I buried a friend today. A friend, who four weeks ago was healthy and well, and was living the life of kindness, friendship, community, and family that had endeared her to everyone. A tower of emotional strength and personal determination, a person whose love was both fierce and tender. A friend, who suddenly and without warning tumbled into a coma, then hovered for four weeks between this world and the next, until finally, on Monday night, leaving us completely. At this very moment, as I look at my shoes still covered with cemetery dirt, I – together were an entire synagogue community – am not only pained and saddened, but also shattered and stunned.
I can’t help but also think about the family and friends of David Wichs a”h, a man described as an angel, who lost his life in the blink of an eye about three weeks ago when a huge construction crane hurtled to the ground exactly where he happened to be standing. How surreal and startling, how impossible-seeming it surely sounded to his loving wife, to his co-workers, to his synagogue community. What an unfathomable loss. May his family somehow, at some point, know comfort.
It is at moments like these – and they seem to come with almost numbing regularity these days – that we gently check our notions of individual Divine Providence at the cemetery door. For while the idea that God knows and responds to each of us individually in accordance with our deeds is often both inspiring and spiritually useful, there are just times when we need to place it in a quiet corner for a bit, as we recognize with pain and sorrow, that life, Judaism, and God are just a whole lot more complicated, and a whole lot more inscrutable than that. There are just times when we must hang our theological hats on the teaching of the Talmudic sage Rava, who said that “length of life, children and sustenance depend not on merit, but on Mazal.” (Moed Kattan, 28a)
Which is not to say that events like these simply plunge us into a religious vacuum. Really just the opposite. This is when Jewish practice, with its overwhelming and unvarying emphasis on גמילות חסדים (acts of love and kindness) achieves the apex of its religious strength. We are battle-ready and trained. To visit the sick, to comfort the mourner, to cook the meals, to drive the carpools, to hug and embrace our fellow the way we would ourselves want to be hugged and embraced. Yes, in quieter and happier times, we can afford the luxury of the doctrine of individual Divine Providence. But on days like today, we just thrust ourselves headlong into the holy trenches of the hands-on mitzvot.
There’s a peculiar choreographic moment at the end of the daily Tachanun prayer. After petitioning God to forgive us our sins and to save us from bad occurrences, we come to the words “we don’t really know what to do”. We don’t really know the magic formula either for obtaining forgiveness or for securing protection. But remarkably, precisely as we say these words which carry such an air of resignation about them, we ritually rise from our chairs and stand upright. Yes it’s true that we don’t really know. But when confronted with not knowing, with not understanding, we respond by rising to the occasion, by embracing the certitude of goodness and kindness practiced toward those who are suffering the most.
For even Mazal can bend to Chesed.