Jewish World Review / July 9 1998 / 15 Tamuz, 5758

Claiming Life's keys

By Susan R. Weintrob

THE FIRST TIME I ASKED a frum (religiously observant Jewish) person how he felt, I was a bit surprised at the answer. "Baruch ha-Shem," he responded, "Thank G-d." What kind of an answer was that? How about the usual, "Fine," even when one was not?

I was a bit surprised at the number of Baruch ha-Shem's that peppered certain people's speech. This surprise increased when I would say, after Shabbes (Jewish Sabbath) services, "See you next Shabbes," and the response was, "B'ezras ha-Shem," or "G-d willing."

Where were the ordinary polite forms of Miss Manners or Emily Post that I had grown up with? Why did religious people have to constantly remind themselves of the tenuousness of life? Probably a severe lack of confidence, I thought to myself.

Last week, one of our best friends suddenly died. Our families had been very close for almost two decades. He was about my husband's and my age and his child is close in age to my daughter. We all worked at the same university and lived a few blocks from each other. We had celebrated Fourth of July, Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve together for many years.

And now, suddenly, he was gone.

Although I have attended any number of funerals for relatives and colleagues, never before have I attended one of a close friend of my age. I heard the many accolades given him by his superiors, colleagues and students, and I listened to my husband play a moving piece on the violin. The one thought that permeated my mind, and probably everyone else's, was the suddenness of this man's death. So many of his plans were left unfinished. His remark to a university official at their last meeting was, "See you next Monday."

But that was not to be.

My husband had spent the evening with him two nights before his death. They had discussed plans for a project taking place the very next week, hopes for all of our children, and without much thought, when we would get together next. Here was a man who was vital, energetic, and athletic, with no known medical conditions. There was much that he would miss.

A day or two after I had heard the news of his death, I happened to speak with one of my frum friends. I automatically asked, "How are you?" and he automatically responded, "Baruch ha-Shem, I'm fine."

For the first time, the answer sent a shock through my system. "Thank G-d, I'm fine." I suddenly realized the rightness of the answer.

My close friend, no doubt, had answered, "I'm fine," even on the day of his death. All who heard his answer took it for granted, as we take so many cliched responses for granted. We are told "Seize the day," "Live for each moment," "Take nothing for granted." I have said many of these phrases myself, but I never really understood them in the way that I do now.

I sat through the unbearable funeral service, and saw his wife and son suffer in strength and grace. No longer could I respond without thought, "I'm fine" to the question of how I was. I couldn't say, "I'll see you tomorrow," without wondering if that event were to be.

When we encounter death and it impacts us so strongly, the experience becomes an opportunity to change. I remember reading a Talmudic discussion on repentance. Rabbi Eliezar notes, "Repent on the day before you die." (Shabbes 153a) The obvious question is how do we know the day we will die? Of course, we don't know.

Each day could be our last --- so we must try to live it as if it were our last day. The jealousies and enmities of our daily lives fade; annoyances that frustrate us pale in importance. When we are confronted with death, we are forced to rethink what matters.

A friend of mine who is in remission from cancer sighed in understanding when I told her how I felt about this friend's death. "You can never be sure of anything. That's why you have to go after what is really important to you. I know that's how I feel today."

It is difficult in the midst of living our hectic lives to think of spiritual priorities. We need to go to work, pay the bills and prepare the meals. The present moment looms large. That's pretty normal. Yet, on some level, we know that there is more.

When I asked a a friend of mine who is a Chassidic rabbi about this entire topic, he told me to look at it this way: Even though the seven days of the Creation are completed,the world is still not finished. Each human being continues the creation that G-d began through our existence and our deeds. All the good in our lives, all the mitzvot that we are permitted to do, is simply because of G-d's Presence.

My friend's death had an enormous impact on me. I began to realize that we often need to remind ourselves that the future is not certain. Now I find that when people ask me how I am, if I answer, "I'm fine," it is a sentence hanging without proper support. So when you ask me about my future plans from now on, don't be surprised to hear me add, "G-d willing."

Well, see you in one of the next issues (b'ezras ha-Shem ).

JWR contributor Susan Rubin Weintrob is based at the National Jewish Post and Opinion and is a faculty member of Ball State University's English Department.


4/98: The 'Your Belief' syndrome
2/98 : Why I wear a hat
1/10/98: Orthodox Jews not welcomed -- by other Jews
12/10/98 : The "greening" of American Jewry

© 1998, Susan R. Weintrob