Mordechai Soskil
Mordechai Soskil

Blessings and Brotherhood

When I was in (what we used to call) junior high and high school I had two best friends. One was the guy who would come up with the dangerous, stupid thing to do; one was the guy who would try to convince us not to do the dangerous, stupid thing. I was the guy that mostly worked on the logistics — what was the least dangerous or least stupid way to do the thing. Then we usually did the thing. Though the legal statute of limitations has expired, I still can’t talk about many of the things we did because I have children that will need to get married one day; because I’m a teacher and supposed to be somewhat of an example; and because it will mostly sound like gloating, since I don’t actually regret any of the stupid and dangerous things. If there had been Facebook in the ‘80s…

Jon was the more adventurous of these two friends. He and I really transcended friendship – it was more of a brotherhood. During those years I was either in the process of deciding to be a shomer Shabbos, or I was in the nascent years of my own shmiras Shabbos. (Those are years when you definitely don’t get everything right. I mean, how could you get everything right immediately?) Being in his home was a very important part of my religious development. And I was there a lot. Forget the countless Shabbosos and Yamim Tovim – I would sometimes leave home with extra clothes in my backpack and tell my parents I was staying at school late for a game. “I’ll just crash at Jon’s house.” And then I would show up. Frankly, no one was surprised and it didn’t matter, I was just another part of the family. And just to underscore this point, one Sunday morning my parents drove out to West Hempstead to pick me up and Jon’s mom told my mom, “Joanie, there was an incident, but I took care of it.” I had messed up and Jon’s mom punished me! And my mom was 100% comfortable with that. She never asked any questions. She just said, “Judy, if you took care of it, I’m good. If you need me to do anything, let me know.” And that was that.

Jon’s dad died rather suddenly last week. He was totally, completely fine, and then five days later he was dead. Allison and I drove out to The Island, as we say, for a shiva call. Seven hours of driving, 45 minutes in the house. But that’s what you do if your brother is sitting shiva.

Jon’s siblings were all sitting shiva in the same house, so I got to see everyone. It was nice that they confirmed that they just thought of me as an older brother who was in the house all the time.

I tried to think about any explicit conversations I had with Mr. Kaplowitz, anything specific I can remember that is a lesson I live with, but I don’t recall very much. In those days, Mr. Kaplowitz wasn’t much of a schmoozer. He was a doer. The lessons I remember from him were the things he did. I think that the value of tfillah b’tzibur – davening with a minyan – something I have worked hard to instill in my progeny (with mixed results), is something I learned from Jay Kaplowitz. But not because he lectured us. Because he was the model of doing. (He may have also lectured us but it’s unlikely I was listening.)

I know that being there was a big chizuk to the family and I know that if in the afterlife people can shep nachas, then Judy and Jay Kaplowitz are exceedingly proud of the model they were for me and the family Allison and I raised.

This week’s Torah reading includes a very long section that describes blessings and curses that will befall the Jewish people based on their fidelity to the Torah. In the blessings section we have the verse, ובאו your Hashem of voice the to listen you when And עליך כל הברכות האלה והשיגוך כי תשמע בקול ה אלוקיך G-d then all of these blessings will come upon you, and they will reach you. The surprising note here is the word והשיגוך ,and they will reach you. Why does the Torah have to say the blessings will reach you? Can a person have blessings and they DON’T “reach you”?

That’s the point, I think. Yes. In fact, a person can have blessings of wealth and health and a spouse, and children, but it doesn’t feel like a blessing. The blessing doesn’t reach us. We get distracted by the chairs that need covering and the forms that need filling out and the oil that needs changing and we don’t appreciate or recognize the blessings we are given. It’s a special blessing to have a blessing and to know it.

I don’t know if that’s the point in shiva. I assume that the point in shiva is that we go to visit our friends and they feel comfort knowing and seeing that there are so many people in the world who care about them. But from the perspective of the person going to shiva, this is the message that resonates with me this year. והשיגוך האלה הברכות כל עליך ובאו – Hashem sends us blessings but we need the special blessing of “והשיגוך , and they will reach you.” At shiva we can recognize the people that helped shape us. We can recognize the importance of the family we chose and the moms who punished us. And we can be grateful for all the times we did stupid and dangerous things, and we simply didn’t die.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now three precious granddaughters.
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