“OK, only around 750 pages left.”
Guilty as charged. I’ll admit it: there are a few moments every year in shul during the Yamim Nora’im in which I find myself impatiently glancing at my watch or childishly thumbing through my machzor, comforting my grumbling stomach with the knowledge that the amount of pages that remain are continuously dwindling.
All of my distractions dissipate immediately though when the chazzan cries out unetanh tokef kedushat hayom, and let us recount the holiness of the day. The pace of my heart quickens along with the words of the prayer as I try to strike the difficult dual balance of love and of fear that its words beckon. I am reminded that on these holy days, who will live and who will die is sealed in irreversible ink. I am made aware that the very fate of the world is being determined and I stand as one single sheep among the b’nei maron, the entire flock.
Who will pass at the right time and who will be taken too soon…as the prayer grows increasingly specific, I find myself reflecting on the individuals I knew, both on a personal and national level, who passed on that year. My heart begins to break today for the moment which will arrive in half a year from now when the words mi ba’esh, who by fire, will fill the shul and we will all remember Ya’akov; age 5, Sarah, 6; Moshe, 8; Yehoshua, 10; Rivkah, 11; David, 12, and Elian, 16, the seven beautiful children of the Sassoon family who were taken far too soon when their home was engulfed in flames this past Shabbat.
“They were a burnt offering,” their father Gabriel Sassoon expressed through his tears at the funeral today. “I lost everything in the fire. Seven pure sheep. Those are my seven children. Too many names. They are seven complete pure sheep. There’s nothing else to say.”
Their lives were taken only a few hours after the new moon took its place in the sky, signaling the onset of Rosh Chodesh Nissan. At the very moment that we were transitioning from the national happiness of Adar to the freedom of Nissan. For the past month we sang out la’yehudim hayta orah v’simcha v’sasson v’yikar with smiles on our faces. And the Jews had light, happiness, joy and honor. The Jews had sasson, had joy, but this past Shabbat, this very sense of happiness diminished and the world as we knew it was darkened by seven shades.
The month that is meant to be nichnas b’simcha, entered with joy, was exited with exactly the opposite sentiment. As we transition now to zman chertuaynu, the time of our freedom, our free choice today lies in how we react to this tragedy. If we cannot find the strength within ourselves alone to face the future, let us be inspired further by the words of Gabriel Sassoon. “People forget what’s important in life,” he said. “My kids were the best, but really, every child is the best and most beautiful child in the world…They all had the face of angels. G-d knows how much I love them…Our wishes are tiny compared to what Hashem has planned.”
The power of his faith stops me in my tracks with as much strength as the words of u’netaneh tokef do on the holiest days of the year. His words reflect the same faith that Mordechai had when he refused to bow down to a mortal who claimed to have the highest level of human power, that Moshe had when he led a nation out of bondage with no idea of what challenges the future would bring. Gabriel Sasoon has united generations with unequivocal faith that stands as the foundation of our nationhood and continues to keeps us alive today.
Let’s remember these seven holy souls every week for the rest of our lives during havdallah as we transition from the light of Shabbat to the incoherence of chol. The power of fire, the very element which took their lives, lies in how it is used. We can create holiness with it through actions like making havdallah, or it can be used for destruction. The freedom to choose is ours.
Let’s remember them each and every week as we repeat the words la’Yehudim hayta orah v’simcha v’sasson v’yikar kayn t’hiyeh lanu. We should enter the week knowing only happiness, knowing a world without tragedies such as this one.
Let’s hope the light and joy of Adar continues to shine on into this season of freedom. May G-d comfort the Sassoon family and all of those mourning their loss.
NOTE: Please continue to keep their mother Gayle and sister Tzipporah 15, in your prayers for a speedy recovery. They are hospitalized and remain in critical condition, still unaware of the seven deaths.
All quotes from Gabriel Sassoon are from: