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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

It’s Never Too Late

by Rabbi Avi Weiss (Posted on July 5, 2016)
Topics: Moadim/Holidays, Yom Kippur, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Middot

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God has blessed Toby and me with three wonderful children: Dena, Elana and Dov. We were also blessed with a fourth child born between Elana and Dov.  His name was Yitzchak Rafael.  It will be 40 years ago this coming December that Yitzchak Rafael came into this world.  He was affected with a dreadful genetic disease.  He lived into his fourth month and then died.

Those days remain a blur.  Toby and I were young, inexperienced, unable to handle this horror.  And so my parents stepped in.  They arranged everything including  buying the burial plot for Yitzchak Rafael.

For a few years, Toby and I found it too painful to visit the grave.  The time finally came when we felt ready to go.  We called the cemetery and asked for the location of our son’s grave.  To our deep horror, the cemetery had no listing of a grave for Yitzchak Rafael.

We were frantic.  We went to the cemetery to personally ask the staff if they had any record of Yitzchak Rafael’s burial spot.  They said no.  We called the congregation on whose grounds we believed our son was laid to rest.  They had no record of his grave.  Perhaps, we thought, we had the wrong cemetery.  So we visited all the adjoining ones – and still no Yitzchak Rafael.  We were stymied, mystified and heartbroken.  We were deeply pained as we had not put up a gravestone – the least we could do for our child.

Several years ago our dear friend Boris Stern, Roberta Horowitz’s father, Bernie Horowitz’s father in law, who sat behind me for years in shul, died.  I accompanied the family to the cemetery – lo and behold – it turned out to be the cemetery where I always thought Yitzchak Rafael was buried.

Something pulled me to approach the manager in the cemetery office.  With my heart beating quickly and hands shaking I said, “I believe my infant son Yitzchak Rafael is buried here – could you check out his burial plot.”  The secretary went to the back of the room, returned several minutes later and said, “I’m deeply sorry but we have no record of a Yitzchak Rafael buried here.”

“Would you mind if I check your records myself.”  “We don’t usually do this,” she said.  Upset, I told her my story, how we could not find our infant dead son.  “It’s against protocol, but I’ll make an exception.  I’ll allow you to check the record yourself.”

I began going through the old records line by line.  They had not been computerized and were hand written.  Line by line I read the names aloud.  And then I saw it.  Yitzchak Rafael was not listed as Yitzchak Rafael Weiss but as Rafael Isaac Weiss.  The child’s dates of birth and death were beside his name.  We had finally found our son.

That Yom Kippur, during Yizkor, right here, I resolved to put up the proper monument.  But I didn’t.  I don’t know why, but I didn’t.  On every subsequent Yom Kippur yizkor, I made the same resolution.  You must do this, I said to myself.  But I rationalized, it was almost forty years since his death, so much time had passed.  Somehow, inexplicably, I just couldn’t bring myself to make the arrangements.

This past year I became close to a gem of a person, a tzadik, Joel Simon, who works at Riverside.  One day, I’m not sure why, I told him my story.  He embraced me and declared – let me help you put up the monument.

Yom Kippur is a time of teshuvah, of making amends for wrongs committed.  Is there ever a time when it’s just too late?  Is there ever a time when the statute of limitations has passed?  Is there ever a time when it is just too late to say I’m sorry?  In my case, after forty years of shameful neglect could I rectify the wrong?

One of the basic messages of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is that it’s never too late.  No wonder we read the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael on Rosh Hashana; in fact, the story reverberates with Yom Kippur language.

It all starts when Hagar, Avraham’s second wife, is afflicted by Sara, Avraham’s first wife – and flees to the desert.  There, an angel of God tells her that she will have a child with Avraham whose name will be Yishmael.  The Torah goes out of its way to record the place where the revelation occurred – Be’er Lehai Roi.

The prophecy is fulfilled – Hagar and Avraham have Yishmael.

Eventually, Sara and Avraham have Yitzchak.  Probably to insure that Yitzchak would be the next patriarch, Sara demands the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael.  While they are cast out with God’s approval, the way they were expelled – with only bread and water – leading to their near death, is criticized by commentators including Rashi and Rashbam (see their commentary to Genesis 24:14).  This is the painful narrative we read on Rosh Hashana.

Close to forty years pass since the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael.  Sara has died.  Yitzchak is about to marry Rebecca.  As Yitzchak goes out to meet her for the first time, the Torah tells us from where Yitzchak was coming: ויצחק בא מבוא באר לחי ראי – “And Yitzchak came from Be’er Lehai Roi” (Genesis 24:62).  What was Yitzchak doing in Be’er Lehai Roi?  And why does the Torah include this seemingly insignificant fact?

Be’er Lehai Roi is the place where Hagar was told Yishmael would be born.  As such it was the place from where Hagar may have derived the hope that she would become Avraham’s covenantal wife and Yishmael would become Avraham’s covenantal son.  It wasn’t to be.  God declares the covenantal future is through Yitzchak, a reality that contributes to the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael.

