2016-06-30
Sherri Mandell's oldest son, Koby, was killed May 8, 2001 at age 13. Koby and a friend, Yosef Ish Ran, Israelis who lived in the West Bank town of Tekoa, were found stoned to death by Palestinians in a cave in the Judean desert, where they had gone hiking.

This piece is excerpted with permission from "The Blessing of a Broken Heart" by Sherri Mandell (The Toby Press, 2003).


There are 903 ways to die, according to the Talmud. The way that Koby died may be the worst way. There are probably 902 easier ways to die. In fact, the Talmud has a discussion of which is the harder death: stoning or fire, and most sages agree that stoning is the most difficult death. In the hierarchy of pain, I am a winner.

Avraham brought his son to be sacrificed, but in the end, Isaac was spared. A Midrash tells us that Sarah died when she heard that Isaac had almost been killed. Her keening is the origin of the wailing sound of the ram's horn, the shofar, that is blown on Yom Kippur and Rosh HaShana, the sound that is supposed to awaken us to repentance.

I also serve that function. I feel that people look at me and love their kids more. When I'm in the supermarket in Efrat, I see how people look at me. I know that now when I walk around, many people look at me and think: thank God I'm not her, thank God I still have my kids, my family intact. Thank God I still have my wholeness. And they're right. Koby's murder is a robbery, an amputation, and a rape. I stand naked, battered. Yet I also stand with my angels, my belief, my openness to life.

Still, the other mothers console themselves by comparing the deaths of their children to Koby's death, which seems more brutal to them. A mother whose daughter was killed in a drive-by shooting near Jerusalem said to me: "I suffer, but not like you. I know my daughter died instantly."

Another mother, whose daughter died of cancer, says: "I suffer, but not like you. I know my daughter died peacefully. I was with her when she died. But you?"

In fact, my friends tell me I'm famous for my pain, famous because of Koby. Few have had a son killed as cruelly as I.

And yet I believe that the minute that Koby saw the hate on his murderers' faces, he went into shock and his soul left him. He went into a safe, protected place in his soul. He watched his death, but he was already with God. He was already being comforted, sheltered.

Rabbi Breitowitz, the rabbi of a congregation in Silver Spring, Maryland, told me that dying because you are Jewish means that you die sanctifying God's name. As a result, your soul goes straight up to God. Usually, according to Jewish sources, the soul undergoes a waiting period, a period of purification before ascending to God. But Koby was pure. In fact, Rabbi Breitowitz told me, the usual procedure of cleansing the body of a dead person was not necessary for Koby and Yosef, since they died as pure souls.

There are different opinions but our tradition tells us that the soul hovers around the body for a year, because the soul misses the body. But not Koby. He was free of his body the moment he died. He was already one of God's beloved, sitting on God's lap. That's why I didn't feel him at his grave the day of his funeral. And I am the woman whom people don't know how to address. I fill people with the dread of death. I remind them that death is around us. But by being the person nobody wants to be, I can console others because I am not separate from anybody's pain. I can't distance myself. I don't have that luxury. I can be there for others because my suffering includes so many of the permutations of pain.

***

Yesterday, eight months after his big brother Koby was killed, my six-year-old son said to me: "Mommy if everything God does is for the good, how can Koby being dead be good?"

He got it, right to the heart of the problem.

I told him that it's not good for us, but maybe it's good for the world, maybe they needed a great kid like Koby to die, so good things could come out of it. For example, parents have told me that they've become better parents from hearing my story.

I will never say that my son's death is good. I miss him and mourn him too much. But I don't want to carry death like the dead bird that last week caught on the hood of my car, thumping up and down, in and out of my vision, a symbol of pain and captivity. I want to carry death as an awareness of a bird that is free, soaring beyond the horizon of what I can see.

The only way I can do that is to believe in my incapacity to know. I have to believe that God has a plan, even if this plan hurts us. Yesterday I saw a glimpse of God's plan. I rode on the bus with a woman from my town, Rivka El Nekave, the secretary at the school my younger children attend. Her father left Afghanistan fifty years ago on horseback to come to Israel. Rivka is stunningly beautiful; her face seems lit from within. She was the adult in charge on the school trip with my son, Daniel, the day that Koby was murdered. The teacher was gone, and Rivka was left to supervise. She was the one who had to tell Daniel and the other children the awful news, and to comfort the children.

I learned that she is intimately acquainted with loss. She told me that her mother had died giving birth to her thirty-five years ago. She grew up as an only child, motherless. Her father remarried, and she didn't get along with her stepmother. She was the person who could tell Daniel with compassion and understanding. She was the one who had the capacity to contain the pain, and be able to comfort and help the children, maybe even to help her heal herself.

Sometimes we are formed more by what we are missing than by what we are given. Our courage and our compassion are built from pain.

And if that is the case, then to say--"This, too, is for the good"--even to the evil and pain in suffering in our life, is a truer way to live. The pain we feel is extraordinarily powerful and overwhelming. But the pain can either push a person into a spiral of depression or be an impetus and a spur for growth. It depends on how we handle it.

On Purim, we drink so that we can see the deepest truths in the world--even the murderous advisor to King Ahaseurus, Haman, who wanted to see all the Jews in the kingdom killed, can be seen for the tov, the good. We acknowledge that some truths are beyond the measures of our minds, which are confined to polarity. Some truths are beyond the confines of language, where words limit and skew, rather than reveal. Some truths are best borne in silence, which is the true language of concealment.

Perhaps our very bodies are disguises for the soul within, and we make the choice, to allow the language of the soul to speak in the world, or to keep the soul imprisoned like a dead bird thumping against our windshield.

"There is no rung of being on which we cannot find the holiness of God everywhere and at all times," say the Chassidic masters. (Martin Buber, "Ten Rungs")

It's hiding. But it's there. We have to keep looking.

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