Steven Romain
Steven Romain
Rabbi and writer

A Photograph of Your Lunch

There’s a short story by a well-known writer about a bitter wife who decides to put an end to her husband once and for all. She accomplishes this successfully with a frozen leg-of-lamb. When the investigating police-officer comes over to discuss the case with her, she feeds him the murder weapon for lunch. After a pleasant meal and a somewhat sad conversation, the officer wipes his mouth, thanks his hostess, and returns to the police-station to continue his investigation. He’s not the only person in the world who has lived out his days, fully convinced that the way he’s spending them is useful, important, even righteous, without ever realizing that the things he does in the course of his day, quite naturally and without thinking about them, actually turn his whole life into a farce. His wife, his friends, his community may revere him as an upright man, a servant of the community, an asset to us all. Really, he is living in a dream, because he has hamstringed whatever useful project he might once have set about doing.

This story flashed into my mind with relation to the aftermath of the Chaim Walder tragedy. The Hareidi community was that police-officer. The funeral attendees were not in the least bothered by the bitter irony of a community of Hareidim – people who are hareid l’dvar Hashem, afraid of Hashem’s word – honoring the memory of a rapist and pedophile in the same way we would honor the Noda B’Yehuda or the Chasam Sofer. It’s not surprising: I’m sure they didn’t give much thought to what they had for lunch that day either. But why is the truth of that funeral so perfectly captured by the image of the detective eating the murder weapon? Because the incident they were commemorating, wearing their Shabbos clothes on that windy day, crystallized the hypocrisy that plagues our community. When the fact of Walder’s suicide was discovered, it was like we discovered a photograph of ourselves eating the murder weapon.

I’ll explain what I mean. Here is a man whose status as hareid l’dvar Hashem would have been affirmed by any one of us. (After all, we are very careful whose books we put on our shelves.) If someone fears the word of G-d, he reminds himself quite frequently that there is a Creator and Guide who watches our deeds, punishes our sins, rewards our mitzvas. For example, when he says the shma twice a day, he tells himself that G-d’s oneness extends absolutely everywhere, (including into his own life, one would imagine). When he sings Adon Olam, he affirms G-d sees and knows everything, and that His judgement will be perfect. And even if someone was so overwhelmed and confused by the yetzer hora during his lifetime that he never took these thoughts seriously, surely he would wake up at the very end, when he sees his grave open before him. In this case, Walder literally faced the image of a grave when he took his life.

How, then, is it possible that, at that moment, the fear of Heaven didn’t come upon him? Even then, when he knew what he was going to do to himself, he wrote a letter aimed at keeping up appearances. As long as he could manage to put on a strong face to the end – as long as he could ensure people might still be able to believe in his innocence after his death – he took enough courage from that to start lifting a hand to himself. It’s as if he were a person entirely made up of appearances: a house of mirrors with no one inside. He defined the value of his life in terms of what was believed about him. And this, as he was about to face the True Judge, from Whom nothing can be hidden. Rather than make a last effort to repent – and no sin is too great to stand in the face of true repentance – his final concern was that people should still be able to believe in him. I’d like to know what Walder was thinking during the thousands of times he said the shma during his lifetime. I’d like to know what Rosh Hoshana meant for him. And I’d like to know if, when he said slach lanu Avinu ki chatanu three times a day, it ever occurred to him that the “lanu” included him.

When the media wanted to know the hareidi view on COVID-19, they interviewed our ambassador, of course – Chaim Walder. If someone is our ambassador, his thoughts and inclinations resonate strongly enough with us that we are able to view him, in a certain way, as an extension of ourselves. Who did we choose as our ambassador? A man with nothing beneath the surface, as two-dimensional as a television-screen: a trained expert in saying the “right” kind of thing in the “right” kind of tone with the “right” kind of smirk. A man who, in the end, summed up his sad life by displaying his absolute poverty in fear of Heaven and his total obsession with making the perfect impression. Even death – the fact of it, not the idea of it – was, for him, just a piece of information that could be stated in the “right” sort of language, to once again give over the overall impression that everything was okay. He was okay – because you could say he was okay in plausible “Torah”-type language. Our community was okay – because our ambassador was okay. And, therefore, every one of us must be okay, and should no more worry about this upsetting little incident than about the lunch we had an hour ago.

This is why the mourners at the cemetery that day, and thousands of others elsewhere, found the suicide note quite an easy thing to swallow. Perfect! Not a word betraying the slightest self-inquiry. And the man himself – conveniently gone forever. So no possibility of anyone forcing him to change his tune. That, or course, would be tragic: our ambassador changing his tune. If he did, we might have to consider whether we heroize people in a Torah kind of way at all. I think those attending the funeral came to express their gratitude to Walder for committing suicide. “Thanks for leaving our hareidi narrative intact, Chaim! You saved us a whole lot of introspection.”

But the attendees on that day left a spectacle that will linger in our memories for a long time and will one day be better understood: the spectacle of the Jewish people mourning the passing of a man who unabashedly trampled our Torah value for the individual. Our G-d, Who despises victimization and cherishes every one of us like His only child, was unknown to Chaim Walder. So what does it say about us, that we shelve his memory away with our those of heroes?

About the Author
Born in Cape Town, Steven spent twelve years in Israel, studying mostly at Yeshivas Birkas HaTorah in the Old City of Jerusalem, but also at Mir and Or Someach. At Birkas HaTorah, he earned smicha, and then again at Or Someach. On return to South Africa he earned an MA in English Literature from University of The Witwatersrand on the work of Rudyard Kipling. He has written an acclaimed e-novel titled "True-Life Walter" about the socio-political situation in South Africa.
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