Tears are rolling down my cheeks as I sob thinking about our time together. For over 20 years Rabbi Menachem Froman was my teacher, my rabbi, my confidant, my friend. I have shared with him both the peaks of utmost joy at britot and hupot as well as the valleys of dire sadness when my son will killed by terrorists. And last night, after living for over two years with a cancer that should have taken his life within a matter of months, he died at home surrounded by his family – leaving them, and the hundreds of Jews, Muslims, Sufis whom he called friends, bereft.
A few paragraphs cannot adequately describe either the tremendous privilege of having been close to so holy a man or the terrible sense of loss that has shaken me since knowing that his end was soon arriving. Many will remember this odd settler/peacenik rabbi for his political views. But if there is one word that can capture something of who Rav Menachem really was it is prayer. Not in the staid, sit in the pew, please open your siddurs to page 369 as we recite… sadly all-too-familiar experience, but rather of the raise your arms, tremble with emotion and effort and cry out loud to the Creator for all that you are worth – as if your very life depended upon it, howling from the very depths of your being type. Many of Rav Menahem’s students will recall his pausing mid-lecture to suddenly shout out the Shema as he swayed, his arms outstretched in supplication to the Almighty. Yes, since becoming ill my beloved rabbi prayed to live, but essentially he lived to pray.
Visiting him at home soon after his diagnosis, he said little about his condition, but took my hands in his and began to recite Psalm 30, saying over and over its concluding lines, “You have changed my lament into dance, You have rid me of my sackcloth and girded me with gladness.”
A few months ago, when I called to tell him that my marriage was ending, he answered the phone from his sick bed saying, “Oy – you’re getting divorced.” As I had not yet told anyone, I was more than a little surprised by this odd “hello.” To my puzzlement he responded that he had seen the worry on my face last summer when I attended his weekly class and since then he had been praying for me. Through his prayers, he told me, he quickly understood what was troubling me then and it was perfectly clear to him when he picked up the phone what I wanted to tell him. Even before the words were spoken.
Over the past few months, even when he couldn’t get out of bed, even when he would need to cry out intermittently as the pain wracked his thinning frame, he would call me to pray together. One particularly difficult evening after the pain of my wife’s quitting our marriage and tearing our wounded family asunder seemed too much to bear, he called me. “Leyeshuatkha qiviti Adoshem—I have hoped for your salvation God” was all that he said. Over and over. For half an hour, he kept me on the phone, praying together these three words, as I cried and he moaned, each of us struggling with our own pain to find enough sustenance to carry on until the next day.
For my beloved rabbi, life was prayer. And prayer means wanting to connect. As Rabbi Zadoq HaKohen points out, God needs not our prayers any more than he needed our animal sacrifices of old. But what He wants is that we should want to find a way to connect. And for Rabbi Menachem, the most prayerful individual I have ever known, connection was key. He had the unique ability – nearly miraculous in fragmented and fractured Israel and the murderously dangerous Middle East – to be close to individuals across the entire political-religious-racial spectrum. Today’s papers are surely filled with pictures of him shaking hands with his nearly surreal collection of acquaintances. I once drove him to visit the French-speaking family of a young newly religious immigrant who had been shot to death in Hebron. His parents could speak not a word with the rabbi. But Rabbi Menachem sat across from them, looked into their eyes, and I watched amazed as he silently opened himself up to them and their pain, making a connection so deep that all conversation in the room stopped. We all became aware of an almost physical presence of an empathy beyond imagination.
And prayer, as the words he chose to pray with me and his usual salutation suggest – “Roq hazaq ve’emats libekhah vequeve el hashem – Just be strong, strengthen your heart and hope to God” – was all about hope. Hope – something not yet, but almost; a perhaps, a maybe, a possibility waiting in the wings.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in a wonderful short story, “No One Writes to the Colonel,” once had the wife of a character castigate her feckless husband by telling him that “You can’t live on hope!” “No, but it sustains you,” was his reply. And this hopeful connectivity is what sustained both the rabbi and those who knew and loved him. He himself would often joke how the best thing about all his political machinations was the knowledge that they were so essentially impractical, so quixotically grounded only in a paradoxically constant ephemerality, that they would never be actualized.
Like Moses, he knew that he would never enter the promised land – but only view it from afar. But perhaps this was the very point. The journey requires togetherness, a shared effort that arrival can quickly render seemingly unnecessary. And that is the essence of real peace – the togetherness needed to cross the desert.
Two evenings ago, as hundreds of us gathered around his home, knowing his life was near its end, his friend Rabbi Dovi Zinger, reminded us of how Rabbi Menachem would so often extol his audiences to clap their hands. “Bring together the Left and the Right,” he would say with a twinkle in his eye. Clap, clap, clap. Rabbi Dovi knowingly told us that all of us, his family and friends and students, had hearts broken into two with pain and sadness. Perhaps we could clap these severed halves together one more time as our beloved rabbi had so wanted?