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The Angel of Death visited us this Passover

The tragedy is too big to avoid - which means we and our children too can give thanks for the unwanted opportunity to consider what matters in life
A man and woman wear protective face masks and gloves as they cross Oxford Street in central London on March 17, 2020. Britain on Tuesday, March 17, ramped up its response to the escalating coronavirus outbreak after the government imposed unprecedented peacetime measures prompted by scientific advice that infections and deaths would spiral without drastic action. (Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP)
A man and woman wear protective face masks and gloves as they cross Oxford Street in central London on March 17, 2020, the day Britain ramped up its response to the coronavirus outbreak, imposing unprecedented peacetime measures prompted by scientific advice that infections and deaths would spiral without drastic action. (Tolga Akmen/AFP)

The Angel of Death visited our community and our family in particular this Pesach season, sadly not just in the Chad Gadya finale of our Seder, but for real.

My father-in-law was one of dozens who have been torn from British Jewry by the contemporary plague of the coronavirus. I was the last family member to be with him, reciting the Shema by his bedside in London’s Royal Free Hospital, just before he passed away. Sadly, there was no passing over of Jewish homes in Britain this year. The relatively small British community has been devastated by loss.

In just a three-day period some 30 Jewish people were buried here. The Jews are just 0.3% of the British population, but account for a far greater percentage of the coronavirus fatalities. It is a tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes, one that we cannot grieve through together, as we are unable to hold normally populated  funerals nor visit shivas in person.

In London today, as in many other places, there is no shielding  children from the loss and devastation that is taking place. Their whole world has been turned upside down by the coronavirus crisis. They understand that their school and studies have been paused, and that they are being kept home to try to stop the alarming disease and death count from rising.

Children are discussing the nitty-gritty of the crisis just like everyone else. Those who tried, in the past, to shield and protect children from the topic of death are having no success today.

What is more, all of us adults are staring death in the face, whether at close quarters like myself, or because, globally, we have suddenly become acutely and immediately aware of our own mortality. Who has not thought about the reality of death in the last three or four weeks?

I can’t, at this moment of personal and national grief, give answers to the most searching questions, but I can share one of the thoughts that struck me during this painful period: perhaps we should proactively stare death in the face at this time and each write our own obituary.

Watching this microscopic virus wreak havoc on all that we thought was so sturdy — international travel, financial markets, our lifestyles and routines — is surreal and underscores the transience of our existence. Seeing lives suddenly lost to an illness that was not even known mere weeks ago begs the most fundamental of life’s questions and perhaps forces each one of us to ponder just how many of us allocate our time in what we really consider the most worthwhile way possible.

So instead of binge-watching another series on Netflix about the life of a fictional character, perhaps we take this time out to write our own life story, and make preparations today to make the reality match the script of tomorrow.

I would suggest that another  constructive response as we travel today’s crisis may be to talk openly and candidly to our children about death. If your children use digital devices to message other children, I’m almost certain they are looking at stories and statistics that are whizzing around. Don’t leave it to their peers to educate them about death. Speak to them. Connect with them. Show them that talking about death is not morbid, but underscores the preciousness of life and each of journeys through it. It may be one of the most important conversations we ever have.

Children have greater capacity for deep reflection than many adults recognize. When I was 15, both my grandfathers died within the same month. This tragic and traumatic life event changed me forever. It dawned on me that they were not buried with anything we spend so much of our everyday thinking about — no credit cards, no car keys, none of the things I seemingly aspired to as a teenager.

The Pharaoh of the Exodus story, like other Pharaohs, would have been buried with many riches that he hoped to take to the afterworld. Judaism is clear that the only financial account that matters when we die is the sum we have used for good deeds. I recall the story attributed to a number of illustrious Jewish businessmen of yesteryear, who, to the consternation of his servant demands to review his account ledgers on his deathbed. Until he clarifies that actually he only wanted to see the ledger of charitable donations, as only these had relevance where he was headed.

Last week, when I sat with my father-in-law just before his passing, all worldly concerns fell away. The only thoughts were those of family and of a life of right and wrong well lived.

The reality is that facing our mortality often gets us serious with what life is about.  I recalled those moments aged 15 when I had questioned my own father about the nature of life and death. This month, not just once did I ask myself if, God forbid, I were to end up on a ventilator, what type of a life would I have lived. And if I came out of that terrible experience, what kind of a life would I commit to live henceforth.

Judaism does not teach that our normal everyday concerns are unimportant. Rather, it reminds us that they are a means to an end, and that all of us have a capacity to connect to something far greater.

I have no magic words that ease the sense of tragedy facing my family nor our community. But as I sit at home, missing the human connections we normally take for granted, mourning people for whom we cannot hold regular shiva services, I’m left asking that most Jewish of questions. It isn’t “why?” but rather “what now?”

Some people have suggested that by confining us at home, the coronavirus crisis puts our lives “on hold.” I disagree. I think it can push us to experience life in a more stark and meaningful way, and to ask some of the very biggest questions. As Jews, we constantly encourage our children to ask questions. Let’s not shy away from the biggest, arguably the most challenging ones too, for in times of death we can discover the keys to a meaningful life’s journey too.

About the Author
Rabbi Naftali Schiff is the Founder and CEO of Jewish Futures, a diverse family of non-profit educational organisations addressing a specific need and niche. These include JRoots, Gift, Aish UK, Chazak, Chazon, Shelanu, Ta’am, Time4Torah, Legacy Live, Aleinu, and the Forum for Jewish Leadership. Jewish Futures is committed to creating and implementing far reaching solutions that will realize the vision of a brighter Jewish future.
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