

He threw his hands out as if to embrace the dear figure of his beloved father, but he embraced naught but vacant space. He buried his face in his hands and once again gave vent to his unbearable anguish. With how much love had his father spoken to him, advised him, admonished him. How strong had been his own resolve that he would make the most of himself -- and now, as the end drew frightfully closer, he saw how far he had strayed from his goal.

His vision partially blurred by a heavy veil of tears, he slowly made his way to F Park.

It was a beautiful early spring day, and under a cloudless sky the old park was as lovely as he remembered it. The carefully tended beds of newly sprouted red and white roses; the secluded stone benches, raised by several steps above the walk; the unimpeded view of the majestic H River far below, glimmering in the morning sunshine, and the distant shore across -- all was as it used to be.

He stopped by the old, weather-worn sign that stood sentinel over the peaceful shrubs and flowers and read its faded lines, lines that he had committed to memory many years before:

Let no one say, And say it to your shame, That all was beauty here Until you came.

Again he broke down. He recalled the passage from the Midrash cited by the classic text Messilas Yesharim, relating how God showed Adam, the first man in the universe, all the trees in the Garden of Eden and said to him, "See how beautiful are My works; and all I created, I created for you. Take heed that you not corrupt and destroy My world." No, he had not corrupted God's world; but how much better was it for his having passed through it? Not much, he sighed heavily, not much at all.

He sat down on one of the stone benches and sought to put his mind in the proper frame. His life passed before him in quick review.

He recalled his school days, the times when he had applied himself diligently to his study, and the periods of laxity, of frivolity. And how he rued the latter now! How was it that it had never impressed itself upon him that of all things, time was by far the most precious commodity? He had always known that somewhere in the future a day such as today lay waiting for him; and he had also known that it could appear suddenly and without warning. Yet it had affected him hardly at all. Somehow the intellectual awareness had not summoned up the sense of urgency; it could wait -- there was time, lots of time.

Now there was no time left at all.

What would he give now to buy a year -- a month, even a week! But he was a pauper at the bargaining table; he had not the means to purchase even a solitary day, not even a single moment.

The thought drove him to a near frenzy. Here life lay all before him, gloriously, never so desirable as at this very moment; and yet for him it was all over. Forty-five years old, and it was over! Why, he had hardly begun! If only God granted him a full lifetime, there was so much he could do -- and he would; he swore he would. Why was the All-Merciful doing this to him? -- he pounded his clenched fists against the sides of his head -- to his family? -- what had they done to deserve this? But no -- this was not the way to use his last hours; if he had squandered many opportunities until now, he would not waste this final one. Calmed, he once again collected his thoughts.

Had he been a good father? Shmuli, his oldest, and Yossi, the next, were doing extremely well in school. Both were exceptional diligent and he took great pride in them. Yet, to be brutally honest, what share had he in their success? What had been his contribution? -- that he paid their tuition? -- that he had not interfered with their progress? -- that he had even encouraged them! Oh, poor, poor accomplishments!

Before his mind's eye passed the scene years ago when Shmuli had asked him to help obtain a good tutor for the evenings. "Of course," he had assured him; he definitely would. And what had the result of that commitment been? One night he could not make it out to the yeshiva for one reason, and the next night for another. And when he finally got there, the best tutors were taken, and he had to settle for second best. Tears welled up in his eyes. Shmuli never knew that he had been shortchanged. He had thanked him so lovingly, so sincerely for helping him. It was inexcusable, absolutely inexcusable. But at least, he consoled himself, he had learned a lesson and had not repeated the mistake again. That, too, was an accomplishment, however slight.

And Devorah, his beautiful little six-year-old... he could hardly bear the pain of thinking about her. How many times Friday night at the Sabbath table had she asked so sweetly, "Daddy, please tell me something about the weekly Torah portion." And he had done so -- perfunctorily, lightly, without much enthusiasm. And why -- why had he not filled that adorable little head with the treasures it sought? He knew why; he knew only too well. When one's mind is occupied with other matters then the study of Torah becomes a chore, an unwelcome burden. Then one seeks to rid himself of its weight as quickly as possible.

What, indeed, was his commitment to Torah study? He sank his head in utter dejection: Sabbath afternoon -- when he was not too tired -- for an hour and a half; Monday and Wednesday evenings, for one paltry hour. This was the study of Torah? he asked himself. Is this what is meant by the dictum "One must delve into Torah study"?

How much did he remember of what he studied? How many novel ideas had he been able to develop? Oh, but there was always an indisputable excuse. He was so busy; so many meetings to attend; his mind absorbed by so many important matters that required his continued attention. Today, though, he was suddenly no longer so busy; he had not one meeting to attend; there was nothing on his mind save the golden days and years of misused time -- time beyond recall, time of which there was precious little left.

