February 4, 2021
Dear Holy Friends,
I hope this correspondence finds you well and in good health.
For many folks, this week’s Torah portion of Yitro is a great highlight of the cycle of scripture. Afterall, we recall Moshe’s “studying with God,” the theophany at Sinai and we celebrate the receiving of the Ten Commandments. If we happen to forget any of the details of the saga, we can quickly consult the 1956 epic religious drama film produced, directed, and narrated by Cecil B. DeMille, (and shot in VistaVision by Technicolor, by the way!).
While I certainly am also a fan of the Torah portion, each year I approach this sedra with a bitter-sweet feeling.
Ten years ago, I had a Bar Mitzvah student named Joshua. He was a quiet and reserved teen, who developed a great passion for Torah and synagogue life. Even though our congregation at the time typically read from the triennial Torah reading cycle, Josh was insistent that he would learn all six columns of the reading, which of course included a special melody for the Ten Commandments. Baruch HaShem, Josh read flawlessly and continued to enhance his ritual skills over the next few years. In fact, the congregation as a whole, looked forward to his davening and his leining (Torah reading) almost each Shabbat.
When Josh turned sixteen, he was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer. In between Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur that year, I flew down to see Josh and his family in Houston. During a complicated eighteen-hour surgery, the doctors at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Center removed over one thousand small tumors scattered throughout his torso. His recovery process from this surgery alone was destined to be laborious.
Josh continued to fight his disease for the next three years. He developed a relationship with the Make a Wish Foundation and then with a group called Tackle Kids Cancer. Josh in fact became an eloquent spokesman for that group which was supported by none other than NY Giants quarterback, Eli Manning. Videos of Josh’s presentations for diverse communities can still be found on YouTube.
During his illness, I had the opportunity to regularly visit Josh privately. I believed it would be helpful for him to potentially have the opportunity to express his concerns, frustrations or doubts without his family present.
Amazingly, during months of these visits, never once did Josh complain or ask questions of theodicy. Rather, he continued to focus on his community work geared towards raising awareness of kids’ cancer, his aspirations to become a pilot, and his passion to grow in his own Jewish knowledge.
Josh succumbed to his illness three years ago, at the age of twenty. I have no idea how a family recovers from such tragedy, but I do know that there was an outpouring of love from schools, neighbors, synagogues and institutions.
There is a Mishna in the Pirke Avoth which offers, “from all my students I have learned.” Most people would expect this educational text instead to read, “from all my teachers I have learned,” but this reveals a truth among teachers.
In his short twenty years of life, Josh became a teacher not only for me, but for literally thousands of people. As I remember Pesach Dov ben Ita Chana this Shabbat, I will remember his devotion to Torah, his unbelievable spirit, his consistent courage, his attitude of gratitude, and his incredible ability to live each day to its fullest. We learn in Sefer Devarim (30:19):
הַעִידֹ֨תִי בָכֶ֣ם הַיּוֹם֮ אֶת־הַשָּׁמַ֣יִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ֒ הַחַיִּ֤ים וְהַמָּ֙וֶת֙ נָתַ֣תִּי לְפָנֶ֔יךָ הַבְּרָכָ֖ה וְהַקְּלָלָ֑ה וּבָֽחַרְתָּ֙ בַּֽחַיִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן תִּחְיֶ֖ה אַתָּ֥ה וְזַרְעֶֽךָ׃
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you, life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life by loving the LORD your God, heeding His commands, and holding fast to Him. For thereby you shall have life.
In Josh’s memory and in the honor of Torah values, may we all be blessed with the capacity to share, teach, love, inspire, and choose life, this Shabbat and always.
Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD