My darling nephew, Yechiel, is no longer with us. Yechiel Yaakov, ben Avrohom Hersh and Sarah Rivka, was niftar this past Wednesday. I will miss him terribly. He was the sweetest neshama imaginable. Though he suffered greatly over the last two years, he was always saying to everyone who came his way, “Hashem loves you.” To me, the last time I saw him, he said what I always looked forward to hearing from him. “I love you, Aunt Chaya.” A 26 year old, special needs young man, he was, undoubtedly, greatly challenged when it came to normal learning and intelligence. But in the world of emotional understanding, compassion and empathy, we could (and did) learn a lot from Yechiel, a”h.
When people heard of his petira, some would ask, “What happened?” How do you answer that? Why do we even ask? Possibly because, if there is some sort of clear answer, we might succeed in “getting a handle” on the appearance of the Angel of Death and have a level of understanding and even control. But, of course, that’s impossible. Because death is the “mysterium tremendum,” the true “final frontier” that is totally unavoidable and the inevitable end of everyone’s life.
Uncertainty often breeds fear. We can’t possibly know what occurs after death and, largely for that reason, we are both repelled and fascinated by it. But we might see death as a transition from one stage of existence to another. It’s a more comforting perspective and certainly as “demonstrable” as any other. Meaning, not at all. So, I prefer to think that at some point, early Wednesday morning, Yechiel transitioned. Though we will not personally meet him again in this world, his having been here will affect so many of us for many years to come. And, we may certainly hope, he is in a very good, and well-deserved place of honor for having lived a totally pure life and having given so much to so many.
One of my favorite pieces from my book “Letters from Planet Corona” is the following fable. I think it’s appropriate for Yechiel, a”h, and for my thoughts about him at this time. Good Shabbos.
TWO SEEDS SITTING IN THE SUN
Two apple seeds lay basking in the summer sunshine on the floor of the orchard. Their names were Benny and Bingo. (Why not?) The day was warm and lazy, and they were very, very, comfortable. But Benny kept looking at the apple trees around him, with their branches forming a canopy overhead. He envied their stout brown trunks, their profusion of bright green leaves, and, most of all, their multi-colored, ripening fruits.
“It must be wonderful being an apple tree,” Benny sighed.
“Probably a lot of work,” Bingo retorted. “Much nicer just lying here in the sun without effort. Besides, I don’t know what it takes to be a tree. And, what’s more, I don’t want to know!”
“All the same,” said Benny, “they are very handsome, and I think it must be so nice to make apples that humans like so much.”
“Humph,” Bingo exclaimed scornfully, “like I should do the work and they get the fruit! Nope. No way.”
Benny decided to drop it. It was too pleasantly warm to get into a heated discussion. Still, he kept thinking of how nice it would be… and he fell asleep.
Next thing he knew a giant human (a five-year-old) picked him up and looked at Benny carefully. The human picked up a thick twig, dug a hole, dropped Benny in, and covered the frightened seed with dirt.
“Well,” said Bingo to himself after witnessing the action, “bye-bye Benny. A tree?! Not!”
In the meantime, Benny couldn’t see a thing. No longer did he feel the warming rays of the sun or feel the delicate breeze or smell the fragrant fruit.
“Oh, dear,” he cried. “What’s to become of me?”
Benny was dreadfully lonely. Bingo hadn’t been a brilliant conversationalist, but he had been some sort of companion. Benny could only think of Bingo sunning himself and feeling pretty fortunate to have escaped Benny’s own fate.
In a few days, things got worse. Benny found himself actually falling apart. His comfortable coat was ripping at the seams and he felt very queasy. “I must be very ill,” thought Benny. “I wonder if I’m dying!” He had heard about dying and it had sounded extremely unpleasant. “Will I know when I’m dead?” he wondered fearfully.
Benny felt worse and worse and soon thought that he must really be dead because he knew that there was nothing of himself that was left as it had been. And then, one day, he felt something stirring within him. He was actually growing. He knew it because he could feel himself pushing against the dirt that covered him. There were parts of him spreading out to the sides and other parts pushing upwards until, eventually, he felt the warmth of the sun again and realized that he had emerged from the ground.
“Whoa!” Benny exclaimed enthusiastically. “I wonder whether Bingo can see me. What would he say now?” (The answer is “Nothing” because Bingo was long gone. But this isn’t his story. It’s Benny’s.) Benny soon realized that he was actually growing into an apple tree. His dream was coming true. Here he had thought he was dying. Instead he was becoming. How was that for a surprise!
And so, dear children, (and the grown-ups you will become), don’t forget what Benny learned:
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”– Khalil Gibran
“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”– Christopher Reeve
“I really believe in the old expression that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s through adversity that you find the strength you never knew you had.”– Christie Brinkley
I don’t think Benny would have put it quite that way. But, after all, he was just a seed!