The Bible at the beginning of Genesis 18 records a scene of Abraham the Patriarch sitting at the opening of his tent just after having undergone his late-in-life ritual circumcision.
Three memorable visitors
The Bible at the beginning of Genesis 18 records a scene of Abraham the Patriarch sitting at the opening of his tent just after having undergone his late-in-life ritual circumcision. Anxious to invite in a guest to host and socialize with as he recuperated, he is suddenly met by three passersby who are traveling at the crossroads where Abraham’s tent was pitched.
Tradition teaches us that these were three Heavenly Angels in human disguise sent by God, each with a specific role: one was there to visit him as he recovered from this procedure. The other to inform Abraham that his wife, Sarah, despite her advanced age, would at last give birth after many years of being barren; and the third was to inform him of the impending destruction of the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
The side note here is one against multitasking, especially in the realm of mitzvah observance or the act of performing a good deed. In the words of the Biblical exegete Rabbi Solomon Yitzchaki, known by the acronym Rashi, the lesson here is that one emissary or messenger is not to perform two missions at the same time.
Each messenger was tasked with one assignment, each important in its own right.
This Biblical account reminds me of three special angels who visited with me and my family when we were sitting Shiva, the week-long Jewish mourning period after my father’s unexpected, tragic death, having been hit by a truck in a drive-through parking lot.
Shiva is a very cathartic experience. In the aftermath of loss, it allows for a period of retreat, usually observed at the home of the deceased. Tradition encourages well-wishers to comfort the bereaved by their presence before the mourners. Being present for the aching survivors is a mitzvah, a good deed in and of itself. It is less about what one should say to the persons who are suffering from their loss. By one’s mere appearance before the mourners, the message is one of heartfelt caring. In fact, Jewish law discourages the visitor from speaking to the mourner(s) until they initiate the conversation; in this way, the visitor is prevented from falling into offering platitudes that might not be helpful or appropriate. The mourner sets the stage and will usually raise a recollection or share a sentiment that connects the visitor to the life of the deceased.
Many people made Shiva visits my parents’ home. Some spoke inanities that were usually born out of a sense of nervousness in the face of the yet inexplicable loss. But there were three visits that remain with me that each served a different and distinct useful purpose.
One was made by a rabbi who, some 50 years before, had served as the High Holy Day Cantor for the last two years that we lived in Sarnia, Ontario, a small Jewish community of only 35 families where I lived until I was 10 years old, when we moved to Toronto so we could live a more intense and involved Jewish life. To meet this end, my parents picked up roots and left the easy small-town life for a strange big city. Most notably was my father’s willingness to liquidate his business, a successful furniture store that had been a town fixture for 45 years. It involved sacrificing financial security so that the four Zierler children could receive a more structured and comprehensive Jewish education.
This Rabbi Furst was well aware of what my parents had done for the sake of a better Jewish life. My father, on rare occasions, would bump into this gentleman. But I had not seen him in almost 50 years. He came to express his regard for my father’s example as a committed, practicing Jew, who had made great sacrifices for his faith and family. He was there to applaud and pay homage to my father’s religious dedication, ever so aware of its cost materially and otherwise. The visit has stayed with me.
On another day of the Shiva, a young lady appeared who we did not recognize. She introduced herself as a classmate of my eldest sister from the high school she attended that first year of our living in Toronto, who had come to our home for a Sabbath meal. Apparently, this then nonobservant teenager had never been exposed to a positive Sabbath experience. She noted how warm and welcoming and non-judgemental my parents had been and how taken she was with the Sabbath meal experience at my parents’ table. That encounter opened her to further explore Orthodox Jewish life and set her on a course toward a religiously observant life. She came to thank my parents and credit them with this positive, formative Jewish experience.
The third visit was one we never could have imagined. A young woman by the name of Linda entered the room where we were sitting, with a great deal of trepidation and hesitation. She apologized if her presence was an intrusion into the privacy of our pain, but she felt she needed to risk a visit to share some critical information with us.
She had been at the scene when my father was struck by the truck that was coming through the drive-through, which was, at best, a poor retrofit that put pedestrians walking from the parking lot in harm’s way. She came to reassure us that our father had not suffered and had not been in pain. He died on the spot after falling on his head from the impact. She had taken her coat and placed it under my father’s head as he lay listless on the parking lot pavement. This angel, Linda, had built up the courage to visit a grieving family she did not know but wanted to offer whatever comfort she could from what she had witnessed at the accident site.
Three angels of very different in backgrounds who had interacted with our family and, in particular, our father, who had now been suddenly taken from us—each of the three came with a different purpose: one to praise our father’s dedication to and sacrifice for his faith, another with a note of gratitude for a positive Shabbat experience that set her on her Jewish journey and, finally, a third angel who took care of our loved one at his time of passing and wanted to reassure us that he did not suffer.
At those moments, when these people or angels appeared before us at our Shiva, it felt to me like Abraham’s angels, and a portion of our pain took flight with their kindness.
For more of Lawrence S. Zierler’s blog, “Wavelengths,” visit www.riverreporter.com/wavelengths.