Learning from the Dees
Sometimes Jewish law is beautiful, downright inspiring: Shabbat is the greatest gift to mankind. When we force ourselves to retreat from the external, and worldly to the internal, and spiritual, we recharge, reconnect, and ready ourselves for a new week. Pesach seder forces the family to sit around the table and talk, and forces the parents to listen intently to their children—brilliant!
Sometimes, though, Jewish law is really difficult and challenging. The laws of mourning are such an example. Thousands of years ahead of their time, the rabbis prescribed the best way to deal with loss, especially tragedy: a seven-day process where you cannot leave the house and your friends and loved ones come to mourn you. You sit together and are forced to speak about the departed thereby finding closure and comfort.
But the halakha of mourning has a caveat—Yomtov. Yomtov is a national experience of joy–mandated joy. It celebrates a shared joyous history, whether through physical redemption or seasonal festivities. Jewish law makes two exceptions for the mourning process and Yomtov: 1. If the funeral takes place before Yomtov, the overwhelming joy of Yomtov on a national level, cuts off any personal mourning, no more shiva. 2. If a death occurs during the chag, no mourning is allowed for the remainder of the holiday, but afterwards, seven days of avelut begins.
This week, the Dee family in Israel had to do the unthinkable; they had to bury their loved ones, twice (first the two precious daughters Maia and Rina), and then a day later, his beloved wife, Lucy passed, and they had to return to the cemetery. But if that wasn’t difficult enough, Leo and his three children had to return from the worst moment in their lives and put on Shabbat clothes, light candles, share in the festivities of the seventh day of Pesach with the whole community, and only once they made Havdalah the following day, did they take off their shabbat clothes, sit on the ground and begin crying.
It is here where a story I read on Facebook by a friend of Leo’s gave me goosebumps, where I understood that Leo and Lucy were not ‘just amazing Anglos who spread love and joy’ but were and are extraordinary righteous individuals from whom we can all learn a great deal. Nati Laufer told a story about chag which reached my feed:
“I prayed next to the family Dee on chag. Despite the extremely sad days which passed they came in heads held high, upright posture, early for Tefillah. Leo comes over to me and hugs me warmly, wishing me a chag sameach. But the Synagogue is in a state of unease, one feels the tension between intense sadness and the need to rejoice. The chazan is trying to find that delicate balance for the community—God this is hard. We reach Hallel and there is no song. Nobody can think of singing. They begin the second paragraph, ‘betzeit Yisrael mimitzrayim’ (a psalm usually sung by all), and there is still silence. I understand that we will no longer sing anything—pain; sadness, tears begin to stream…
But at that moment Rav Leo gets up from his place and runs towards the chazan, gently places his hand on the Chazan’s and then hugs him, whispering something into his ear. The Chazan looks back at Leo and immediately breaks into a song which lifts up the spirits of the entire shul—‘ma lecha hayam…’ From that moment on we sang, we sang together, the whole Hallel! And what did Rav Leo say? ‘Please make it joyous’. And so it was. Happy, and a little sad, but most importantly, comforting! Am Yisrael Chai.”
Leo has taught all of Am Yisrael so much, and now he taught me one more thing: yes, tragedy is overpowering, yes, Halacha seems unfair to force this family to rejoice after experiencing the worst—but we have the supernatural capacity to rise above our ordinary nature, we can lift ourselves up to the heavens and beyond and we can even take others with us.
This week’s parsha finds us in an eerily similar situation with Aharon’s two sons being struck down in a terrible family tragedy. A debate has ensued for millennia concerning the source of their deaths. Part of the debate centers on a verse Moshe tells Aharon immediately subsequent to the event:
“This is what God spoke of saying, with those closest to me I will be sanctified, and before all people I will be glorified’. Many commentators state that Moshe is somehow trying to explain the reasoning for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu—that they were closest to God, holiest… perhaps.
But, the Rashbam says that the phrase ‘bekrovai ekadesh’ refers to Aharon, and his two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, who managed to continue to serve God after experiencing such tragedy. To have the fortitude to control your emotions and still serve God with intensity and even joy, directly following the loss of your beloved children—that is what we call a ‘kadosh’.
I was at the shiva tonight, together with hundreds. I hugged Leo but didn’t get a chance to share with him my amazement at him and his children for their herculean ability to not only keep going but to somehow comfort us that there is a path through the pain. I saw his daughters davening and saying kaddish fervently and I knew that Lucy and the girls were with them, unified in spirit, encouraging them to continue to shine light and love on those around Efrat, Israel and the world.
Sometimes tragedy strikes and it shakes our very foundation; other times we meet people like the Dees and it restores our faith in ourselves, that we, too, maybe, can find a way through challenging times to rise up and touch the heavens.