When Ariel was in the Intensive Care Unit, in the last few weeks of his life, his Rebbe from Ner Yisroel flew in from Baltimore to be by his side. The relationship between a Rebbe and his pupil is special. In some ways Rebbe (teacher) and talmid( student) forge bonds of love and friendship that rival the intensity between father and son. If a father and rebbe are drowning, proposes the Talmud, who does the son save if he can save only one? Some opinions hold that the son saves the Rebbe because the Rebbe imparts Torah. But what happens if the father is also a scholar and teaches Torah to his son? Well, some opinions hold that the son saves the father.
I have always been proud of the love that Ariel and his Rebbeim have felt for one another. When Ariel was in Yeshiva Gedolah High School, he always spent the holiday of Shavuos with Rabbi Gross, the Rosh Yeshiva, and his family. Rebbitzen Gross would smile hugely when I delivered Ariel to their front door. “I’m sorry to steal Ariel,” she said with a twinkle in her eye, “but you know we just love him so much.” And these were not just words. In the hospital, Mrs. Gross would send Ariel meal after meal. She sat by his bedside and recited Tehillim, Psalms. At Ariel’s unveiling, Mrs. Gross was there, once again reciting Tehillim. I tried to talk to her, but she could not talk. She was too overcome with emotion.
Ariel was also beloved by Rabbi Dovid Gruman. Every Friday, no matter how crowded his schedule, Rabbi Gruman, Ariel’s 10th grade Rebbe, would come to the house and visit with Ariel. Ariel told me, “I love my Rebbe, Dad. I’m so lucky.” I agreed, Ariel was lucky to be loved by such fine people. But in the back of my mind, always, was one simple word: why?
Why is Ariel sick?
Why is Ariel suffering?
And now, why did Ariel die.
And so, Ariel’s Rebbe from Baltimore sat by Ariel’s side. He held Ariel’s hand. Real conversation, the give and take which is the human lifeblood, was impossible because Ariel was trapped in that hideous oxygen mask. We could talk to Ariel, but in response, all he could do, was make gestures with his head or hands. However, Ariel was weak as a kitten and even simple gestures were beyond his physical abilities. Rabbi Eisemann held Ariel’s hand and spoke to him. He gave d’var Torah’s, commentaries on Torah and Talmud. I sat in a chair and listened. But at a certain point I had to leave the room. I needed a break. An ICU should be quiet and soothing. But modern ICU’s are a travesty, an assault in every physical sense. The rise and fall of TV laugh tracks comes in like a never ending tide. The beep of machines drills into the brain. The squeak of rubber soled shoes makes their way into your dreams. There is a condition called, ICU psychosis. It afflicts patients. I think I was suffering from it for several weeks. In any case, I left Ariel with Rabbi Eisemann. I think I went into the lobby and had a cup of coffee. Coming back to Ariel’s room, just as I was about to enter, I heard Ariel talking. He must have removed the mask for a moment, just to speak. His voice was weak, hesitant.
“Rebbe, why is this happening to me?”
I hung back. I continued to listen.
There was a long pause, finally, Rabbi Eisemann answered:
“Ariel, my son, this is the ultimate question. I can only answer like this: We Jews, we do not ask why, rather we ask, how. In other words, there is no way we can know why HaShem does what he does. If we did, we would be HaShem. So, what do we do? We ask, how should we respond? How do we act under such circumstances? What actions do we take when we are afflicted with illness? And the answer is to act as a Torah Jew; to be dignified, to continue to trust and believe in HaShem. To increase our Torah learning, to multiply our davening…”
I walked away. I was sobbing so hard that I knew that they would hear me and realize that I was eavesdropping.
Years and years ago, when I was a confused and unhappy high school student, I told one of my Rebbeim that I wasn’t sure if I believed in God anymore. Typical teenage problems were overwhelming me. I was caught in a vortex of sadness and rebellion, typical adolescent drama that spilled over into my Judaism. My Rebbe, a kindly if unsophisticated, (I thought) Holocaust survivor, smiled. He seemed amused by my crisis of faith.
“What should I do?” I demanded.
“Put on your tefillin in the morning,” he said. “Continue to daven three times a day. Continue to observe the Shabbos. Make an added effort to observe the mitzvahs.”
“But Rebbe,” I protested with typical teenage fervor, “that’s sooooo hypocritical. I just told you, I’m not sure I even believe in HaShem anymore.”
“Don’t you worry about that,” he said. “You just keep the mitzvahs and belief will come.”
At the time, I thought my Rebbe was, well, loony. Now, it’s clear that he was a wise and extremely sophisticated man. He understood that what goes on in the heart and mind is almost impossible to make sense of. Doubts, fears and theological uncertainties are notoriously difficult to reconcile. But what we do, our behavior, we can master. My Rebbe was so right.
Ariel never spoke to me of his conversation with Rabbi Eisemann. But that night, Ariel davened with even more fervor–which is hard to imagine since Ariel already prayed like a tzaddik. Never did Ariel express a single note of despair over his condition. Right up to the end he maintained an optimistic belief that he would recover.
One of the last things he said to me was:
“I’m lucky, Daddy.”
“Why is that Ariel?”
“I have met so many wonderful people because of my illness. I have seen the best, the most generous impulses that people have to offer.”
The day after Ariel died, Rabbi Eisemann wrote a letter to me and Karen. He told us of his conversation with Ariel.
“I think that in a way Ariel accepted my answer and perhaps it gave him some measure of comfort in his suffering. I will tell you what, in different circumstances, I might have told him. It is my experience that occasionally individuals show up whose destiny is different from that of most other people. It is clear from everything that happens to them that HaShem has something special in mind for them. They are the embodiment of the lesson which Chazal, the Sages, draw from the pasuk in Shir HaShirim, “Dodi yorad ligano lilkat shoshanim.” Ocassionally, HaShem will go down into His garden of roses to pick one which is particularly beautiful. Perhaps Ariel needed to come here for his short life in order to teach us some profound lessons about decency, honesty, kindness and caring. Perhaps we needed an example of how to act in the face of suffering. Certainly all who were ever touched by Ariel will never forget the experience.”
After Rabbi Eisemann left, Ariel said to me: “I’m blessed to have Rebbe visit me.”
Yes, I agreed. Blessed.
But what I didn’t say was: Why should Rabbi Eisemann have to visit you?
You see, Ariel found comfort in not asking why but how. But I do not. I still ask why. And I am still met with a solid wall of indifferent silence.
Karen reads Robert’s blog and adds: I do not ask why, for then I would question everything. Why was Ariel chosen to become a Talmid Chochem? Why was he endowed with voracious curiosity and far-reaching intelligence? Why could he remember the name of every person he met, every medication he ever received? Why was I blessed with a son who honored me and thanked me for every meal (good or bad) that I ever prepared?
But, here are the questions that I do ask: How do I keep Ariel close? What is Ariel thinking? How is he feeling? Does he miss us?
And finally, the ultimate question: When will I experience his presence once again?