D 's head sunk lower, and once again he broke into tears; but this time they were quiet, controlled sobs, the crying of a man who begins to understand when that understanding avails him no longer.

And Ruth... his love, his life... his everything! How he adored her, how he respected her strength and her character... had he done right by her? He had provided her with all the comforts a woman could wish for; he treated her like a princess -- he gave her everything he could, everything but the one and only thing she ever cared for -- a husband who devoted himself to the study of Torah.

D sighed heavily. He was subjecting himself to the most excruciating self-torture with no hope of redressing the faults which begot the pain. But teshuvah, introspection and change, required remorse, and if ever a man felt remorse, it was D , his head bowed, his heart throbbing in agony, sitting there in the bright morning hours of the lovely spring day. He had nothing to hide, no shame to cover, and thus his remorse flowed freely, from deep within his soul, unhampered and undisguised, until it found expression in the true tears that gave vent to the heaviness which sorely charged his heart.

He remembered how in the early years of their marriage Ruth had encouraged him -- gently, lovingly -- to devote more time to learn Torah. She would do anything within her power to ease his way. She made no demands of him or on his time whatever. So he made half-hearted efforts several times which were unsuccessful. The more he became involved in his business interests, the less he tried, until, wordlessly and without apparent conscious awareness, he gave up.

Soon thereafter she must have given up, too. Over the last ten years she had not once broached the subject. She had resigned herself to a lesser level of spiritual life. She loved him no less; she admired his many good qualities, but the home and happiness she had once so eagerly anticipated, these were denied her. Now all her efforts were bent to insure that her children would maximize their potential.

"Oh, Ruth," he cried, "forgive me! forgive me! Oh, God, forgive me!" Bitter, relentless tears cascaded down his cheeks; on and on he cried until the wellspring dried up and he could cry no more.

The one virtue no one could gainsay him was courage, and this he had now to summon from its deepest reservoirs. However difficult it would be, he would spend at least part of his remaining hours in the study of Torah. Late as it was, there was still some time for that. He would go the yeshiva and immerse himself in the study of Talmud to the extent he was able, until minchah, the afternoon service at one o'clock -- his last minchah; then he would go home to Ruth.

D drew a volume of the Talmud, tractate Berachot -- a tractate he knew fairly well -- from one of the rear bookcases and sat down before a vacant chair towards the back of the yeshiva. He had feared that one or another of the rabbis would come over to him, but no one minded him and he was left undisturbed. He turned several pages until he came to a line which caught his eye: "Rebbi Chelbo said in the name of Rav Huna: 'A person should always be careful in one's mincha (afternoon) prayers, for it was then that Elijah the Prophet was answered by God.' What was so exceptional about the afternoon prayer? In which respect was it different from the other prayers?"

He tried hard to concentrate on the words before him, but their image became blurred and indistinct, and try as he might he could not bring them into proper focus.

Disconcerted, he inclined his head toward the Talmud, but now the words began to take on odd, oversized shapes; they grew immensely until one by one they leaped off the printed page. D rubbed his eyes and the fantasy vanished, and once again he applied himself to deciphering the meaning of the Talmud, but to no avail; for now the words danced merrily before his eyes, and in his ears the incessant reverberation of the question, "What is so exceptional about the afternoon prayer?" proved just short of maddening.

He had no idea how long he labored in this manner, but he suddenly became aware that the young men about him had begun the afternoon prayer service. He closed his Talmud, and he, too, began reciting the timeless words.

How long ago was it -- how many years, decades ago -- that he had concentrated on the meaning of the words he uttered. And now he would praying for his life for a reprieve when he had been assured that none would be forthcoming.

The person leading the first communal prayer, "Ashrei," concluded and began the recitation of Kaddish.

A multi-voiced Amen resounded throughout the yeshiva.

Kaddish, he thought -- they were saying Kaddish; but for whom? -- for whom were they saying Kaddish? He raised his head and was suddenly aware that all eyes in the yeshiva were upon him -- hundreds and thousands of eyes, pained beyond description, all fixed upon him. The dreadful realization struck him -- they were saying Kaddish for him! The mark of death was upon him, and they no longer considered him among the living. He was nothing more than a walking ghost, a lifeless spirit!

No! No! -- he would not submit -- he would fight to the end. With superhuman effort he raised his eyes heavenward, and with his every fiber pulsating madly, he shrieked with all his might the Kaddish prayer.

D woke with a violent start; his forehead dripped heavily with perspiration. There in the bed next to him, sleeping peacefully and unperturbed, lay Ruth, an angelic calm spread over her countenance. The familiar shapes of the room slowly came into focus; an immense sense of relief, like a freshly fallen dew, settled over him. It had been a dream...





והיה השם למלך על כל הארץ, ביום ההוא יהיה השם אחד - ושמו אחד ישתבח שמו לעד לנצח נצחים בכל העולמות Blessed is His name for eternity in all worlds אין עוד מלבדו