Tuesday, November 09, 2004

We celebrate, we grieve

Since the holidays ended, we have done both.

The week after Sukkot, we were invited to a friend's bar mitzvah in Bnei Brak, followed the next night by a cousin's wedding in Jerusalem. Then my sister in the states announced her engagement (to a New Yorker, oddly). Over Shabbat we celebrated the birth of a girl to friends from shul, and the following week we attended the bat mitzvah of a relative.

The next morning I was informed of the death of a remarkable young man after an illness which struck him suddenly just weeks earlier.

Rabbi Selim Dweck z"l was about my age. I knew him some 15 years ago when we were not long out of high school. We spent a year in yeshiva together. I haven't seen him much since then. I remember his gentle humility, his sharp analytical mind, his warmth towards others.

Living in New York until recently, Rabbi Dweck taught at the Yeshiva of Flatbush high school and the Drisha Institute. This summer he fulfilled a dream and came on aliyah to Israel with his wife and two daughters. Within months, he was taken.

Hundreds of mourners crowded the funeral hall in Jerusalem to bid farewell to young Selim, including countless former teachers, classmates and students. Eulogies were delivered in English and Hebrew, seasoned by the elegant Hebrew of his family's community of Aleppo, Syria.

There is something chilling about the loss of someone your own age. I suspect this is true no matter how old you are. It touches a different place in the soul than the loss of a parent, God forbid, or even a child, lo aleinu. The grief may be less intense, but it is accompanied by a shudder: "That could have been me."

That shudder gives life an added urgency. Long-term planning seems a bit naive. Who knows what tomorrow may bring? Think about the legacy you hope to leave future generations. Use today wisely; accomplish what you can while you still can. Cliches, yes, but nonetheless true.

Life can be seen, to wax philosophical, as a constant struggle against the inevitability of its deterioration. Shortly after we reach physical maturity we already begin to decline. We are destined to fight entropy, and we prevail - not by reversing the laws of physics or biology, but by employing them to create new life. Hopefully, we can leave the world with more life than we take from it when our time ends.

To me, this explains why Adam and Eve are described in the Torah as having children only after they learn of their own mortality. Isaac, too, finds comfort for his mother's death only when he marries. The inevitability of death is the surest impetus to create life. The two are inseparable.

Thus, the negative population growth prevalent in most of the developed world today - and most of the Jewish world, outside Israel - is itself tragic. It indicates a collective forfeiture of the will to live, a succumbing to death. It implies a certain selfishness, a preference for a comfortable life today over sacrificing to make tomorrow's world more vibrant.

(Going out on a limb, I might suggest that this difference in priorities, between creating new life and making existing lives more comfortable, between positive and negative natural population growth, correlates with differences in political and religious attitudes between Europe and the U.S. and perhaps between "blue" and "red" America. But that may be taking things too far.)

In this balance, Jews traditionally come down firmly on the side of the creation of new life. So we'll be attending another wedding this week and a baby shower next week (not for the same couple!). And we look forward, please God, to being blessed with children of our own.

Faced with the inexplicable untimely deaths of young people full of potential, the only response is to choose life.

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