It was a devastating tragedy. A young man, brilliant, gifted, with a devoted wife and two beautiful young children, was diagnosed with leukaemia. For two and a half years, helped by advanced medical technology and lifted by the prayers of friends, he fought with all his strength against the civil war taking place within his body. In the end it was all too much, and two weeks ago he died.
If any of us had been so minded, here was a supreme trial of faith. This was no ordinary young man. He was a person of the most profound religious belief and practice, who spent every spare moment of his crowded, short life helping others and bringing out the best in them, who by the sheer force of his example became a leader who transformed lives, whether as a youth leader, a student, a teacher or as a builder of communities. He taught people the power of possibility and helped them become better than they thought they were.
“Is this the religious life, and this its reward?” asked the rabbis. “Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?” asked Abraham. There are moments that can shake your faith to its foundations. Yet, as I stood at his funeral, this was not the feeling that swept over me. Instead I felt a strange, quite unexpected access of faith.
For around me, gathered at seemingly impossible short notice — in Judaism we try never to delay a funeral – were more than a thousand mourners, many of them his age or younger. Through their tears I saw the difference he had made to their lives. He wasn’t rich or famous. He had lived all too briefly. Yet each of them had a story to tell of how he had helped them, inspired them, befriended them when they were lonely, lifted them when they were suffering some personal crisis; and each of those blessings had given rise to others in turn, in a series of ever-widening ripples of good.
There is a film, Pay It Forward, in which the hero, a young schoolboy, is set a thought-provoking assignment by his social science teacher. “Come up with a practical plan to change the world and improve humankind.” Moved by the plight of people he sees in difficulties — a homeless man, his alcoholic mother, his badly scarred teacher — he suddenly envisages a way. Normally, kindnesses are reciprocated. They are “paid back.” What if they were paid forward? What if we made it a condition of doing someone some good, that they agreed to do good to someone else in need? Could you not make a virtue contagious, creating an epidemiology of generosity?
The film ends on a note of tragedy but also of immense hope. Despite what seemed to be a series of failures, the child does succeed in changing lives in ways no one could have foreseen. That is what I felt among the crowd of mourners at the funeral that day. We had come to honour the memory of one who, without ever saying so, taught people to pay it forward, and he had left behind him a vast legacy of blessings. And yes, he had died young and left a tidal wave of grief. But he had also taught us how never to let grief, or suffering, or sadness have the last word. Before he died, he taught us how to live.
God, bound by the very laws of nature with which He created the universe, and without which neither it nor us would exist, cannot render us immune to the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. But God can and does change the world by changing us, especially those rare and blessed people who become transmitters of His presence.
We wept that day. I believe God wept too. Shmuel Yosef Agnon, the Nobel prize winning writer, once speculated that Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, speaks not about human death but about Divine life, as if it were our way of offering comfort to God for the loss of one of His children. Mortality is written into the human condition, but so too is the possibility of immortality, in the good we do that continues, long after we are here, to beget further good. There are lives that defeat death and redeem existence from tragedy. We knew, that day, that we had known one of them.
(First published in The Times)