by Rabbi Avi Stewart.
On November 27th, hundreds of close family, friends, colleagues and students attended Rabbi Eliyahu [Eden] Stewart’s funeral. By all accounts it was an incredible experience, both heart breaking and inspiring. For the past 65 years, Rabbi Stewart, my father, was a dear friend, colleague and rebbe to so many. The eulogies shared a few common themes. They reminded us that we are left holding onto his ideas, ideals and teachings, along with the memory of his larger than life personality. This is his legacy.
And yet, we are still left with questions. Why did he die? Why was he not granted a complete recovery? Where was G-d’s mercy?
These basic thoughts are enveloped by the teachings we have learned over the years. Rav Yisroel Salanter writes that if someone wants to merit a positive judgment on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, the day when G-d determines who is written in the Book of Life and who is not, than one should become an “ish hakllal” – a person upon whom the community depends. There are multiple ways of creating connections to others that enable a person to extend beyond one’s own self. The world of the self is an expandable world; it is a space that has room for others. There are different ways of becoming a person of the community. Some people excel in preforming acts of charity and kindness. Others teach Torah to many students. Many people are indeed needed by the community.
Rabbi Stewart was a man upon whom so many depended. His family, his friends, his colleagues, his students, indeed his community needed him. Alas, to our great horror and lasting chagrin, our Abba, our friend, colleague and Rebbe is no longer here, passing away on the fifth of Kislev after battling leukemia for nine months. What happened to Rav Yisroel’s guarantee for a positive judgement and another year in the Book of Life?
This existential question is compounded by other troubling puzzles. Traditionally, we are taught that prayer and good deeds change mazel, they bring about G-dly mercy. There are few people who are truly beloved by so many. The outpouring of love and comradeship that Rabbi Stewart and we, his family, experienced in the time since his passing, is remarkable. Students from the past 40 years have showered their love and concern upon us. These same students had been praying; they had taken special mitzvos upon themselves, in the merit that Abba would have a refuah shleimah. His current students at YULA dedicated a googledoc spreadsheet to this endeavor and there were hundreds of entries, each one a special merit for a refuah shelimah. Students at BYLA organized a massive campaign on his behalf. So what happened? Why was Abba not healed? Where was that mercy?
Confronting these questions is essential to moving onwards and looking towards the future with hope and confidence, rather than depression and hopelessness. I would like to use an approach that I have learned from Abba himself. It is his ideas, ideals and values that will enable us to process these challenges.
Emunah and Bitachon.
The Chazon Ish writes that Emunah is a cognitive exercise. It is the intellectual belief that there is a G-d who exists and knows what He is doing. Bitachon is the intellectual idea that is expressed by our behavior when we are confronted with real life challenges.
As a teacher of Torah, Rabbi Stewart loved to teach and loved to teach Hashkafah. Frequently, he spoke of the basic principles of Emunah in his classroom. However, living a life of Bitachon is not something easily shared from a pulpit, let alone a teacher’s desk.
Unfortunately, my family had the opportunity to see if our Emunah was the sort that led to Bitachon. In November/Cheshvan of 2001 my sister, Rivkie a”h, passed away. She was talented, articulate, beautiful, kind, and a fabulous teacher with many dedicated and inspired students. She died after suffering from the disease and treatment of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. She passed away young, far too young. She was twenty three years old. How might one be expected to deal with this kind of tragedy? How did Rabbi Stewart deal with this challenge?
The entire shiva he spoke about Emunah. He mentioned a well known book written by a scholar whose view was not rooted in the Torah’s tradition, in which the author claims that accidents happen and there is no G-d of Divine Providence overseeing and managing the world. He kept repeating how if this were true than there is no meaning in suffering and no meaning in loss. It is only to Hashem that we turn. It is only our love of Hashem and through Judaism that we can cope with loss.
More recently, when I would spend time in the hospital with him, he spoke only of emunah and bitachon. He said that he has no complaints against Hashem and “ki kol derachav mishpat” – “All of G-d’s path are just.” When he underwent excruciating bone marrow biopsies it was verses of Hallel that sustained him. My father, and of course my mother as well, were great examples of putting thought or theology into practice. This is our Chinuch and this shall be part of their legacy.
There are two directions to go or methods of practice that people use when faced with catastrophe and tragedy. Some people say, “Where was G-d? He does not hear our prayers. What is the point of prayer?” Others have a different response. This past summer, the incident with the three boys who were kidnapped and murdered brought the collective Jewish world to its knees. We begged and pleaded with Hashem, seemingly to no avail. And yet Rachelli Frankel, Naftali z”l’s mother shared that her family understood that at times Hashem says no.
Let’s take a more global or historical perspective. We don’t know how Hashem operates. We only experience a tiny window of reality. We don’t understand why He does what He does. All we experience is our little slice of history. There is nothing final about this world, about this life. There is 6000 years of Jewish history. This world is merely a corridor to the next. In the spiritual spheres there is an “olam hanishamos,” a World of Souls. We believe in reincarnation. We believe in Moshiach and in techias haMesim. Our experience in the moment is severely limited.
This is admittedly a very cognitive response to what is really an emotional question. By definition, it is lacking. An emotional question demands an emotional response. Nonetheless, our faith system must be clear.
The good deeds we performed and the prayers we recited were helpful. We expect Hashem to answer the way we want to be answered. However, this is folly. Hashem does as He wills. Dr. David Fox shared a powerful idea. In Ashrei we say “Poseach es yadeicha umasbia lichol chai ratzon” – You open your hand and you fulfill and satisfy every living being. This is the will of Hashem.
Every Tefilah matters. Every mitzvah counts. Every passage of Torah learning was a merit. Rabbi Stewart used to say every word of Torah is more precious than diamonds and gold.
Did he suffer less because of our prayers and mitzvos? Yes. Did Abba live longer because of our prayers and mitzvos? Yes. Was he grateful for our prayers and mitzvos? Yes. Yes. Yes. And yes. We all deserve a pat on the back and a yasherkoach. We made a huge difference, for him, for our family and for each other. This was his philosophy and this is Judaism.
If you think about this a little more deeply, this approach is simple; but it is life changing. Judaism is not a black and white religion. It is not all or nothing. Everything a person does is real and significant. Every blessing you make. Every time you put on tziziz and a kippah. Every day you put on Tefilin is a great day. Every time you say the Shemah and daven the amidah. Every mishnah you learn and every moment spent learning Torah is precious and priceless.
Aba’s reward and continued growth is contingent on his legacy. The legacy which we which we – his family, friends and students – carry Every time we follow his lesson plan, we are propelling him further along his journey closer and closer to Hashem.
May we all be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Rabbi Avi Stewart is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla and a therapist in private practice.