There are few holidays that weren’t a tearjerker to those who first lived through them. The broken-hearted of history have been turned into strangers by the years. The Haggadah recalls our sadness, but when it comes to the drowning of newborns in the Nile, salt water is salt water but tears are tears.To better understand how parents in Jewish history coped, and continue to cope, with the slaughter of the innocents, we met last week in Crown Heights with Rabbi Yisrael and Shfira-Aviva Deren, who are acquainted with a parent’s worst night — two nights, actually: when their son, Shloimy, 6, died of kidney cancer, in 1996; and the night last December, when their daughter, Blumie, 16, died of liver cancer.We asked the Derens about
babies in the Nile.Deren, 46, a mother of six other children, explains, “The Midrash describes how the children appeared to be dying in the river, but angels caught them and brought them to the fields, where they were raised miraculously. ...”“And on the other hand,” says Rabbi Deren, 47, “we learn that some were put into the bricks, and their blood. ... The whole seder commemorates the oppression, a terrible part of which was the slaughter of the innocents.”Rabbi Deren, the Chabad Lubavitch regional director for southern and western New England, adds, “ ‘Oz Yashir,’ [the song of the Israelites after crossing the Red Sea, and chanted from the Torah on Passover], literally means, ‘And then they will sing,’ in the future tense, when logically it should be ‘Oz Shar,’ ‘They sang.’ So the Talmud says, here’s where we have the first biblical allusion to the revival of the dead, that the dead will someday be singing.“Bear in mind,” says the rabbi, “during the Plague of Darkness, the Midrash says, 80 percent of the Jews died. ... And the Plague of Darkness took place just weeks before the Exodus. That means when they crossed the Red Sea, they were just weeks away from the deaths of eight-of-10 Jews. Every Jew crossing the Red Sea was literally an avel, a mourner. How were they able to sing? Because to a Jew there’s no finality to death: We will see them again — in this world.”Soon it will be time for “Chad Gadya,” the seder’s coda.“I used to have a problem with Chad Gadya,” smiles Rabbi Deren. “My father was a shochet. In the next to last verse, the Angel of Death comes to kill the shochet.”“But then,” adds his wife, “the HaKodesh Baruch Hu, God comes and shechts [slaughters] the Angel of Death.”Rabbi Deren says, “The end of the seder is the end of death, God destroying the Angel of Death.”“The end of death means that Heaven is not the soul’s ultimate destination,” says Mrs. Deren. “If you believe Rambam’s [Thirteen Articles of Faith], No. 13 is techiyas hamaysim, the revival of the dead in this world. This world is not a prelude to Heaven; Heaven is the prelude to the revival.”She pauses. “What happened to us shouldn’t happen to anyone, ever.”“Ideas are fine,” says Rabbi Deren, “but translating them or applying them, there can be a disconnect. We’re dealing with a full-scale emotional overload, beyond words. Can I say I’m surprised at myself sometimes? I don’t know. After we lost Blumie, and Shloimy, it was too horrible, too obscene. Yet we function, we continue, we work. I spent last night in the home of a Russian woman who was just diagnosed with a tumor and evidently it was a very poor prognosis. I spent two hours convincing her she was going to be well, she should smile. ... What am I? Off the wall?“The reality is, every morning we pray, ‘My God, the soul which you have given me is pure. ... You have breathed it into me, You preserve it within me. You will eventually take it from me, and restore it within me in the Time to Come. ... Blessed are you, God, who restores souls to dead bodies.’“From the moment in the morning when we begin to talk, we talk about the neshama, thinking about what a soul is. So maybe, when push comes to shove, when we’re called on to produce, we can. That’s the beauty of Shabbos,” says Rabbi Deren. “Our Shabbos comes, say, at 6:28, ready or not. You don’t start Shabbos when you’re ready. Ready or not, at 6:27 it’s not, and at 6:28 it is. You don’t always get up to the level of Shabbos, but there you are. That’s the thing about a mitzvah, it has the capacity to lift us.”Last summer, after Shloimy died and Blumie was diagnosed, the family was driving home from the mountains. “She had gorgeous, gorgeous red hair,” says Blumie’s father. “She was beautiful every which way, but her hair was fire engine red, glorious, it could light up a room in the dark. She starts chemotherapy, and that weekend, one hair falls out, a second hair falls.“Driving by the great overlook of the Delaware River, a whole clump of hair falls out. Blumie realizes what was happening. She starts to cry. The other kids are devastated. We stop the car. The kids got out to give her space. I get in the back of the car with her, and I tell her of a letter from the rebbe. He writes, the neshama remains close to those that loved it, and whom it loved in its lifetime; it rejoices with their happiness, it sorrows with their sadness. I say, ‘Blum, Shloimy right now is sitting on the roof of this car wiggling his feet like he used to. ... He’s looking into the car and saying, Blum, don’t be sad because when you’re sad, I’m sad. When you’re happy, I’m happy.“And she stops crying, almost like a light switch. She and Shloimy were ... he was her Shloimy, they had a special relationship. By being happy she knew she was making Shloimy happy. That was enough for her.”Deren says, “We have the custom of saying posukim [a biblical sentence] corresponding to the Hebrew name. What you do is find a sentence either containing the name, or beginning with the name’s first letter and ending with the name’s last letter. You say it during davening, or when you feel the need. Blumie’s posuk is in Hallel [recited at the seder], ‘Bais Aharon Bitchu B’HaShem, House of Aaron, trust in HaShem, their help and their shield is He!’“When Shloimy was undergoing a medical procedure, and it was hard to say something long, we’d sing his posuk. On Blumie’s last night, on the way to the hospital, she was extremely agitated. As my husband was carrying her to the car, he was holding her very securely, and she was hysterical. I didn’t know what to do. I started singing posukim to her, the posuk of her name and the posuk of the rebbe’s name. I kept singing them over and over. She started to sing with me. Her voice wasn’t clear, but then she calmed down, just from singing these posukim.”This week they’ll be singing at the seder, in separate worlds, together.
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