My father died Friday night.
Suddenly. Unexpectedly. Without any warning.
An athletic, vibrant man just shy of his 73rd birthday, blessed with a clean medical report and no history of illness, he went from perfect health to dead in under five minutes. He and my mother had just finished their Shabbat meal and cleared the table. He sat down to study. Something in his heart exploded. He was dead before he hit the floor.
My father was a teacher. A college professor and a Torah scholar. The professoriate was his vocation; Torah was his passion. He rarely went anywhere without a volume of the Talmud in hand. The Talmud, that grand compendium of Jewish law and lore, culture, history, philosophy, and theology, brought him into a timeless discussion. He saw himself as a small link in a chain that started with Moshe; a humble participant in an eternal conversation begun 4,000 years ago. He studied a page a day, part of an informal international movement that sets that pace for Talmudic study—completing the journey roughly once every six years. He led classes wherever he landed, and answered questions from all who asked. He never took a penny from anyone for anything that touched upon his Torah scholarship. Money can color both love and truth. My father valued both much more than money.
Roughly 250 people attended his funeral. Men I had never before met lined up to tell me about my father’s classes. They described a teacher who was open to all, patient with all. They marveled at his respect, at his ability to accept all questions from all questioners as possessing inherent value—whether simple questions from newcomers attending their first Torah class or complex questions from accomplished Rabbis. They spoke of a man who taught them that their questions mattered—and that they had mattered to Jewish scholars throughout the ages. They explained how he had brought them, too, into that ageless dialog.
His closest friends marveled at his ability to apply the highest levels of intellectual rigor to all forms of discourse and debate—and his insistence that all participation focus on the ideas under discussion, rather than on the personalities of the participants. My father could always differentiate speaker from message. Friend after friend told me that they had never heard him engage in idle gossip, never heard him say an ill word about anyone. They envied his ability to discuss politics without losing friends. He knew how to look at the people with whom he disagreed. If they meant to do ill, he disassociated himself quickly. If their intentions were good, he saw no reason for a personal attack. Either way, personalizing the disagreement would be pointless. Wrong. Counterproductive.
My father was more than his public persona. He was a loving husband, father, and grandfather. He was a man who could examine every piece of fruit in the supermarket—and always returned home with the best. He could laugh with delight watching the fish in his koi pond respond to a sprinkle of food. He had been a schoolyard athlete, taking home trophies in basketball and handball. And as my Little League coach, he ensured that all players got to play (the only rule that would have gotten his son off the bench)—much to the consternation of other coaches who played only their stars, yet could never beat his teams.
My father was a man of ultimate integrity, willing to stand behind his beliefs. In his youth he had been a street fighter, defending his right to wear a yarmulke through even the toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. When my mother found herself the victim of religious discrimination, he took the lead in pressing her civil rights suit—a case that made important labor law in the Third Circuit, that established the impermissibility of discrimination on the basis of religious observance, and that featured a stirring and supportive concurrence by then-Judge Samuel Alito.
My father was also a humble man. He was neither proud nor boastful of his accomplishments, his scholarship, or his life. He simply saw the world as he saw it, did what was required—and lived in constant amazement that so few others could see either his world or their own obligations.
My father was a remarkable man, and not an easy one. It was not always easy being his son, and I suspect that it was not always easy being him. Our relationship was complicated, as father/son relationships tend to be. My mother describes us as a single personality staring at itself through a looking glass—and she is hardly the only one to have noticed. Our commonality began with our adoption of a shared Torah commandment: v’hegeita bo yomam valailah, you shall remain engaged in “it” day and night. Our differences stemmed from a philosophical divide: My father believed that the world is in Torah; I believe that Torah is in the world. He delved into Torah in ways that led me to believe (perhaps correctly) that he was disengaged from the world. I have studied the world in ways that led him to believe (certainly correctly) that I have become disengaged from Torah. But we shared a passion for ideas, for study, for learning, for understanding. And we shared the ability to focus on ideas, to remain respectful through disagreement, and to remember that those who mean well never warrant personal attacks.
So through it all, through good years and bad, through periods distant and close, we never shut the door to communication. Even during the years that we weren’t speaking, we spoke almost weekly—not infrequently as sparring partners. We kept each other sharp. I have lost not only my father, but also one of my closer friends.
Yet as acute as my loss is—a loss that I share with my sisters and their families—it pales in comparison to that of two others.
In a literal heartbeat, with no warning and no time to prepare, my wonderful mother watched her joy evaporate. Her handsome, healthy, strong husband, her best friend, her lover, her partner for the future, collapsed into a lifeless husk just weeks before their fiftieth wedding anniversary. I can hardly even imagine her anguish—even as I hold her and hug her and offer her my support.
In that same heartbeat, my lovely, bubbly, two-month-old son lost a grandfather he will never have the privilege to know. When I heard the news, I went into shock. It was not until I stood over my sleeping son that I found my tears. He was supposed to know his grandfather. I cried. Loudly. I woke him up. He cried with me. We cried together. Only one of us knew why. As I sit here today reviewing my thoughts, this paragraph remains the only one I cannot read without crying.
As I write these words, my father should be asleep at my mother’s side. He should be planning ways to show my son what it means to live a life of Torah. He should be feeding his fish, planning his shopping list, and managing his stock portfolio. He should be anywhere but where he is: split between a physical form buried beneath the Florida soil and a spirit moving into whatever plane spirits inhabit.
One of my sisters asked me about that spirit realm. What if, she wondered, my father arrives there to discover that the Torah that had guided his life had not provided the correct answer? I reminded her that my father did not lead a life of Torah for the sake of a rewarding afterlife. He led a life of Torah l’shma, Torah for the sake of Torah. He led a life of Torah because it gave his life meaning—and it allowed him to add meaning to the life of others. The standing room only crowd at his funeral was a testimony to his success.
I, myself, am not a man of faith. I do not know where life originates or where it goes when death sets in. I find no single answer either more or less plausible than any other. Many take solace in concrete beliefs about spirit, about soul, about God. I take solace in uncertainty. Some questions are unanswerable. I can spend the rest of my life searching, but I will never know why him, why now. My engagement in the world has taught me that in the quest for knowledge, some things are unknowable. There is a reason behind the Torah commandment v’hegeita bo yomam valailah: No matter how much we engage, we will never exhaust the pool of questions.
An instant death is a blessing, but only to those who are ready. My father was not ready to die. We were not ready for him to die.
The world was not yet ready to say farewell to Rabbi Dr. Theodore Abramson, to Ted, to Teddy, or to Rav Tuviah ben Rav Yaacov Simcha. I was not yet ready to say goodbye.
And yet, ready or not, such is the way of the world.
Goodbye, Dad. I will miss you.
Zecher tzadik l’bracha. May the memory of the righteous be a blessing.