Dovid M. Cohen
Rabbi Congregation Ohr Torah-N. Woodmere

Coronavirus, the Tombstone and a Cemetery

There is a story about a wealthy man who kept a tombstone in his study.

Most people have diverse memorabilia, but this was a bit much. When confronted about this odd artifact, he responded that it kept him grounded and helped him obtain a healthy work/life balance.

In these incredibly challenging times, we don’t need a tombstone in our office. Tragically, all that is necessary to observe the dictum of Pirkei Avos to “know where we are heading” is to read Yeshiva World News.

It used to be an occasional visit to my future burial plot did this trick.

As a Kohein, I don’t frequent cemeteries.

Eretz HaChaim is a cemetery outside of Beit Shemesh. The unique construction of Eretz HaChaim, with its long tree-less road down the middle, allows visitation and a line of sight to various graves.

It is the place where my maternal grandparents are buried, along with my maternal great grandmother.

I would occasionally visit Beit Shemesh and contemplate life standing by my eternal resting place.

No need for any tombstone.

This past March, (which feels like decades ago), I visited Eretz Yisroel for a family simcha. It was the week before Purim and immediately before the Coronavirus really began to be reckoned with in the United States and Israel. I had much on my agenda, including a visit to the cemetery.

This time, the visit wasn’t just to awaken and reorient myself. That wasn’t really necessary this time around. The last months leading up to the trip, I had been consumed with thought and reflections about two special people. Two gems who were contemporaries and friends.

I first met Baruch (Brian) Galbut in summer camp while we were both in high school. Our friendship endured for thirty plus years staying in contact over various locations and life experiences. Baruch became a Rabbi, a Cardiologist, a serious Talmid Chacham and an incredible lay leader to many institutions. He invested deeply in his family and it’s no exaggeration to say that everyone who knew him looked up to him.

Yosef (Joey) Azar and I met in Israel while studying in Yeshiva after high school.

We became roommates in college as well as chavrusas. Yosef got married and moved to Israel. He became an esteemed Rebbe and mentor in various seminaries. His warmth, care and concern were palpable to all his students. He was deeply committed to his personal Talmud Torah, personal growth and his family.

There was a deep need inside of me to visit these two dear friends at Eretz HaChaim.

Maybe it was closure of sorts, as I didn’t merit attending the funeral of either one of them.

Rav Volbe zt’l writes in Alei Shur that at the age of thirty-five, half of the average life span, a person needs to begin contemplating “Yom Hamisa,” the day of death. I can’t say that I took these words to heart. After all, the life span seems to have expanded in contemporary times, or so I thought.

Both R’ Barcuh z’l and R’ Yosef z’l merited becoming grandparents in their lifetimes. Yet, most of us wouldn’t consider forty-seven to be an old age. My feelings of vulnerability after both their passing were quite palpable. I was more aware than ever before of the fragility of life. However, walking the cemetery just two months ago, I couldn’t have guessed the entire world would soon feel this same trepidation and powerlessness.

We all feel vulnerability. So many vibrant people have been lost and others have barely escaped the dreaded disease. Although COVID-19 has favored the most vulnerable, there are many younger people impacted as well.

These facts can be discouraging and depressing.

They also can be empowering.

The Rambam comments in the laws of shofar that the shofar is meant to jolt us and awaken us from our slumber. If we fell asleep to what life is truly about, the shofar is that yearly stark reminder.

Chazal instruct us to repent a day before our death. Being that we can’t project that date, we are instructed to perpetually engage in perfecting our deeds and character and by extension preparing for the World to Come.

Which brings us back to the tombstone. A reminder that there is something waiting beyond this world. That this world just isn’t all it is cracked up to be. That the passionate, committed Jew has feet planted firmly on the ground but an eye toward the destiny that waits.

It is well known that the saintly Chafetz Chaim zt’l had sparse home furnishings and bags packed under his bed waiting for the imminent arrival of Moshiach. He knew that this world wasn’t “it”. It was just a “prozdor to enter the tracklin,” a corridor to enter the palace.

We live in a different world than the Chafetz Chaim, although only about a hundred years later. Maybe a Jew who authors a Mishna Berurah and a Shemiras Halashon knows there is so much more than only this world. But, the Jew circa 2020 with zoom technology, artificial intelligence, smart phones and at least twenty different daf yomi shiurim online to choose from has a harder time realizing that this world isn’t it.

We have witnessed how instantaneously Hashem turned this world on its head.

Nothing will ever be the same, and in some ways that isn’t all so bad.

Last year, I spent a day with a group of rabbanim under the tutelage of HaRav Asher Weiss Shlita studying an array of issues. During a session about mourning, grief and loss, he poignantly touched on the loss of his beloved Rebetzin z’l.

He explained that wishing his wife had remained in this world would be like “demanding to stay in the El Al first class lounge while the flight is about the take off. It’s a beautiful lounge but everyone knows you are only there to catch the plane.”

Hashem is shaking up the world and awakening us from our collective slumber.

There is a mantra in the corporate world known as “back to basics.” At times of growth and expansion a company can get off track, get distracted and diverge from its mission. There are famous companies that ‘blew up’ for failure to remain faithful to the basics.

The year 2020 is a time for the basics or Judaism 101.

It is back to the Alef Beis.

Why are we placed in this world?

What is the purpose of Hashem creating this world?

The clock is ticking and everything is changing.

Let us each answer the clarion call of the COVID-19 shofar and wake up now.

 

 

About the Author
Rabbi Dovid M. Cohen is the Rabbi of Congregation Ohr Torah in North Woodmere, NY. He is also a Senior Relationship Officer at Yachad. His book “We’re Almost There: Living with Patience, Perseverance and Purpose” (Mosaica Press 2016) is available at www.rabbidovidmcohen.com. Check out his Podcast The JPP: Jewish Philanthropy Podcast http://jewishphilantropypodcast.libsyn.com/ and his lectures at https://www.torahanytime.com/#/speaker?l=1081.
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