It was the first of Nisan, the anniversary of the dedication of the Mishkan, the wedding day between Hashem and the Jewish people.
It was Friday night. I stood by the window with Chantelle looking out at the beach. Six inches of snow had just fallen and it was the first day of spring. The beach club next door in anticipation of the warmer weather began preparing the beach earlier in the week. The first stage is for the huge tractors to gather the blown sand from the protective fences into large mounds. Those tall hills, with valleys between them and the adjacent dunes were blanketed with snow. My wife remarked, “It looks like something beyond this world, something on a planet in outer space, something we cannot imagine”. The next night, the snow was gone, but we remained in a place akin to outer space; we as all of you entered a world beyond our imagination.
It was Saturday night, we were in the Synagogue and I just completed Havdala as we were closing the lights in the sanctuary. My friend and neighbor Jack asked if we needed a lift home. I asked Moses if anyone was picking us up when someone stopped me to ask me a question. A few minutes later I followed Moses out and my wife was on the steps of the synagogue crying. What happened?
And you all know what happened. The world changed that night.
I knew Gayle from when she was born. She was Elliott’s -my life long best friend’s - sister. I remember teaching her gemarah for a test in Flatbush. I remember when she and Gaby got married. I remember speaking at their Sheva Berachot and I still have the bencher from that night. Gaby is an amazing scholar whose life is dedicated to learning Torah. Gayle is a friend of Chantelle and she has influenced our life in so many positive ways. Neither us nor our children would be who we are without her.
When Aryana studied in Har Nof for a year, I believe she spent more time in the Sassoon home than in school. Their family was a part of our family and I am sure they were a part of your family too. Everyone who came to Israel knew that they had Gayle and Gaby as family there. So many kids studying there became a part of their home. And everyone who knew the children knows that they were in fact, pure and so special. They were truly Sadikim.
Harod Libi Charod UShefoch Demaot – My heart trembles, my heart shakes and tears pour down my face.
When Gaby, their father, spoke at the funeral, we wondered where his superhuman strength came from. He quoted the verse which tells of Aaron’s reaction to the death of his own children. Vayidom Aharon, Aaron was silent.
Gaby compared his children who were taken on Rosh Hodesh Nisan, the same day that Aaron’s sons were taken by fire when the Mishkan was dedicated 3326 years ago, to the burnt offerings of Rosh Hodesh – the festival of the new moon. I realized that many of us would never read the Torah on Rosh Hodesh or read the Amidah of Musaf the same. Numbers 28:11 “And on your festival of the New Moon, you shall offer a burnt offering to Hashem – this he said was his family – two young bulls – his wife who sustained burns on most of her body in her attempt to save their children and he in losing everything. One Ram – his daughter Siporah struggling for her life. And Seven yearling sheep, pure without blemish – these were his righteous and pure children whose faces we will forever see as we say these words.
His words echoed in my mind.
Like all of you, sleep only comes out of exhaustion these past few days and when it comes it is fitful and filled with very strange dreams. I awoke in the early morning in a sweat and crying with a vivid image which I later revealed to my daughter Mikhayla. I saw myself as a young boy and it was Yom Kippur. I was in Deal Synagogue and I was sitting in the seat I usually sat it. It was up front on the far right, the back row my dad and his brother and cousins sat in at the corner by the wall. We had just finished the bidding for the honors for the morning Torah reading and we had taken out the Torah. I walked forward towards the open ark to see the first words of the portion we would read, Vaydaber Hashem El Moshe Acharei Mot Shenei Benai Aharon, and Hashem spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron.
In my dream, Rabbi Dwek was at the pulpit explaining the piyut or poem we read before the first Aliyah. The poem describes in very powerful prose the death of the two sons of Aaron who were taken as burnt offerings on the 1st of Nisan, the day the temple was inaugurated. We sing this poem in a haunting melody once a year and I can still hear the rabbi explaining that it is meant to move the heart to repentance and motivate us to do an accounting of our souls. The song moves us to tears. Tears that poured down my face as I dreamed.
In my dream though, the words of the piyut were changed. Instead of “priests who were two and died as one”, I heard, “children who were seven and died as one, through those closest to me I will be sanctified, the edict is given ….” We can never understand why. We exist within the picture of human existence and the picture can only be understood once completed and from a distance. We must have faith that although it is beyond our understanding, it will all be clear and we will comprehend everything.
With Gaby’s words in mind within the dream, the verses of this poem in that evocative melody continued,“ Their holy father saw and placed a finger to his lips, he accepted what G-d proclaimed and all Israel wept over the blaze within which G-d consumed the children.”
I have written many times about personal tragedy and death, including the passing of my father last year and my Rabbi a decade ago, but nothing compares to this. Given that we are all so sad, but no matter the excruciating pain that we feel, it’s not a drop in the ocean for what the family must be feeling and our heart trembles and our tears pour for them. “The stars withdrew their luster and the light of the sun was withheld over the lives of the seven children who perished as one.”
We pray that Hashem will give strength to Gaby and send a refuat HaNefesh and Refuat HaGuf to Gayle – Gila bat Francis / Siporah and to their daughter Siporah bat Gila.
And for us the “congregation, community and people of Israel”, who have witnessed, heard and been touched, by “these awesome portents. On a day like this what happened”, not only “to our fathers”, but to our children, “the servants of G-d”. We must, “remember them and stand at our posts”.
We will never be the same, that’s certain. But in their memory and with them in mind, the question each of us must stop and ask ourselves is this. “How will we be different”?
Tenuchamu, Tenuchameynu Min HaShamayim
For a link to this Piyut, “Alechem Kahal Edah” google the word or visit: http://www.pizmonim.org/book.php?manuscript=999