With news that a dear friend of my sister was in her final hours of a long battle with cancer, I was reminded that there are moments when it is inappropriate to wish or pray for an ailing person to recover. Sometimes, recovery from a debilitating ailment is so unlikely, so remote, that praying for the peace of a distressed soul, seems much more just and appropriate.
A few years ago, while serving as the director of one of the many Jewish Family Service Agencies in North America (JFSA), I accepted an ominous telephone call from a local hospital. I was advised that an elderly man was on life-support in their intensive care unit. All efforts on the part of the hospital to contact his next of kin had proved fruitless. His name was Daniel Rakosi and because there were numbers tattooed to his wrist, the hospital assumed he was a Jewish person who had survived the Holocaust.
A review of the known Holocaust survivors in the community turned up a file for Daniel. Some years earlier he had asked for assistance in filing a claim for restitution. The file indicated that he was from Hungary and had survived Auschwitz. Daniel was divorced and had a son named Michael. I shared the information with the hospital and caseworkers on both ends got to work trying to track down Michael or his mother.
After 24 hours, we had both turned up nothing. The hospital informed us that without family permission, the ICU’s Director would sign the necessary form instructing the medical team to remove all life-support within the next 24 hours.
In the absence of family, I felt compelled to visit Daniel Rakosi, the Holocaust survivor dying alone in the hospital. The man I found in the ICU was lifeless, devoid of movement; his complexion grey. The only sounds around him were the pings and swishes of the numerous machines sustaining his lifeless body.
I took Daniel’s hand in mine, staring momentarily at the tattoo that served as evidence of the physical violations this body had endured and wondered about the unspeakable psychological trauma he carried with him as well.
There’s a beautiful verse the liturgy of the traditional Jewish morning service that reads:
My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure. You created it, You fashioned it. You breathed it into me, You safeguard it within me, and eventually You will take it from me, and restore it to me in World to Come.
As I held Daniel’s hand, I recited the Jewish affirmation of faith, the Shema Yisrael, Hear, O’Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. I asked God to bring peace, shalom to the anguished soul still “housed” in this depleted body.
As we always did when homeless or indigent Jews in the community passed away, JFSA made all the necessary arrangements for Daniel’s funeral, including asking a local rabbi to volunteer his time and officiate at what we expected to be a poorly attended burial.
Much to my pleasant surprise, 6 people turned up for Daniel’s funeral. All of them were neighbors from his apartment building who had seen the obituary for Daniel in the local paper. Before the service began, I made a point of introducing myself to each person and asking them to tell me something about Daniel that they would remember.
Imagine my surprise when one of the attendees informed me that he had introduced Daniel to the Book of Mormon and had been present when Daniel was baptized and welcomed into the Church of Latter Day Saints.
Now, Judaism does not permit the burial of Gentiles in Jewish cemeteries and the last time I checked, a public conversion into any faith was viewed by all denominations of Judaism as an official abdication of Jewish identity.
So after speaking with my new Mormon acquaintance, I took the Rabbi aside and shared with him the information I had just obtained. He talk a long breath and then said to me in a voice filled with wisdom and certainty:
“Daniel Rakosi was born a Jew. He was sent to Auschwitz because he was Jew. God has sent him back to us to bury him as a Jew and that’s what we’re going to do today.”
The Rabbi’s response was so thoughtful and prophetic that I was embarrassed to have even suggested we might have a problem in proceeding with the burial. The soul that God had given Daniel was pure. The imperfections of human history that had denied Daniel an easy journey were responsible for the challenges and detours he experienced in this world. Daniel Rakosi was now entitled to be laid to rest with all the dignity, respect and sanctity we could provide.
Some months later, the receptionist at JFS buzzed me on the intercom and suggested that I might want to meet a new client who had just walked into the agency asking for assistance from our non-sectarian food pantry that was helping to feed thousands of struggling people.
“Why would I want to meet this particular client?” I asked. “His name is Michael Rakosi” she replied.
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