When someone we know dies (actually when we hear any bad news), we are commanded to say “Baruch Dayan HaEmet,” Blessed be the Judge of Truth. Why do we say this? Rather than saying words of anger, frustration or resentment, though we might feel them, we acknowledge what is a basic truth: our life on earth is for a finite amount of time. We further acknowledge this in the words we say after kriah, the tearing of the garment or ribbon prior to the funeral: “G-d has given and G-d has taken, blessed be the name of G-d.” As hard as it is, death is a reminder that we are mortal beings who came from the dust of the earth and will return to the dust of the earth.
I had a reminder of this today when I was e-mailed by a former congregant in Tucson that Reverend Nachman Berkowitz z”l had passed away. Reverend Berkowitz grew up extremely poor in Russia and was able to put shoes on his feet through becoming a Torah reader. During World War II, he was sent to the gulag, and miraculously persevered through the hardships of the Russian labor camps. He said that what gave him the strength to keep going was the Torah, and in the camps he often said to himself huge sections of the Torah which he had memorized. After the war he came to the United States where he served as Torah Reader of two congregations: one in Toledo and the other in Tucson.
Reverend Berkowitz always read Torah with true yirat shamayim (fear of G-d) and with all his heart. It was truly a beautiful thing to hear him read, and extremely inspiring. I especially remember hearing the love with which he read Megillah all 3 of my years in Tucson. Reverend Berkowitz also was a sofer and was the first person to check my tefillan and to attach new r’tzuot (straps).
The best part about Reverend Berkowitz was, though he knew so much Torah, Jewish law and tradition (more than I will ever know) he was humble and understanding. He would have a conversation with anyone about any aspect of Judaism, not as the scholar that he was but as a regular guy.
Nachman-you are missed. I know that, in the words of Micah, you are walking humbly with G-d. Baruch Dayan HaEmet.