How to Process Sudden Death


rav-moshe-meir-weissBy Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss

The global Jewish community is still reeling in shock from the sudden passing of the much loved Rabbi Dovid Winiarz,z”l zy”a known to many thousands as the Facebuker Rebbe.  When a young man – just 49 and in the full bloom of health – leaves the world through a horrific accident, we must know how to process such a tragedy.  In the beginning of Masechtas Berachos [5a], the Gemora teaches us, “L’olam yargiz adom yeitzer tov al yeitzer hara – A person should always incite their good inclination against their bad inclination.”  The word l’olam, always, should immediately attract our intense attention.  There aren’t many things in life that we are taught to do always.  Even learning Torah takes a back seat to spending time with a wife, raising the children, making a livelihood.  Praying is only three times a day.  When the Gemora says always, this is really serious stuff.

Rashi elaborates in interpretation that we should always be in battle against our evil inclination.  This means from the moment we open our eyes in the morning, we should be aware that the yeitzer hara will try to distract us from saying Modeh Ani.  When we go into the bathroom to wash negel vasser, the daily ritual of washing our hands alternately three times, the yeitzer hara will be whispering in our ear, “It’s cold.  Just touch the tap.  Don’t wash up to your wrists.”  Instead of taking the time to say, “Good morning honey, have a very sweet day,” the yeitzer hara encourages us to get out of bed without a glance at our spouse.  Or, if our spouse is still sleeping (or our parents), the yeitzer hara will conveniently nudge us not to be quiet in order to awaken the sleepers.

And so this battle royal continues throughout the day.  Will we smile and greet people with a cheery ‘good morning’ or pass them by with indifference?  Will be make our brachos carefully or swallow them with our food and drink?  Will we be honest with our clients, and have integrity in our business dealings?  Will we be conscientious with our employer’s time?  Will we go to minyan, daven slowly, pay attention to the words?  Will we give charity?  And so it is that even until the moment we close our eyes in sleep, the yeitzer hara continues to instigate, trying to persuade to do without Krias Shema al hamita.

This all-important Gemora continues, “Im nitzcho, mutav – If you succeed, great!”  In other words, if intellectually you are able to outmaneuver the yeitzer hara that says you should talk in shul, or get involved in a fight, or scream at home, wonderful.  However, “V’im lav, yaasok baTorah – If not, engage in more Torah.”  For as the Gemora states in Kiddushin, “Borosi yeitzer hara, borosi Torah tavlin lah – I created the evil inclination and I created Torah as an antidote towards it.”  Learning Torah gives us the spiritual stamina to overcome many of the machinations of the evil inclination.  The Rambam teaches us that without Torah, there is a vacuum in a person which the yeitzer hara is quick to fill with all kinds of forbidden things.

The Gemora then goes on to say, “Im nitzcho, mutav.”  If you then find yourself more successful at this spiritual combat, and you are able to stop gossiping about others and resist gazing at what you’re not supposed to, good.  However, “V’im lav, yikra Krias Shema – But if not, say Krias Shema.”  This seems like odd advice.  After all, we always say Krias Shema.  What’s the Gemora adding?  It’s telling us to reacquaint ourselves with the message of Krias Shema: Kabolos ohl Malchus Shomayim – The acceptance of the yoke of Heaven.  In other words, in plain English, we should remind ourselves that although this is the Land of the Free, we are not free to do whatever we want.  We have a Boss and we have 613 rules, 365 acts that we are forbidden to do and 248 things that we are commanded to do.

The Gemora then proceeds, “Im nitzcho, mutav.”  If this reawakening helps to stop us from neglecting our loved ones or being stingy with our wallets, great.  “V’im lav, but if not, (and now the Gemora pulls out the last ditch attempt, the ace up its sleeve), yizkor lo yom hamisah – Think about the day of death.”  For, as we conjure up the image of the grave and shrouds, it reminds us to prioritize properly our activities.  When we realize that after this fleeting existence we will have to face the Divine Tribunal and that our actions will determine our fate for all eternity, this will help us choose our actions more wisely.  When thinking about the cemetery, we will think twice about sitting in front of the television or the computer for four hours straight, instead of going to a shiur and davening in a minyan.  The specter of death will inhibit us from treating other people poorly since we will remember how much is at stake.

The Maharsha adds another caveat.  He says when we think about the day of death, it will cause us to remember that, when the yeitzer hara tempts us to sin, he wants to quicken our demise.  As the posuk testifies, “Tzofeh rasha l’tzadik um’vakeish l’hamiso – The wicked one (referring to the yeitzer hara) has designs upon the tzadik to lead him to his death.”  Thus, before heeding the advice of the evil inclination, we should remember that he’s trying to bury us.

But, now comes the big question.  If this is such an effective inhibition, why doesn’t the Gemora advise us to think about the day of death in the first place?  Why don’t we attach miniature tombstones to our keychains, hang pictures of the cemetery on the fridge, and make paperweights for our desks in the shape of shallow graves?  If this effectively dissuades us from sin, shouldn’t we promote thinking about it more often?  The Iyun Yaakov answers that if we were to live this way, we would become morbid and that is not the kind of Divine service that Hashem wants.  As the verse states, “Ivdu es Hashem b’simcha – Serve Hashem with joy.”  I also believe that without the proper preface of Torah, and an acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, thinking about death can lead to the opposite result, that is, “I’d better drink and be merry because tomorrow I might die.”

But, when confronted with a wonderful, healthy man dying in a flash on an icy highway, we must take this lesson to heart.  We must ponder the Mishna in Pirkei Avos, “Al tomer k’she’ efneh eshneh, shemeh lo tiponeh – Don’t say when I get a chance I will learn.  Maybe I won’t get the chance.”

The yeitzer hara’s greatest weapon is procrastination.  He will never whisper in your ear that Torah study is not a good idea, for that’s not a good sell.  Instead, he’ll tell you that you’ll learn plenty when you retire.  He won’t say to you shalom bais isn’t important.  What he will say is that things are hectic and after the busy season you’ll sit down and straighten things out with your spouse.  He won’t tell you that charity is passé.  He will say times are tough now, but when things get better it will be the time to give.

The specter of sudden death reminds us not to fall for these machinations.  As Chazal teach us, Ein v’atah ela lashon teshuvah – The term ‘now’ refers specifically to repentance.”  For, if we want to improve, we can’t say ‘I’ll do it when I retire,’ ‘I’ll do it in the summer,’ ‘I’ll do it on my vacation’, or even ‘I’ll do it tomorrow.’  We must make up to do things Now.  Starting from Now, I’ll be nicer, more attentive, learn more, spend more time with my mate, parents or children. I’ll pray with greater devotion, and start reviewing this weeks Torah portion.  May we all live long and healthy and happy lives, and see no more tragedies until the coming of Moshiach, speedily and in our days.

Sheldon Zeitlin takes dictation of, and edits, Rabbi Weiss’ articles.

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  1. Beautiful and true may we only know simchos our hearts go out to the winiarz family
    RabbiWeiss your speech at the levaya and your words here are truly inspirational