When Rabbis Die
While death is never an enjoyable topic to discuss, we ought to consider it from time to time, in order that we maintain a healthy, rational attitude towards this deeply difficult subject.
It seems as though in the past year rabbis have been dying at an alarming rate. Perhaps, the ongoing pandemic is a contributing factor. We’ve lost figures from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks to Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski to Rabbi Dovid Feinstein. With the news of each passing comes the expected wave of sorrow. (These feelings are further conflicted when mass funerals are held in ways that are unsafe given the pandemic.)
I do not have statistics as to whether the rates of rabbinical deaths have actually increased, but what is clear is that in recent times, each death has been significantly magnified. Within minutes of a rabbi’s passing, the news spreads to all corners of the globe through all sorts of channels, most notably WhatsApp. There are two valuable takeaways from this. Firstly, that so many gedolim are dying means that there are so many gedolim in the first place. Secondly, Am Yisrael is more connected than ever; we celebrate together, we mourn together.
Some individuals may make all sorts of claims about whatever “message” God is sending us, but we should not go crazy trying to “understand” why a specific individual has died. We cannot know why God causes things to happen; this is especially true of natural occurrences such as death. Most of us understand that death is inevitable, even for the greatest rabbis. (And we understand the dangers of groups that deny this.) But just because we do not understand why something has happened (and even if the answer is simply nature), does not mean there is nothing we can learn from that thing. With every death, we are reminded that eventually time will run out for all of us and we must work on improving ourselves immediately.
There is an odd but understandable phenomenon that happens when a rabbi dies. Suddenly their Torah becomes studied like never before. (This phenomenon, of course, is not limited to rabbis; when a famous musician dies, people suddenly start listening to their music, when a famous author dies, people suddenly start reading their books.) I find that in the week after a gadol passes away, I learn more of their Torah than I have in the rest of my life combined!
The question is why do we wait until the rabbi has passed away before delving into their Torah. The obvious answer is that there are simply too many rabbis, and we could never learn everyone’s Torah. But once a rabbi passes away, we are “reminded,” as it were, of their work, and we study it. Eventually, though, we move on, to return to the next rabbi God and nature remind us of.
But this paradigm is not all bad. The knee-jerk reaction to start spreading their Torah en masse reminds us that the way that we honor the memory of these rabbis should, first and foremost, be by studying their wisdom. For every rabbi that passes away, there are countless students who become armed with their Torah.
In addition to learning their Torah, we can also emulate their middos and embody their values. It is therefore important that we remain intellectually honest when speaking about gedolim, and avoid turning them into flawless saints. Personally, I find that stories about gedolim overcoming real challenges are more inspiring than stories that simply reflect some innate perfection the rabbi seems to have. Yes, it is incredibly heartbreaking to hear the news of a rabbi passing away. But we should not be moved to despair. The next step after mourning is to recognize the opportunity to improve ourselves. At the very least, it's what the deceased, zichronam l’beracha, would have wanted.
Photo Caption: Yahrzeit candles
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons