Saturday, March 24, 2007

Dying Alone

Chaim Steinmetz notes that Vincenzo Riccardi isn't the only person who died alone.

From time to time, I've been called upon to perform a funeral for someone who has no one. More often than not, the deceased is a Holocaust survivor, who, because the Nazis wiped out their family, has no relatives. (These survivors are often without friends as well; their psychic scars leave them without the requisite social skills for friendship.)I had a funeral like that this past week, which got me thinking about Vincenzo Riccardi, and about the first funeral I had like this, when I arrived in Montreal....

I attend 35 funerals a year; as a rabbi, performing funerals is one of my responsibilities. Although I go to a lot of funerals, each one is still discomfiting, a clear reminder of my own mortality....

The smallest funeral of my career was attended by five people. Two cousins of the deceased (let us call her "Leah"), along with myself, our synagogue's cantor, and the funeral director attended the graveside service. Leah had a story that was not too unusual. She had grown up in Eastern Europe before World War II, and had survived the holocaust. Most of Leah's extended family were murdered during the war. Leah and her cousin were the only family members to survive. Unfortunately, her experiences in a concentration camp left deep emotional scars. After the war, she did not marry or hold a job, and was dependent on her cousin to take care of her. Leah had lived the last fifty years of her life as a broken person, unable to fulfill the potential of her youth. Leah's cousin had died before her, and it was her cousin's two children who attended the funeral....

The Talmud writes (Berachos 8b) that one must honor a talmid chacham (Torah scholar), who has forgotten his learning. The reason given is this: The first set of Tablets that were broken by Moshe received the same honor as the second (and unbroken) set of tablets, and both were placed in the Ark of the Covenant. The Talmud explains that similarly, a Talmid Chacham, even if he has forgotten his knowledge, still deserves honor, just like the broken tablets In many ways, Leah's life was a story of broken tablets. Her life had potential and purpose, until it was destroyed during the holocaust. Her tablets may have been shattered by the Nazis, but she was no less deserving of our honor.


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