My Perennial Pre-Passover Pain

I write these words on the Sunday prior to Passover. For most their home is abuzz with frenetic activity. Mother is directing husband and children in the various and sundry preparations required for Passover. Dad is given his instructions and is off to the supermarket once again. Children are busy assisting in cleaning, washing, polishing all in an effort to be ready for Passover.

Tiring and stressful as it may be, there is an expectant joy in the air. For Passover, above and beyond all of the Jewish Holy Days, is a time when family and friends gather ‘round the Seder table to share in joy together the time honored ritual re-enacting the coming of age of our People accepting our destiny, leaving the degradation and despair of slavery to become G-d’s chosen people at Sinai.

Yet for me, the days ushering in Passover are as well filled with a lingering pain.  For it was just after Passover, 18 years ago, that I was conscripted into that dreaded fraternity of all too many, who lived to see the death of their child.

I share with you the following written at that time which I entitled “A Father’s Lament” in the hope that it has today as then a message for all.

“The sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and incense upon it: and they brought before G‑d an alien fire that He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before G‑d and consumed them, and they died before G‑d. Moses said to Aaron: Of this did G‑d speak, saying: I will be sanctified through those who are nearest Me, thus I will be honored before the entire People; and Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:1-3)

On May 2nd [2000] I experienced the death of my own son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak z”l. A husband, father of an 11-month-old daughter, he and his wife expecting another child in July, he was only 28 years of age at his passing. His vocation was that of a Funeral Director for Weinstein Family Services of Chicago. He held the distinction of being the only ordained rabbi to serve in such a capacity in the history of the State of Illinois and perhaps in the entire Midwest. I use the word serve advisedly, for so many individuals have told me of the emotional and spiritual support he had provided them in their times of crisis and loss. His life was truly a life of ministry, his congregation filled with broken hearts. Twelve-hundred people attended his funeral service held at my Congregation — a testament to the love and esteem he had earned in his short life here on earth.

In my more than three decades in the rabbinate I have often used the text regarding the death of Aaron’s sons as the basis for sermon and eulogy. Never did I truly sense the feelings Aaron must have felt until the death of my own son. For on the one hand, one’s faith in a loving G‑d is ever present. Yet the loss, the almost physical pain, felt at the loss of a son is as well present. These are not mutually exclusive feelings. Rather they seem to synthesize into a sense of gratitude for the life shared with my son coupled with a reaffirmation of faith in G‑d. Perhaps the best word to describe my feelings at this moment is serenity; serenity coupled with pangs of pain. And so, as Aaron, I feel the need to be silent, to experience all without uttering a word.

There is however, another aspect to my feelings that compels me to speak out not in anger nor in resentment. Rather, I am motivated by my lifelong calling, the rabbinate. I need to share a narrative of the death of my son with a world that seems to have lost touch with the compassion and understanding for our fellow human being it once held so dear; that special relationship that comes from literally seeing the Divine in each of us. A tragic and painful story, I pray that recounting the events surrounding my son Yosef’s death will cause all to celebrate anew the wonder that is the human being.

“Mrs. Lefkowitz, your son came through the operation beautifully. Unfortunately in the recovery room his air tube came loose and he is dead.” This statement was the manner by which my wife was informed of the death of our son, Rabbi Yosef  Yitzchak Lefkowitz. No comforting words, no words of condolence, simply — “Your son is dead.”

The shock, the horror my wife had to endure at that moment is beyond anyone’s comprehension. A strong, healthy and robust son of 28, married for only two years, with an 11-month-old daughter and a wife expecting their second child in July was dead. Yosef had gone to hospital for an operation on his jaw to remedy a problem with his bite. Hardly life-threatening, the operation does, nevertheless, take a few hours. His wife Esther, on the day of the operation, went to work as always. In the afternoon, she went shopping to purchase the necessaries to create various drinks for Yosef, as he would have to receive his nourishment through a straw for a period of time.

As for his mother and myself, we as well kept our regular routines expecting to visit with Yosef in the early evening. Yosef hadn’t wanted anyone to go to hospital with him for he, as we, viewed the operation as minor surgery. Who could have envisioned we would never see our son again?

After learning of my son’s death my wife immediately called me at my office and through her tears told me the horrible news. At first, I thought someone was playing a macabre joke on her. After all, what doctor, what hospital would tell a caller, identifying herself as a patient’s mother, that her son was dead? How many times had I been told by a hospital, when calling to learn of the condition of one of my congregants, they could not provide such information over the phone – even to a clergyman! For how were they to know that I am in truth the person’s rabbi? How was the doctor or hospital to know that my wife was in truth Yosef’s mother?

