Dear Rabbi Fried,
I am a student of DATA and an admirer of the Epstein family, all the Torah they teach and kindness they do, for the past 20 years. I’m devastated how such a tragedy, the loss of a baby boy only a few months old, could happen to them! For a parent to lose a child is always one of the most heart-rending things imaginable and one always wonders how such a thing could be, and I’m especially heartbroken to see it happen to such kindhearted, generous people. Are there any words of explanation or strength you can offer me and, I’m sure, many others?
I very much share in your feelings of devastation and sadness, and have spent much time weeping over this terrible loss.
I will share with you a story that I have been discussing with others in the community.
Some 250 years ago a noted Polish noble, Count Pataki, visited the esteemed sage R’ Eliyahu of Vilna and presented to him, together with a friend, many of his questions in science, mathematics and philosophy. They were so impressed by the sweeping wisdom and brilliance of the rabbi that they decided to convert, hiding their Polish nobility and studying in a yeshiva. After years of study R’ Eliyahu agreed to convert them, despite it being punishable by death. The friend moved to Israel, and Count Pataki, now Avraham ben Avraham, the “righteous convert of Vilna,” used his political prowess for the next two years to shuttle around Europe and help resolve deep divisions and disagreements in the Jewish communities of Europe, all the while hiding his roots and escaping detection by the Polish police.
It became time to get married, and Avraham accepted the hand of a very special, older girl who had been waiting for years for the right one. Another man also had wanted this woman and out of his jealousy, reported him to the authorities, and he was snatched up by them while under the chuppah!
Avraham was given a chance to “repent” and renounce his Judaism or be burnt at the stake. He refused and was tied up on top of a huge pyre with throngs of “pious” onlookers shouting to commence the fire. He raised his hand, silencing the crowd, thinking he was about to proclaim his renouncement. Instead, with a loud voice he proclaimed the “Shema Yisrael,” and the auto-da-fé did its job.
Late that night his momentary wife and father-in-law, despite great danger, snuck out the Jewish ghetto to the place of the burning and collected Avraham’s remains, burying them in the cemetery of Vilna. That cemetery was known to be completely barren with nothing growing in it. Right next to Avraham’s grave, however, an apple tree sprouted and bore fruit. Everyone saw that as a sign that Avraham’s life as a Jew, however short, bore fruit and fulfilled his mission in this world.
This is a lesson for all time, that every soul brought to this world has its mission, some for longer times and some for shorter, and that mission bears fruit and fulfills its purpose.
Our belief, based on the teachings of the Talmud and Kabbalah, is that there are times when a soul nearly completed its purpose but needs to be brought back to the world for a short time to finish up some yet-unfinished business to achieve its perfection. It might just be here momentarily, as a fetus, and never make it out to the world. It might be to enter the world and bring temporary joy or, at times, suffering, and be finished with its mission. In any case, the now perfected soul can return to its place of eternity and enjoy the bliss of its connection to the Creator. The parents who brought that soul down for its final completion will, one day in another world, enjoy the nachas of having a child who’s a perfect, shining, sparkling soul and revel in its joy. At times this merit is given to parents who themselves are unique individuals to be the proper vessels to bring a nearly perfect soul to its completion.
I think one of the most profound lessons can be learned from the baby’s parents themselves, who have expressed to many that they feel fortunate to have had the merit to have had this precious baby in their lives even for such a short time. The deep emunah, belief and trust, which they convey should be an eternal lesson to us all.
May the family, and all of us, be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem and may we know no more sorrow.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is the dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.