Dear Rabbi Fried,
My brother, sadly, recently lost his 7-year-old son, the victim of a rare disease he contracted this past year. Needless to say, my brother and sister-in-law are inconsolably beside themselves with grief. Can you offer any words of wisdom that can be said to them at a time like this?
I’m so sorry for the loss of your nephew, a loss to yourself as well. As you are well aware, our tongues become feeble and our minds become weak to find words that can console the hearts of the victims of such an overwhelming, devastating loss.
The best I can do is to share with you a story. While studying in kollel in Israel, one of my colleagues, an immigrant from France who studied at the same kollel, lost his 5-year-old daughter. She, unbeknownst to her parents, went out of the house and got herself locked into their car on a hot summer day, and was gone before they could find her. A group of us from the kollel made the trek to the outlying area where they lived to pay a shiva call. We sat down before my friend and his wife, an uncomfortable, long silence ensuing. The heavy mood in the room was intense, the profound sorrow palatable in the air, and nobody really knew what to say. What could one say?
I began to tell the story of Avraham ben Avraham, the renowned ger tzedek (righteous convert) of Vilna, converted by the revered Talmudic sage R’ Eliyahu of Vilna in the 1700s. Avraham began as Count Valentine, a Polish nobleman from the powerful Potacki family of Lithuania. Valentine and an educated friend, Zoremba, heard of the brilliance of R’ Eliyahu, known as the Gaon (genius) of Vilna. They received entry to the Gaon, and posed numerous philosophical and mathematical questions to him. Upon leaving, they were impressed beyond words, exclaiming they learned more in that hour than all their years of university. The two decided to change their identities, leaving Poland and entering a yeshiva in France to study Judaism. After a couple years of intense study, they reappeared before the Gaon, with beards and sidelocks, ready to convert to Judaism. The Gaon, recognizing their greatness and sincerity, agreed to convert them. Zoremba soon married and moved to Israel. Potacki, now Avraham, successfully evaded his family’s intense search for him. He began to shuttle around Europe, utilizing his political prowess to bring much peace between Jewish communities and rabbis in Europe. He became engaged to the daughter of a prominent Jew, evoking the jealousy of a man who wanted her hand, who slandered him to the authorities, telling them who he really was. Avraham, after giving the ring, was seized by Polish authorities from under the chuppah and put into prison for an extended period of time. His family and the Roman Catholic Church tried, with no success, to have him renounce his Judaism. Finally, he was burned at the stake on the second day of Shavuot, amid his cry of “Sh’ma Yisrael….”
That night his widow and her father snuck into the Polish side of Vilna. They gathered Avraham’s ashes and buried them in the Jewish cemetery of Vilna. At the site of his grave a fruit tree suddenly began to grow in the otherwise barren cemetery. The Gaon commented that this was a sign from Heaven that Avraham’s short Jewish life was completely fulfilled; he had fulfilled his mission and his life was bearing fruit.
I told my friend that his young daughter, as well, obviously fulfilled her purpose and mission with her short life, and will bear eternal fruit. His wife began to weep, and my friend loudly exclaimed, “You have comforted me, you have comforted me!”
Perhaps you can share this thought with your brother and sister-in-law, and may it bring them some comfort as well.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at email@example.com.
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Dear Rabbi Fried,