My experience in cases of a death has been that the hospital or doctor usually called the family requesting them to come to hospital stating that complications have arisen. This allows the family to be in a milieu in which pastoral and medical care are readily available. How much more so is this the practice when a young man dies after a comparatively minor operation! I collected my hysterical wife and took her home. About 45 minutes after her conversation, I was on the telephone with the hospital. I was put through to the recovery room and finally was connected with a woman who identified herself as a doctor on staff. “Is my son dead?” I asked. In an ever so matter of fact manner, she replied, “Rabbi, your son is dead. He came through the operation beautifully, but in recovery his breathing tube came loose. We tried to intubate him, but were unsuccessful.” Again, no words of comfort, just — “Your son is dead.”

Thus began for my wife and myself one of the most horrific days of our lives. For Esther, our daughter-in-law, was out shopping with our 11-month-old granddaughter, Shoshana. Esther, as most of us today, has a cell phone. What if she called hospital? What if they told her what they had told the both of us? Terrified that we would have to arrange the funerals of not only our son, but Esther and Shoshana as well, should she learn of her husband’s death while driving the car, we desperately set about trying to locate her. Thank G‑d, we later learned that her cell phone was not operative. We finally located her at her midwife’s office and were able to be with her to break the horrible news of her husband s death to her in person.

The dehumanization of the individual is a progressive and deadly process that has been taking place for years in our society. Do you remember the doctor coming to your home in the middle of the night when you were a child? How many times did my mother call Dr. Kaufman, our family physician, only to have him show up within a few hours? He would check me over, thump my chest and back, listen intently with his stethoscope and then administer the inevitable penicillin shot. While I understand that the home visit is neither practical nor medically appropriate in the context of providing good medical care in today’s world, it surely was a consolation for my mother and me. My mother would make the doctor a cup of coffee. He would talk with us. We were known to him. We were his patients and he was our doctor. There was a relationship — dare I say it — a human bond!

Andrea Gerlin, writing in a recent edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer in an article entitled, “How Your Hospital Could Kill You, “Each year, 120,000 patients die because of medical error that’s equivalent to a jumbo jet crashing every day! We have a system that is terribly out of control, explains Dr. Robert H. Brook, a professor of medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles. We appropriately worry and take action when a plane goes down, but it’s ironic that we neither worry nor do much about the tens of thousands of people who die unnecessarily in hospitals every year. In the context of this reality, the death of my son warrants concern and questioning; a path I intend to follow.

For me, however, the root, the very source of much of the problem in medicine today is that amidst the technological advancements, we have lost the humanity of the patient. This is the reality not only in medicine, but in every aspect of our lives. We are numbers in a computer. The malaise of modern technology is an impenetrable one; one that tends to preclude human relationship. The loss of that human relationship, the metaphysical connection of two human beings which drives the engine of commitment and determination to help another, which motivates the desire to put forward every effort on behalf of ones fellow, explains in great measure, the all too many events in which people suffer or die.

What will happen to our society with its growing coldness, its machine oriented response to everything? How will we build a world of harmony if the human element in our relationships has been all but eradicated? I firmly believe that the events surrounding Yosef’s death require a response to this fundamental question regarding the very nature and future of our society. I beg you to think about it. Discuss it with your friends and acquaintances. To me this is the greatest challenge confronting society today. We must take it on and reinvigorate the human dimension in our lives once again. The Rabbis differ dramatically as to the cause of Aaron’s two son’s death. What does an alien fire denote? For some it represents the over zealousness of these two righteous individuals in their desire to serve G‑d while to others the alien fire denotes a more negative motivation. Obviously the truth is beyond human understanding. Yet each of us can do all that is in our power to raise our personal sensitivity for our fellow human being. Ever cognizant of the needs and feelings of another we can collectively join in creating that society which G‑d’s word so beautifully describes.

The dust returns to the earth, as it was, but the spirit returns unto G‑d, who gave it. My son is now at peace, reaping the rewards of a life, however short, of piety and righteousness. May the memory of my son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Lefkowitz, serve as a blessing for each of us and may his pure soul serve as a celestial intercessor for a life of happiness and love for all humanity. Amen.

Post script: It is now 2018. My granddaughter, Shoshana is studying in seminary in Israel. My grandson, named for my son, the father he never knew, Yosef, is completing high school at a yeshiva in Lakewood.  Both, thank G-d, are Yerei Shamayim, observant Jews. Shoshana and Yosef now stand gazing upon that majestic panorama of opportunity available to them in their future. For them the world offers untold experiences yet to unfold.

Life is truly bittersweet. The perennial pain I experience in the days ushering in the Passover, is ever present. Yet I look to my grandchildren with pride and joy as they embark upon living the full life their father never did. Eighteen years, Chai, life. Let us all cherish and celebrate the joy of life richly lived.

About the Author
Retired and residing in Jackson, New Jersey, Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz was the rav of Agudas Achim North Shore Congregation in Chicago. During his nearly five decades in the rabbinate he led congregations in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. He served as an officer, Executive Committee member and chair of the Legislative Committee of the Chicago Rabbinical Council.
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