Aaron's 5th Yahrzeit
Today, the 8th of Iyar, is Aaron's fifth yahrzeit. Though I haven't posted much of anything here lately other than Musical Mondays, there's been quite a lot on my mind, and in particular, I've been thinking about and reliving my experiences of five years ago quite vividly. Perhaps I'll write more about that soon, but for now, here is the d'var torah I delivered at the siyum we held last night.
B’rshus harav, beloved family and friends:
Debbie and I offer our deepest thanks and appreciation to all of you for participating in tonight’s memorial marking the Aaron's fifth yahrzeit. Your presence, your chizuk, and especially your day to day friendship mean more to us than any words of ours can express.
Another year has passed us by, bringing to us once again to – as Rabbi Kaufman customarily phrases it when speaking prior to Yizkor – that most solemn of duties, commemorating one whom we have lost, and whom we miss so very intensely. For most, Baruch Hashem, such duties are focused solely on loved ones of past generations - parents, grandparents, and the like. But for Debbie and me, whenever we attend Yizkor services, and especially when the eighth of Iyar comes around each year, we must again relive the devastating inversion of life's usual cycle that befell us, our child being taken from us at such a young age, with so much still to accomplish, so much promise left to fulfill.
I was daily reminded of this disarrangement during the first eleven months after Aaron's passing, when I said kaddish for him – the somber and awesome bond between son and father that was, in our case, tragically reversed. And yet, it also provided a kind of relief and closure, to know that I was doing for Aaron what, under normal circumstances, he would have one day been bound to do for me. When those months had passed, I was determined to find a way to maintain, on an ongoing basis, a meaningful connection with who Aaron was, to perpetuate his memory by continuing that which he had begun.
As some of you know, Aaron had the opportunity, on behalf of his 12th grade class at RTMA, to make a siyum on masechte berachos. This occurred at the start of the current daf yomi cycle, just over five years ago, on 24 Nissan 5765, two days after Pesach, and just two weeks before Aaron left us. Aaron had intended to continue his commitment to the daily daf, and how much satisfaction it would have given him – how much naches would it have given me – for him to have participated in the literally tens of additional siyumin that were held during those succeeding years. So I resolved that each year, I would complete a new masechte in Aaron's zechus – as Aaron's shaliach if you will - and conclude with a siyum coinciding with the date of his yahrzeit.
In each case over these past five years, there was particular relevance to the masechte I selected. There were two reasons for my choice this year of masechte Chaggigah, the first a personal and emotional one. I made a siyum on this masechte once before, just over five years ago, on 20 Nissan 5765, the first yahreit of my zaideh Rabbi Avraham Rosenfeld Z'L. His yahrzeit being erev the last yom tov of Pesach, I had neither time nor inclination to call a gathering such as this one, so I made the siyum rather more privately. In fact, the only others in attendance were a couple of my kids, and I clearly remember that Aaron was one of those present, just days before he was to lead his own first siyum.
The other reason for my choosing Chaggigah for today's siyum is a gemara found right in the middle of the masechte. It is likely one of the most well-known aggadatas in all of shas, yet also, ironically, one of the most difficult to understand. On daf 14b, the gemara states, "arba'ah nichnisu lapardes", literally translated as "there were four who entered the orchard" – where "Pardes" is parallel to the English terminology of "Paradise" or "Garden of Eden". As most meforshim explain, these four undertook to delve into the deepest and most mysterious of all knowledge, the kabbalistic meditations relating to the merkava, the metaphorical chariot of God. They thus embarked on a spiritual journey to approach the Divine essence as closely as is possible for any living being to do so.
The gemara goes on to describe how these four tannaim, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher – formerly known as Elisha ben Avuyah – and Rabbi Akiva, each responded very differently to this experience, and that of them all, only Rabbi Akiva emerged from the "Pardes" unscathed. I would like to focus on the first of the four, Ben Azzai, although his fate is the least commented on in this gemara. It states, [Hebrew] "Ben Azzai glanced at the Divine Presence – tried to come too close to the unapproachable – and perished". [Hebrew] "And of him it is said, 'yakar' in the eyes of God is the death of his righteous ones". The Hebrew word "yakar", ironically, has varying meanings that are nearly opposite. It can mean precious or valuable, but also can mean heavy or difficult. Certainly the death of tzaddikim like Ben Azzai can be understood as "precious" to God, since their souls thereby move up to olam ha'ba, join the yeshiva shel ma'alah. But Rashi focuses on the second meaning here, stating that Ben Azzai's death was also difficult for Hashem, as it were, because he died young, unmarried, with so much unfulfilled potential.
When learning this gemara, I was struck with the parallel between this dual meaning attached to Ben Azzai's death, and an earlier such loss, that of Nadav and Avihu the sons of Aharon, as referenced at the beginning of this week's first parsha. Chazal tell us that Nadav and Avihu were essentially great tzaddikim, and that their death, not unlike Ben Azzai's, was the result of their attempt to approach too closely to Hashem in some type of imperfect manner. Moshe Rabbeinu, when consoling his brother on the loss of two sons, quoted Hashem's own response, [Hebrew] "Through those close to Me will I be sanctified, and before the whole nation, 'ekaved'". Once again a word is utilized, "ekaved", that can have both a positive and negative connotation. It can mean, as per the usual translation here, "I will be honored", but it can also mean, "it is heavy for Me", difficult, as it were, for even Hashem to bear the tragic loss of these young men.
At the start of this week's second parsha, we are told to imitate Hashem, [Hebrew] "be holy, for I Hashem your God Am Holy". But this is so much harder to achieve in some cases than in others. We all keenly experience Aaron's loss as heavy and difficult, but it feels nearly impossible for us to assimilate, or even comprehend, the other meaning of "yakar", to associate such a loss with that which is precious. But I keep in mind that if we can't reach such a level, if all our broken hearts can do is mourn, it is at least a comfort to remember that Hashem is, in some sense, mourning with us, that Aaron's passing is yakar in Hashem's eyes in both senses of the word, difficult as well as precious.
The mishnah at the end of Sotah states, in reference to Ben Azzai, [Hebrew], translated as "when Ben Azzai died, the last of the diligent scholars was gone". And though sometimes I can't help but feel similarly about Aaron's loss, at the same time, his example also encourages me, as I hope it can encourage you all, to try a little bit harder, to give a little bit more, to be the best student, the best worker, the best child, the best spouse, the best friend, the best self you can be. May Aaron’s legacy and Aaron’s memory continue to be both an inspiration and a source of comfort and strength to all of us who knew him, and may his neshama be a malitz yosher for us and for all of klal yisroel. Amen