It’s not easy to be menacheim avel, as we don’t like going to “sad places.” At the same time, however, it is often an elevating experience. I often leave a shiv’ah house with inspiring ideas I heard related about the niftar, some that I could adopt and implement in my own life.
Shlomo HaMelech expressed this sentiment when he wrote, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting… And the living will take it to heart” (Koheles 7:2).
I recently went to be menacheim avel my old friend Rabbi Aharon Yitzchak Klein, after the passing of his father, Rabbi Sruli Klein z”l. (I should clarify that, although the friendship is old, neither I nor Rabbi Klein are old.)
During that visit, Rabbi Klein related that, a few months prior, he had gone to visit his ailing father in the hospital. The senior Rabbi Klein told his son to take a pen and paper and write down certain instructions that he wanted his only son to adhere to upon his passing.
One of the instructions was that in his bedroom at home there was a pile of quarters. It had been his practice to give five quarters to tzedakah daily, and he wanted his son to continue doing so throughout the first year after his passing. The first quarter he gave was in memory of his late wife. The next three quarters he gave were in memory of three other close relatives. The last one was given in the merit that he procures a kosher lulav and esrog for the upcoming Sukkos.
Rabbi Aharon Yitzchak noted that his father wasn’t particular to have the most beautiful or expensive lulav and esrog. He didn’t need to, because throughout the year he gave tz’dakah daily to merit properly performing the mitzvah.
It was amazing to me that the mitzvah of shaking daled minim for the one week of Sukkos was on Rabbi Klein’s mind throughout the year. It was a reminder that a Jew ought not just perform mitzvos, but he should live them and internalize them.
A talmid in the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland recounted that, at one point, he was considering leaving yeshivah to go out to work. One day, while sitting in the beis midrash at the end of the learning session, he saw the Rosh Yeshivah, Rabbi Mordechai Gifter, close his gemara and kiss it loudly. The talmid was so moved by that kiss and display of intense love for his gemara, that he decided to remain in yeshivah for longer.
When Rav Lazer Shach reached an advanced age and it was hard for him to read small letters, he was offered a computer that would significantly enlarge the letters. Rav Shach refused it, stating, “Ich darf a gemara vos m’ken kushan – I want to use a gemara that I can kiss.”
Rav Shach wasn’t saying that there was a halachic issue learning from an electric device. But he personally felt that doing so would detract from his ability to express his love for Torah.
A friend related that when his grandfather was admitted to the hospital towards the end of his life, his grandfather wasn’t very lucid. At one point, a nurse placed the band around his left arm to take his blood pressure. When his grandfather felt something tightening around his left arm, he immediately recited the brachah of “L’haniach T’filin,” the brachah recited by a person as he tightens his t’filin around his weaker arm.
On the day that our oldest son Shalom put on t’filin for the first time, I went with him to visit my Bubby a”h. She was living then in an assisted-living facility and much of the time she was confused. I told her that Shalom had put on t’filin that morning for the first time and requested that she give him a brachah. She placed both her hands on his head and promptly recited the brachah of “L’haniach T’filin,” Hashem’s Name and all. Apparently, when she heard me say the words t’filin and brachah, that’s what came to mind, and she replied accordingly. I didn’t even think she knew that brachah.
As often as we were able, my wife and I would take our children to visit my Bubby. Towards the end of her life, my Bubby was increasingly less aware of what was happening around her. Before we left at night, we told her that our children wanted to say Sh’ma with her. As soon as I began saying Sh’ma Yisrael, she continued the entire paragraph and ended off with HaMal’ach HaGo’eil. She may not have known what she ate for supper or what she did that day, but she knew the t’filos of her youth perfectly.
Kabbalas HaTorah entails not only accepting to perform and observe Torah and mitzvos. It is also about infusing their timeless messages into our core essence. As we recite each night during Maariv, “For it is our life and the length of our days, and in them we will engage day and night.”
There is no law that one must kiss a gemara. But a kiss is an expression of love, and when someone truly loves something or someone, he desires to express that love.
The Jewish People love their s’farim, t’filin, saying Sh’ma, and shaking the lulav and esrog on Sukkos. We relish the opportunities afforded to us to perform His will. That love becomes part of our very being and is eternal. Such endless love is the result of constantly preparing ourselves to grow in Torah and to live Torah.