Sunday, June 28, 2009

In Memory of Cantor David Tauber ז"ל

So this was supposed to be an upbeat account of the fabulous week away Joan and I just had in London. And we did have a wonderful time, and I do want to tell you all about it, and specifically about some truly interesting Jewish experiences we had abroad. I will too, but coming home to the news of Cantor David Tauber's death has left me with too heavy a heart to write about our adventures in the style I had intended. And, indeed, the parallels between my vacation in the U.K. and his in Israel are almost too painful to discuss, even in writing. But I do want to express myself, even just cursorily, on precisely the part of life that such a comparison brings so forcefully and so painfully to the fore.

Two weeks. Two couples. Two trips. Two opportunities to get away for a few days. Joan and I go to London, stay in a lovely hotel in South Kensington, see some shows, have a great Shabbat with our friends in Finchley, and come home rested and eager to tell everybody about our trip. David and Heather go to Israel for a few days, she for work and he to accompany her and spend a few days hiking around and enjoying the scenery. But their trip ends entirely differently. You all know the story, I suppose, from Newsday and the other on-line accounts, or from the Jerusalem Post article. A flash flood in one of the wadis west of Ein Gedi, a cave, the final, heroic gesture on Cantor Tauber's part that resulted in Heather's survival, then his own tragic demise in the wall of water that descended on them. (If you've never seen a flash flood or read about them, look here and you'll get the idea very easily: .) Two weeks, two trips...and two different endings, one happy and one indescribably sad, one "normal"...and one so abnormal as to defy explanation. Added into the mix here are our own recollections of David's work--his generous spirit, his warmth, his bonhomie, and his fine voice, his superior musicianship, his great talent--and our sense of the grief that has surely overwhelmed his wife, his mother, his brother, and all the rest of his many relations and friends. And from the contemplation of these twin tales come the questions none of us can hold back from asking. Zo torah vezo sekhara? This is the reward for a life devoted to prayer and to serving the Jewish people? This is how it ends for a man who should have had not decades, but scores of years, left to hone his craft, to inspire and to lead? This is what happens to people who acclaim God as the Guardian of Israel in their nightly prayers over and over? I shudder to share these questions with you in writing, because they stun me as well. Perhaps I ask them not because I know how to answer them, but merely to demonstrate that they can be asked. And that the contemplation of tragedy can lead us toward, not away from, faith.

The glib response to tragedy like this is simply to note that things like this happen all the time. People die daily in airplane accidents and car accidents, in fires and in floods, in accidents and as the victims of violent criminals. Mostly, we turn away when we hear of these things. We mostly don't know the people who died, mostly don't have any personal connection to some disaster we read about in the newspaper or hear discussed on the radio. Being decent, kind people, we feel regret that someone has died needlessly, but it doesn't go any further than that--we hear the story, generate some real but short-lived sympathy, then turn the page and read another story. It doesn't touch us, because circumstances has granted us an avenue to escape down...and then, when such an avenue is suddenly denied us (also by circumstance) we feel at sea, uncertain, ill at ease...and angry, even outraged.

The less glib response is to consider disaster in the light of its almost constant absence in most of our lives. We are fragile, brittle things, we human beings. And yet most of us live for scores of years. Most of us enjoy good health most of the time. Most of us go on trips and come home happy, rested and well. Most of us live entire lifetimes without ever being the victim of a violent crime, without facing deportation or arrest, without hearing the rumbling of an imminent flood of water that could just as easily destroy us as spare us. The world is a neutral place, I think--not good or bad, just the backdrop against which people imbued with a sense of holiness and purpose can try to live worthy lives. Occasionally, things go tragically awry. Young men in the prime of their lives drown in unexpected, tragic ways. A fire, a flood, a crash...and everything changes. And also nothing changes. The world keeps spinning. The unaffected continue to turn away. The people touched by the tragedy are shaken...and changed by the experience. Perhaps the more worthwhile question to ask would be: changed how, exactly?

All of us have had the words of Unetaneh Tokef in our minds since hearing about David's death. Did some premonitory shudder work its way down his spine when he mentioned death by water in his prayers on Yom Kippur? I doubt it. That's not how it works, not in the real world. But, as we all do know, some really will live and some eventually will die, some by fire and some by water, some at ripe old ages and some as young people. The challenge, then, is to feel ennobled by the inherent insecurity of life, to respond to this kind of disaster by obeying the injunction of Scripture to choose life, that is: to live worthy, decent lives that reflect the divine qualities of the God of Israel, Who grants life and takes it from us, Who heals the sick and the weary and those devastated by sadness, and Who is the Author of light and darkness in a world of endless shadow. (February 29, 2008)

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