I just read a headline that upset me, disturbed me, and sent me into a tizzy. It read, “Abraham Twerski, famed rabbi and psychiatrist, dies at age 90 of COVID.” A similar headline read, “Founder of Gateway Rehab, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski dies while battling COVID-19.”
Now, yes, I found the news disturbing in and of itself, as the man was an inspired leader and insightful beyond words. What I found distasteful, however, was tying his name to COVID.
Yes, we are a world of voyeurs, always busy gazing into other people’s lives like we belong there. When people hear that someone died, they nearly always ask, “What happened?” As if depending on the answer, they will give or deny their permission for the deceased to have died. If the explanation makes sense, then it’s OK that they died, but if not, we’ll be annoyed by it.
True, sometimes people die in very entertaining ways, like the guy who went surfing in a hurricane. That’s a story to tell. Or the guy who liked shocking visitors to his office by jumping and throwing his body against the “unbreakable” glass in his conference room. Unfortunately, the glass was less “unbreakable” than advertised, and he fell 24 stories to his death.
Those deaths may define the life of the person involved but COVID here does not. In the year since this virus entered our lexicon, it has morphed from unknown non-issue to violent instant death threat to something in between somewhere. Depending on the area you’ll find people stringently following every precaution or perhaps treating it like yesterday’s news. But it’s only been a year.
Let’s not forget that the virus like anything else is a messenger of Hashem. He is precise in how He orchestrates events, who He deems must leave this world, why and how. The fact that different people died of the same disease does not mean they can be grouped into one category. To do so is superficial and negates the lives they led which were so meaningful.
Rabbi Twerski may have died of COVID, but what’s the news in that? What does that tell me about the people he helped or the books he wrote? What does that tell me about the 90 years he trod this earth and the good he did during that time? I apologize if you think I’m overreacting, but this truly bothered me.
Somehow, we tend to think, “The virus got them,” or “they succumbed to the virus.” We give it a life of its own divested from the Creator of the Universe Who created that too. It overshadows the person we’ve lost and adds an air of acceptability to it.
True, if we know that someone was suffering with a long illness, or passed away at an advanced age with decreased mental abilities, we may gain some insight into how the mourners may feel. Maybe we’ll be better prepared for visiting them and knowing how shaken up they are or aren’t. But then again, that’s something we could figure out if we went to the shiva house (or dialed in on Zoom) and just listened. If we were silent, we would gain the knowledge we need to know what might comfort them.
I think we need to change the dialogue. When you hear someone passed away, don’t ask, “How did they die?” Instead, try to find out, “How did they live?” What did this person bring to the world that only they could? What is the legacy that the family will cherish into the future? What did the person do BEFORE they died, not at the time of death?
We need to celebrate lives instead of tallying up deaths. That would be something worth reading about and writing up in the paper. “Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, ended his career of helping others at the age of 90.” That would tell me about the measure of the man, rather than the disease that Hashem sent to take him from this earth. It is much more compelling to know what he lived for, than what he died from.
I urge you to join me in this quest to get to know the best in people; to seek out, especially when they’re alive, what matters to them. Don’t miss the opportunity to ask for lessons from great lives, or to find out that the “average” life you thought someone led was actually extraordinary.
To a certain extent, this year death became so commonplace that we forgot that people are not. We can’t let our appreciation of others and our interest in them wane, nor forget that people are special and do amazing things. Let’s not let a final diagnosis shut the door on anyone. To do so would be a tragedy greater than COVID-19.
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