Coincidence, Mourning, & God’s Name — By Ben

Photo by David Cherim

There are many things in my life I have to be thankful for. Health, love, and family, to name a few. But there are few things I treasure more than the time I spent learning with my Rabbi, Shalom Denbo. Had I not met this man, I would be a completely different person. Learning at his table on a Friday night were some of the holiest and most enlightening moments of my life. A few chocolate chip cookies, Coca Cola so cold that it was borderline a slushy, but better than all of that were his answers to my probing questions that were so on point, I came away understanding the nature of humanity on a profoundly deeper level.

Friday nights were the best. Second to that was a class I was fortunate enough to weasel my way into. The Rabbi would teach a dedicated group of newly graduated AEPi alumni in an apartment in Sherman Oaks, usually on Tuesday nights. They were slowly going through the Torah with the Rabbi reading a section then delving into topics. I was lucky enough to record around 6 – one hour long lectures on each parsha starting with Joseph up to the Golden Calf until the class finished around five years ago. Those recordings are among my prized possessions.

Much of what I write concerning the weekly parsha comes straight out of those recorded classes. But since I don’t write about the parsha so much anymore, those recordings have gone unlistened to for quite a while. However a couple of years ago something happened that made me feel God’s hand hashgaha pratis (as they say in Hebrew) in the most peculiar of ways.

An Email No One Wants

Being a part of a shul’s mailing list means that from time to time you will receive a Baruch Dayan HaEmes email informing you of a passing in the community. It usually contains information about the levaya (funeral) and then subsequent shiva hours for the mourner. As a young guy who was just starting to know people in the shul, most of these emails were about parents of congregants I didn’t even know, so I shrugged them off. But on December 29th, 2017, a name on on this BDE email stopped me in my tracks. Rabbi Shalom Denbo.

Once my heart started beating again, the blood returned to my brain and I was able to read that my Rabbi had lost his mother.

I hadn’t been to many shiva calls at that point, but I had learned a few things. Your presence is what is most important. Your job is to listen to the mourner talk about whatever they want. Chances are you will hear some of the most heartfelt and moving stories of your life. And as sad as a I was to know that my Rabbi was hurting, I was eager to be there for him in his hours of need.

When The Parsha Speaks To You

In between my Rabbi’s shiva hours and my own work schedule, I decided to go to the gym. Remember when we used to be able to do that? Though normally I’d put on Pandora or some playlist to get me into the workout, I instead decided to listen to one of my Rabbi’s old lectures from those AEPi classes in the merit of his mother. The week happened to be parsha Shemos, so I threw on a class from January, 6th 2014 (7 years to the day from when I’m writing this blog post, by the way.)

The Rabbi’s lecture spoke about how the Jews in Egypt had assimilated, but they never gave up their name, their clothing, and their language. He then went on to illuminate that no matter how much a Jew assimilates, there’s always something that they will hold on to, no matter how arbitrary it may seem. And then he said the following…

“I remember when my father died, he should rest in peace… my mother, when it came time for the shiva… all of a sudden my mother was insistent you have to have bagels and whitefish in a shiva house. ‘Because that’s the way we do it. In a Jewish shiva house, you have bagels and white fish.’

I was dumbfounded. My Rabbi was sitting shiva for his mother during the parsha of Shemos, and I had just heard from a lecture 4 years prior, that her shiva MUST HAVE BAGELS and WHITE FISH! I immediately stopped my stair master, left the LA Fitness, and drove to the Bagel Factory to pick up the items demanded from beyond the grave to make my Rabbi’s early afternoon shiva call.

Deliverance or Delivery

I arrived at my Rabbi’s home holding my newly purchased small brown paper sack. I sat and listened to stories about his mother and their relationship. Finally, a pause in his speaking and I raised my hand. “May I say something?”

My Rabbi’s puzzled expression was follow by, “…about my mother?” As if I didn’t understand the concept of what a shiva was about. Perhaps I didn’t, but I proceeded to tell him the story about listening to his lecture and his paraphrasing of his own mother’s words. “And so, it seems she would have wanted there to be bagels and white fish at this shiva…” Then I handed him the bag.

The Rabbi smiled (as best as I can remember it.) But then his wife, Rebbitzen Denbo immediately exclaimed, “From now on you’re part of the mishpacha (family).”

God’s Part in All of This

When Moses talks to God at the burning bush, he knows the Jewish elders are going to ask for proof of his prophesy. “Behold, when I come to the Children of Israel, and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers sent me to you’ they will say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” And God responds back, “Eheyeh Asher Ehyeh.” Some Bibles translate this as, “I am that I am. ” as if they were channeling the Popeye school of Bible criticism. Other Hebrew translations (including Rashi) say, “I will be what I will be.” That translation seems to evoke passive approaches to life along the lines of, “It is what it is” or “S*** happens.” Surely that can’t be the Almighty’s guarantee of the emergence of a savior after his children have suffered decades of torturous slavery.

The very next line of the Torah after, “Eheyeh Asher Ehyeh” is, “And He said, This is what you must say to the Children of Israel, Eheyeh sent me to you.”

Rashi unpacks these lines as an indication of a deeper conversation taking place. He notes that, “Eheyeh, I will be…” is saying “I was with them in this suffering (Egypt) and Eheyeh… I will be with them when they are oppressed in the future.” At that point Moses questions, “Master of the World, why should I mention future suffering? Isn’t it sufficient that they know of their present suffering?”

From that, God commends Moses for recognizing their suffering and then instructs Moses to say, “Eheyeh has sent you.”

There’s no question that everyone suffers in their time on this planet. 2020 made that abundantly clear. But if a person knows they are suffering for a reason, they’ll spend arduous hours at the gym, protest injustice in subzero temperatures, or storm beaches against machine gun fire. God doesn’t always show us the reason. But if we’re really paying attention, He’ll give us a peek just to make sure we don’t give up hope.

Sometimes that peek is a profound awakening from a brilliant lecture. Sometimes it is the emergence of a leader who makes you remember there is good still willing to fight corruption. And sometimes it is an extraordinary coincidence concerning bagels and white fish. The point is, He was with you in your sufferings from the past and you got through those. He’ll be there for you in the future too. Just remember there is a purpose to life and not only will day always break the darkness of night, a daylight without end was promised as well.

This blog is dedicated to the memory of  Leah bas Mordechai and Ephriam ben Shmuel.

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