Thirty five ago, on this Shabbat, Parashat VAYECHI, a poetic, even prophetic voice was silenced. The light of a dazzling spiritual luminary was extinguished. Abraham Joshua Heschel died. While it is a time of sadness and loss, in Hassidic tradition it is also a time of celebration and gratefulness acknowledging the return of a heavenly 'neshamah', soul to its spiritual home in the Presence of Holy One, Blessed be He.
The first word of the Torah reading this Sabbath suggests and proclaims-"And he lived,"or more 'midrashically' , if taking some grammatical latitude-"And he will live!" Not only was Heschel's life filled with events of revolution and change ie. the Civil Rights movement, the Viet Nam War , events to which he responded with revelatory brilliance and insight, but his words continue to echo in the minds and souls of Jew and non-Jew alike; wherever there is a need for justice, for peace, for human kindness and understanding, for a sense of wonder and gratefulness to God, there will we discover, in the poetic philosophy and scholarship of our modern patriarchal Abraham, the resonance of justice, hope, concern, clarity and genuine courage. "Va Yechi" and he will live! Heschel lives on , continuing to illuminate our world in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.
Several years before Heschel’s death in 1972, he suffered a near fatal heart attack from which he never fully recovered. A disciple, (Rabbi Samuel Dresner) traveled to his apartment to see him. Rabbi Heschel spoke slowly and with some effort. “Sam,” he said, “When I regained consciousness, my first feelings were not of despair or anger. I felt only gratitude to God for my life, for every moment I had lived. I was ready to depart. “Take me, O lord,” I thought, “I have seen so many miracles in my lifetime.” He added: “This is what I meant when I wrote (in the preface of his book of Yiddish poems):” “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.” (Yiddish-Khob gebetn vunder anshtok glik, un du host zey mir gegebn)
On the Shabbat of Heschel's yahrzeit (anniversary of death), we can best honor his blessed memory by experiencing Shabbat as a temple in time, a day of wonder and gratefulness, at least for one eternal moment.
I will ,God willing, share further reflections on Heschel and gratefulness next week.