Could it be that Yitzchak feels responsible for that expulsion.  After all, Hagar and Yishmael may have been thrown out to insure that Yitzchak would become the next patriarch.  And many years later – forty years – he travels to Be’er Lehai Roi where Hagar lives, to convince her to remarry Avraham.  Precisely when Yitzchak is about to marry, thereby assuring that he become the next patriarch, he does teshuvah by inviting Hagar back into the family.

The Midrash alludes to this point when explaining why Yitzchak was coming from Be’er Lehai Roi as he meets Rebecca:

הלך להביא את הגר אותה שישבה על הבאר ואמרה לחי עולמים ראה בעלבוני (בראשית רבה ס/יד)“Yitzchak had gone to bring Hagar, the one who had sat by the well, and sought out God, saying, ‘look at my misery.'” (Bereishit Rabbah 60:14)

Rashi elaborates:

הלך להביא את הגר לאברהם אביו שישאנה (רש”י בראשית כ”ד/ס”ב)“Yitzchak had gone to bring Hagar back to Avraham, that he might take her again as his wife.” (Rashi, Bereishit 24:62)

And when does Yitzchak come from Be’er Lehai Roi?  The language of the narrative is Yom Kippur language.  As Yitzchak meets Rebecca the Torah states, ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה (Genesis 24:63).  The Midrash Menorat Ha’Maor (3:74) notes that the language of su’ah is teshuvah – דרכן של בעלי תשובה להיות…שח ושפל – “it is the way of one who repents to be bowed and humble.”  Here, the Midrash may be understanding the sentence  ויצא יצחק לשוח בשדה to mean that Yitzchak was contrite as he went out to do teshuvah in the field.

And when Avraham remarries Hagar, she is called Keturah (Genesis 25:1).  In the words of the Zohar ואתקטירת “ve’itketirat” – she was perfumed with ketoret, with incense, a word associated with teshuvah (Zohar Genesis 1:133b)

The language here is one of expiation and atonement, the themes of Yom Kippur, pointing to that day being Yom Kippur.[1]  The message is clear: Yom Kippur teaches, “it’s never too late.”  It’s many, many years later, but that doesn’t stop Yitzchak from mending the rift he felt responsible for, it doesn’t stop him from going to Be’er Lehai Roi – connecting with Yishmael and bringing Hagar back.

“It’s never too late” is an adage that is easier said than done.  First, it requires that the person making the amends be self forgiving in recognizing that even after so much time all is not lost, teshuvah is possible.

Second, for the mistake to be fixed it often requires assistance from others.

And third, it requires a belief in the goodness of the person wronged, a belief that even after so much time a gesture of genuine contrition will be accepted.

A story is told of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the father of the mussar movement.  Once he went to a shoemaker to repair his shoes.  It was late and dark.  Noting the candle where the shoemaker was working was about to burn out, he said, “I’ll return tomorrow and try again.” “Do not despair” said the shoemaker.  “As long as the candle burns I can fix shoes.”

The message is clear.  As long as there is light flickering, as long as there is a spark of life it is never too late.  It is never too late to love; it is never too late to be in the formative years of life; it is never too late to start learning Torah; it is never too late to engage in religious commitment and spiritual striving; it is never too late to dream, to do, to accomplish; it is never too late to repair our ways.

And while we pray the repair takes place in life, sometimes it can occur even after death.  Maybe this is one of the meanings of Yizkor.  Like the yahrzeit candle flickering that many light for yizkor, it reminds us that it is never too late even for those who have died, for whom we’re saying Yizkor, to mend the fences, to say I’m sorry.

There we were, Toby and I, just a few weeks ago at the gates of the cemetery where our son is buried.  This particular cemetery is built with open paths, few trees, wide enough and open enough for a cohen to enter.  We followed the cemetery map and finally came to the grave of our infant child.  Most mourning involves remembering a person’s past life; when one, however, loses a child, every day one mourns not what was, but what could have been.

But that day as we approached the grave, we were mourning our little child.  He was still four months old.  The grave was small, the gravestone tiny.  It reads simple words:

פ”נ
הבן יקיר לי
יצחק רפאל – Yitzchak Rafael
בן טובה ואברהם חיים יוסף הכהן
December 3, 1970 – March 8, 1971
ו כסלו תשל”א – י”א אדר תשל”א

We stood near the grave holding one another. We shed tears.  Toby bent over to smooth the stone as if she was cleaning the room and making the bed of her little boy.  I whispered to myself, beni, beni, ha-ben yakir li, my precious precious son, Yitzchak Rafael, I’m sorry.  Please forgive me that I’m so late.  I love you Yitzi.  And I am convinced I could hear Yitzi say – it’s ok Abba, I love you too.

[1] In fact, the Zohar writes that the akeidah occurred on Yom Kippur.  There, Yitzchak begins his teshuvah process as he is close to death, perhaps in punishment for the manner Yishmael and Hagar were expelled.  Note the similarity of the language and narrative of the expulsion of Yishmael and akeidah story.  And now Yitzchak comes from Be’er Lehai Roi, probably on Yom Kippur, bringing his teshuvah to closure as he brings Hagar back to Avraham.