Three Lessons from a Dying Man

[Archived from October 9, 2009]
[by Phyllis Shaikun]

According to Rabbi Joel Wasser, spiritual leader at Keneseth Israel Congregation, clergy often receive unexpected notes and calls from chaplains around the state seeking their help with a particular situation. Several weeks ago, late on a Thursday afternoon, he received such a call from the chaplain of a small hospital about an elderly male patient who was in need of his services. The chaplain explained the man was Jewish and was close to death. Although not a practicing Jew, he asked to see a rabbi.

Rabbi Wasser agreed to talk with a family member and spoke to the patient’s son, a gentleman in his 50s with a “distinctly non-Jewish sounding name.” The son explained that his father’s dying wish was to die as a Jew. The rabbi explained that he would try to come the next day, but did send the son a copy of the Vidui, the prayer to be said when dying.

When the rabbi talked with the son the following day, he said he had brought his father home to die. The rabbi recalled he got into his car, plugged in the GPS, and just kept driving into a totally rural area. As he was moving along, he kept thinking that perhaps this wasn’t a smart move. He knew nothing about these people and perhaps they meant him harm. He had pause when the son told him to look for pick-up trucks in the driveway.

He arrived at the residence around 9 a.m. to find the son sitting on the porch with a young boy – both were drinking beer and the boy was clearly inebriated. The cross in the window added another element to the situation. The son confided that he was a Baptist and knew nothing about Judaism, but his father, who was close to 80, was born a Jew and wanted to die that way. The rest of the story went this way.

The son related that his father (the man who was dying) was born in Poland at the beginning of World War II. He and his family escaped and eventually settled in Appalachia where they lived for a number of years. They owned a small business and were well-liked, but the locals were leery of outsiders and chased many of them away. One night when his father was six years old, the Ku Klux Klan came to their home, nailed the young boy’s father to the cross and burned him alive while he and his mother looked on in horror. At that point, his mother told her son not to mention being Jewish or do anything else that would link him to their faith.

For all those years, his father kept the secret, but as he lay dying, he wanted to be part of the “congregation of Israel.” The rabbi greeted the father with “Shalom Aleichem,” and he responded. He explained the meaning of the Vidui and recited it and the Shema with the father. “It became,” said the rabbi, “one of the most meaningful experiences in my 20 years in the rabbinate.” He called it “radically transforming.”

Three lessons stay with him from that day: you should not always rely on yourself to size-up a situation because you might just miss out on something meaningful; every Jewish person (whether practicing or not) has a “pintele yid,” a little bit of Jewish soul that stays with them whether or not they keep the faith; and the awesome dedication of a son who would make a commitment to his father that exhibited an exceptional act of piety and loyalty. In this man’s case, even though he was chased out of the religion by evil doers, he came back.

The rabbi ponders: Did the KKK win or was this gentleman triumphant on a spiritual level? “It was,” he concludes, “a fulfilling and rewarding mitzvah – and maybe we all won?”

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