When my dear father passed away, I still felt very connected to him because that chain of love simply cannot be broken. Nonetheless I deeply missed his physical presence.
Since my father was an elderly Hungarian Holocaust survivor, divine providence provided me with an immediate surrogate. Mr. Rosler, who sat right near me in the synagogue every day, was also an elderly Hungarian Holocaust survivor.
He and I became good friends and I would often visit him and his wife on Saturday nights. One windy night in the fall of 2004. Mrs. Rosler served up some homemade cake and coffee while Mr. Rosler told me he had a letter for me from the famed Lubavitcher Rebbe.
When he said that, I began to worry that he was starting to lose his faculties. I had, of course, heard about the great Rebbe, but I had never met the man myself. I knew that he had passed away in 1994 so how could he possibly have written me any letter?
Mr. Rosler went into another room and came back with an envelope postmarked in Brooklyn and addressed to him. Apparently Mr. Rosler and the Rebbe had corresponded with one another on a regular basis.
Inside the envelope was a typed letter written and signed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe back in 1968. As he handed it to me, Mr. Rosler told me he had never before shown it to anyone.
On the first page of the letter, the Rebbe commended Mr. Rosler for having grown a beard recently. The letter continued onto a second page that contained only a P.S. It read “I know that you wrote to me in Yiddish, I usually answer in Yiddish but I am answering you in English this time in case you will show this to someone who is at home in English.”
At home in English? I almost passed out when I read those words. Other than calling me by name, that was about as close as you could get to describing me.
Did I decide from that mystical moment on to embark on a life of piety? Hardly.
After a number of months reciting the Kaddish several times a day and after several dozen Friday night dinner invitations, the novelty of being Orthodox started to wear thin. There were doubts and there were questions and there were more doubts and more questions.
One vodka-fueled evening around that time, I asked a young rabbi, Tzvi Hersh Gurary to come to my home once a week for a study session of Talmud and Chassidus.
On one such occasion, he pointed out that in this world, we know we are commanded to observe some 613 commandments or mitzvoth, but we cannot see the power and impact that they have.
It is only when we head to the great beyond – Olam Habah – or call it whatever you like…it is only then that we become aware of their magic and their power. But then alas, we can no longer perform any of the mitzvoth because we are no longer in physical form.
When you do a mitzvah or good deed in the merit of a father who has passed away, I was told, it gives him great enjoyment.
Part of me felt that this was most reassuring. I loved the idea of doing something that would put a smile on the face of my dear father. But I was also uneasy. There was also gnawing doubt. What if this was just another ploy to get you to tow the party line as ordained by the wise men of the past.
Face it. There is no better time to brainwash and indoctrinate someone than when they are helpless and weakened by personal tragedy. Such people will grasp at anything to feel some connection – however tenuous – to the loved one they feel they will never see again.
When I think about this, I drift away but I drift right back when I tell myself that it is indeed the evil inclination or sitra achra, that is trying to draw me away from connecting to my Creator.
Those seeking certainty will be disappointed for this is not an issue that ever gets resolved. It is a nonstop tug of war.
There is no question that it is reassuring to be told that when the long-awaited Messiah finally shows up after all these millennia, we will all be reunited with all our loved ones in physical form.
But once again, the sitra achra weighs in with the cynicism and the sarcasm. What about a guy who has been married five times? Will he be reunited with all five wives? What about the wife he married when she was 20. She died at 49. What will she look like? Will she look 20 or 49? What about the first wife? Will she look old like she did before the plastic surgery or will she look like Joan Rivers?
When I start asking these questions, I begin to have doubts. It’s much easier not to doubt and never to question. To convince yourself that you got it right. But that just isn’t me.
When I dropped by the yeshiva where I used to pray during the mourning period, I thought I would feel like a stranger again. I didn’t. It felt very warm and cozy. Everyone was welcoming when I went there to recite the Kaddish on the yearly anniversary of my father’s passing.
But the feeling of comfort and security did not last for long. The doubts would flood back. We read in Genesis about Adam and Eve and the snake. I am uneasy about snakes. Especially talking snakes that convince women to eat apples.
I also wonder what would have happened had Adam done as he was told. We would all live forever and there would have been no suffering and no free choice. Had Adam actually obeyed his Creator, and waited just a few more hours, he would have foiled the big plan. You don’t have to watch too much Netflix to see that it was all a setup.
Maybe because I spent so many years as a journalist and a talk show host, my mind simply cannot stop asking questions.
I am still not done with Genesis. Who did Adam and Eve gossip about? There was no else around. And they had two boys. How did the boys manage to have kids? Does that mean Eve went to bed with one of her sons? Was that incest or adultery or both? I don’t even want to think about it.
Then there are the Biblical stories of people who lived till they were 900 years old. If they looked well, did people tell them, “Methusaleh, you don’t look a day over 750?”
How long a lease would they sign? How did they handle insurance salesmen?
One story that is oft repeated is the fabled Exodus from Egypt. I was once told that Pharoah was only one foot tall and that Moses was a towering 15 feet high. What? That’s not how I remember the “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and, of course, Edward G. Robinson saying “Moses, Moses, Moses” over and over again.
Don’t even get me started on the cleaning arrangements on the Ark,
Doubts notwithstanding, I like to describe myself as Lazydox. What does that mean? It means that I believe in Orthodox Judaism, but sometimes I am simply too lazy and too tired to do what I am supposed to do.
When too many doubts pile up, I simply think of the line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet who said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Rabbi Gurary has still not given up his doubting Thomas. He was here this past Monday. To this day, he still comes to my place once a week to teach Torah and make sure we do what we can for tikkun olam – to make the world a better place.
As for my doubts, they still come and go, but that strong yearning to stay connected to my Creator? That remains intact.