In the past I never took careful note of the great Torah personalities who themselves experienced child loss. But now, after enduring this tragedy myself, discovering this fact about these great individuals, I often wonder how this experience may have affected their outlook on life.
A few of examples of note: the famed Chassidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov lost two sons and two daughters; the first chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook lost a young daughter when she fell down a flight of stairs outside his home; a leading decisor of Jewish law, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv lost a son and a daughter.
To cite just one other example: the Ibn Ezra. He was a remarkable rabbinic figure who lived a thousand years ago (circa 1089-1164). Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ibn Ezra is well known for his commentary on the Torah. It ranks among the most widely studied Torah commentaries of all time, rivaled only by Rashi and the Ramban.
What is not widely known is that the Ibn Ezra wrote over a hundred books in his lifetime along with many poems. Amazingly, we learn much about his personal life from his poetry. In it, he reveals a life with much misfortune and tribulation. From these writings we learn that sadly four of his children died in infancy. His wife died young. His fifth son, Yitzchak, who lived into adulthood also dies tragically. The following is a poem in which he writes about the loss of this beloved son, Yitzchak:
Father of the child, come near to eulogize
For God has distanced your only son whom you loved, Yitzchak
I am the man who saw disaster and whose joy was banished
Alas! I remember the fruits of my loins, yet I never imagined!
I thought that in my old age he would be my comfort and salvation
But for naught have I worked hard and given birth to nil
For how can I be joyous when Yitzchak has perished and died?
For those who have experienced the loss of a child and for all who have experienced tragedy and misfortune, we might choose to be inspired by these great individuals who had the courage and resilience to continue living their lives with determination and creativity, even in the face of trauma and loss.
In honor the upcoming holiday of Pesach, I would like share a unique insight from the Ibn Ezra’s Torah commentary. He interprets one word in the Torah regarding the Passover story which may help shed light on how to navigate through challenging times we may face in our lives.
The Jews in Egypt were told to place the blood of the Paschal lamb on the mashkof (Exodus 12:7). What exactly is the mashkof ? “The word mashkof means a window…the window was in the door of the house.” ( Ibn Ezra, Exodus 38:8).
Unlike Rashi, who translates mashkof as ‘lintel’, or the upper beam of the door, the Ibn Ezra defines it as a ‘door window’, based on the the Hebrew root shakaf which means to ‘look’ or ‘view’. The Jews placed blood around the ‘peep hole’ in their front door. The Ibn Ezra claims that having a small window in the front door was common – as it still is in many of our homes today.
Based on this interpretation of the Ibn Ezra, the Jew in Egypt placed blood on three areas of the door. Namely, on the shtei hamezuzot, the ‘two doorposts’ and around the small hole in the front door of the house, the mashkof.
Why does God ask the Jew to place blood on doorposts and in the door-window? What is the symbolism of specifically these locations?
I offer an interpretation:
The door represents a portal where a person takes a step forward and enters a new realm. The door hole is used to see beyond one’s limited view.
The blood that the Israelite slave placed on the door symbolizes the pain and suffering we endured in Egypt. The oppressed Jew witnessed their own family members; husbands, wives, and children brutally beaten and many who were killed. One of Pharaoh’s first decrees was to have the male babies drowned in the nile.There is no denying the crushing pain that so many endured.
One can say that the loss now serves as a frame, as the doorpost does, for the new existence of the mourner. He/She is not the same person as before.
However, the act of placing the blood also on the door-window represents the inner strength of the Jew to take steps forward – through the blood lined doorway. When the Jew was set free, he/she would step through that doorway. The Jew was summoned to hold fast to a vision of optimism and hope – symbolized by the door-window.
One of the important motifs of Pesach is its message of renewal. The Torah requires that Pesach must be celebrated in the springtime when the first buds and flowers begin to reemerge from the dark and cold soil. We are to be personally uplifted each Chag Ha- Aviv, the ‘Holiday of Spring’, in our own lives. We are to gather our inner strength and be encouraged by the lessons of Pesach to know that with Hashem’s help our resolve and our resilience are strengthened.
On the night of the Seder we celebrate our exodus from the narrow straits of Egypt by drinking the four cups of wine. The four cups reflects a process. With each cup we take a step closer and gradually move towards the promise of salvation.
Peering through the door-window symbolically teaches us to taste and envision the sweetness of a better day, to hold strong, and never stop praying for the full redemption when we will hold our loved ones close again.
That day will surely come.
1.Translated from the Hebrew, from the book ‘Masters of the Word’ by Rabbi Yonatan Kolatch