The week before Shavuot made my head spin. I had a few wonderful shows in Northern California and then returned to LA to sing the National Anthem and G-d Bless America at the Dodger-Mets game. Yes, the Dodgers won. The next night I regaled 1200 people at the Beverly Hilton and then drove to San Diego to perform at a beautiful Torah dedication parade and concert. I made it home with an hour to go before candlelighting, hugged my wife and kids and dashed off to shul for the afternoon services for Erev Shavuot.
This is when things got interesting. You see, I have a few rabbis with whom I REALLY connect. Rare individuals that see the big picture, have such a deep knowledge of text and “live” their learning. Shavuot with Rabbi Simcha Weinberg was enlightening to say the least. We learned almost continuously over the three-day weekend. That night he spoke at services and then resumed teaching from 11pm until 5am. The topic, near and dear to my heart, was Hallel! After a powerful sunrise Shachrit (morning service) we picked it up again for the second night of the holiday, which this year also happened to be Shabbat. More inspired classes, incredible celebratory meals and then a final class Sunday Night. I felt like I was opened up, inside out. Firing on all cylinders. With a new enthusiasm for the “same ole’” prayers, new eyes to see the colors of life.
You might wonder what Hashem had in store for me now that I had spiritually awakened from my day-to-day daze. Monday morning I opened up my studio, turned on the various racks of audio gear and started my trusty Mac. My first move is usually to check my email. Since I had been away I had hundreds begging for attention. Two of them caught my eye, both with the heading “Baruch Dayan HaEmet,” or, Blessed is the True Judge. These are the emails that I never want to read. This is the phrase that Jewish people utter when they hear shocking news, usually upon hearing about someone’s death. Just when you might say “oh, it’s not fair” or “where was G-d?” we insist that G-d knows exactly what’s going on and that even though we might not understand, this tragedy is also His will.
Two of our dear friends lost their wives. Unrelated incidents, strangers to one another, one suddenly, one gradually. But both were young mothers, each with three young children. Strikingly beautiful women, righteous, beacons of charity and kindness in their communities. Two agonizing funerals. Intense shiva minyanim (first week of mourning prayers.) After the first funeral I was asked to lead the prayers at the mother’s home. I should have never agreed: I screamed and sobbed throughout the service, starting and stopping and trying again. When acknowledging their guests the husbands would bravely tell anecdotes about their wives and then convulse again in misery. Speechless friends and family watched as prepubescent kids struggled with kaddish.
Midweek I went to the first game of the Laker-Magic finals with my brother Joey. Yes, life is for the living. The energy was palpable as the crowd jumped to its feet with every heroic basket. Such miraculous coordination, control and perseverance. Such a din that I resorted to earplugs halfway through the game. Afterwards, I went to hear some of the greatest musicians in world play at an LA nightclub. No exaggeration. David Garfield led his septet through the brambles of some of the thorniest charts imaginable, bringing waves of unbridled pleasure to this music lover. Spontaneous melodies soaring over the deepest grooves. Seemingly impossible dexterity coupled with restraint and subtlety. Again I was brought to tears, but this time they were the tears joy.
I decided to drive home the long way, over the canyon, rather than the more expedient freeway. At the top I pulled off at a beautiful wilderness area, the headquarters of the environmental group Tree People, and prayed the evening prayer under a nearly full moon. As I pondered the night sky against the shadows of towering pines I had a realization: while dating my wife, the first party that I saw her throw was a benefit for Tree People. I watched her grace and beauty shine as she catered to her guests and made sure every detail was perfect. That’s when I knew she was the one.
We also have three kids. My wife is the light of my life, beloved in our extended family and treasured in our community. The tragedies of the week hit too close to home. How did this figure in G-d’s plan? Where is the “beneficent kindness” in this daunting sadness?
A year and a half ago I played an incredible wedding at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. Everything was done right…the lighting, décor, flowers, huge crowd…I realized that a clip of their wedding video would be perfect to enhance my “Sam at Your Simcha” page on my new website. But how to find the bride after all this time? This week I started my research and eventually tracked down her brother’s email address. I contacted him and received the reply “which sister are you talking about?” The next day I responded and then a few hours later the sister I was looking for sent me an email. She was contacting me to get the sheet music for one of the songs that I had sung for the processional; I could tell from the context that she had no idea that I was trying to find her. I laughed as I explained the coincidence and we both agreed that we don’t necessarily live in a “small world” but instead that it’s a “large world, well managed.”
The same G-d that orchestrated this “coincidence” also arranged for these two women to pass on this week. This is the same G-d that created the universe, that gave the Torah to the Jewish people, that is helping each of us to navigate our lives. This can be our kavanah (focus) every time we say the Sh’ma. We are always receiving divine messages, heavenly love notes. Shavuot is here to open our hearts to this reality and to encourage us to keep the conversation alive. Please, my friends, let’s not go back to sleep.