This blog post is dedicated to the memory of my late brother, Shlomo. You are prewarned that the material that follows is sad, and has little to do with medical technology. But today is the Hebrew anniversary of his death. He died at the age of 28, in the midst of doing his PhD in physics. He had been sick for a long time, from the age of 16. He had a rare form of cancer that kept coming back until it finally took him away.
I have mentioned my brother many times throughout my blog posts. Even during the short time he lived, he taught me a tremendous amount. And as I’ve mentioned before, there are things that I still process and come to understand, only at my present age of 54. He understood things in a different way than most people around him, including me. It’s moot of course, to imagine what he could’ve accomplished, had he been given the time.
After he died, many people tried to comfort my parents, myself and my sister. It was rare, very rare, that someone said anything that wasn’t patronizing or pathetically trite. I have come to the conclusion that the best response to the loss of a loved one, is simply to say “my heart hurts for you, and it’s not fair.” According to Jewish tradition, there is a standard line that one is to say when visiting the house of mourners. Basically, loosely translated to English, the line is that “you should be comforted amongst the other mourners around you.” I never really understood this line, as I’ve never understood the connection between the pain of others and my own. No one can feel another’s pain and I’m not sure that comfort can come from the outside. I think that as our brains and souls process the loss, we become comforted from the inside.
Of course, I have to be different. I don’t buy the whole comfort thing, just as I do not believe in forgiveness. I wear a skull-cap on my head at all times. But I personally have nothing more to say to G-d, as I consider him deaf. To be fair, I did try to come to terms with the loss of loved ones and belief.
I have done a significant amount of religious study in my life [but nothing close to what would be required to be a rabbi]. In fact, after my dear friend Dr. David Applebaum was killed in a terror attack, I began a 7 1/2 year learning program, that covers the entire text of the Talmud. This is in fact a tremendous program that is repeated every 7 1/2 years by tens of thousands of Jews around the world. And many of the people involved in this study program, are also studying other major Judaic texts at the same time.
The principle in Judaism is that everything comes from learning. Without the knowledge that comes from learning, we will never survive as a people. And truth be told, this has been borne out by history time and time again. Even during the Holocaust, in the ghettos and hiding in the woods, Jews would set up schools, because without education, founded on the principles and morals of the Jewish Bible, the Jewish people would fade away, even without an external threat.
Actually, my brother had a tremendous capability in terms of learning Jewish texts. My rabbi, who himself was a survivor and had learned as a young man in the great study halls of Eastern Europe, said on more than one occasion that my brother had the “head” for being a great student of Jewish tradition and law. According to my rabbi, he could’ve become a leading voice in the Jewish world. This was typical of people who knew my brother — everyone seemed to believe that he could become a true expert in their field of interest.
The reason I took part in the seven and a half year program of learning, was to look for answers. The death of my brother was intellectually intolerable to me. Many young people die on a daily basis, around the world, and statistically, my brother was no different than anyone else. But he was different. People still mourn the loss of Steve Jobs because he clearly had a gift that could keep on giving. You could call this a selfish form of mourning. But to be fair, people do want to believe that when we have been given a gift [from wherever you believe these gifts come], that this gift was meant to do more.
So I looked for answers. I intellectually cannot come to terms with the needless suffering and death of people, especially the ones who had so much more to give. So many people who are simply evil, live far too good and long a life. But these gems that I speak of, were plucked out of this world before their time. At the end of the 7 1/2 years, after looking for answers for all this time, I found none. I can’t say that I really expected to find anything more than well-known platitudes such as “we can’t possibly understand the accounting of the Lord” or “clearly God needed him back early” or one of the most patronizing “clearly, he did complete his mission and purpose on this planet”.
My answer both from my head and my heart to all of the statements can be summarized as “f*** you.” Why can’t people just say “this stinks. This is not fair. And although it doesn’t change anything, I truly am sorry for your loss.”
The reason why people don’t do this is because of fear. The words they say are not really meant to comfort you, but to comfort themselves. They are frightened, especially when they are literally face-to-face with death, especially of a young person, or a person who had so much more to give. They make these declarations because they desperately need to believe that there is a reason, that there is somebody watching out for all of us in making sure that the final score adds up. I can fully understand the emotional need for this. But I still would greatly prefer that people keep their “comforting” to themselves.
The day will come when the cure for the cancer that killed my brother will be found. The day will come when people simply no longer die from cancer. This is actually why I am never nostalgic. I have no interest and no pleasant memories of the past. I hold on to an upcoming future that will resolve all of the evils that surround us. And on that day, I will both smile and cry. I will smile out of the knowledge that we, people [with or without G-d’s assistance] have overcome a horrid disease. And I will cry for the fact that my brother’s ultimate sin was that he was born too early.
Although I’ve mentioned this story before, I will end with it, because it so much serves as an example of my brother’s unique insights. Because my brother also wore a skull-cap, he was often challenged with the question how he could believe, according to religion, that the world was only 6,000 years old, when his studies in physics taught him that the world, i.e., the universe, was 14 billion years old. His answer was brilliant and succinct. He would say that there can be only one truth, which is a fundamental part of his religious faith. The fact that we have not found the single truth that explains both measurements is our failing, and not that of religion nor science.
It is common to say in Israel “may his memory be a blessing.” Surprise — I hate this line. I don’t need any extra blessings, and I don’t need the people I love to be only memories.
To my brother, Shlomo
I miss you, and thanks for listening.