July 19, 2024
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Harav Asher Weiss Joins Shomrei Torah to Mourn Sophie Spangenthal, z”l

Fair Lawn’s Shomrei Torah recently hosted Rav Asher Weiss as the community joined together to remember and mourn Sophie Spangenthal—Chava Shalva Gavriella bat Dovid Yitzchak HaLevi—a 5-year-old who succumbed to cancer just a few short weeks ago. Rav Weiss shared words of Torah and comfort with hundreds who came to remember Sophie. She had captured the hearts of shul members, hospital staff at Sloan Kettering and volunteers, staff and children alike both in school and at Camp Simcha because of her upbeat attitude, her concern for others despite her own situation, and her determination to make the most of each day during her two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer.

The shul was packed with members and visitors. Many rabbeim from near and far were in attendance, anxious to hear what an acknowledged Torah giant planned to share. Following Mincha and Maariv, Shomrei Torah’s Rabbi Andrew Markowitz delivered his introduction. He spoke of the Three Weeks and the sadness it represents, noting that the period began a bit earlier for the Fair Lawn community. He talked about a little girl who spent half her life in and out of hospitals, yet was a shining light to so many who got to know her. He shared a story told to him by Sophie’s father, David, on the second-to-last day of shiva, which encapsulated what made her so special.

Sophie had spent nearly two weeks at Camp Simcha a year ago, and since then spoke incessantly about wanting to return this summer. Despite her weakened state, she got the opportunity. Soon after arriving, she noticed a 4-year-old girl looking sad and homesick. Sophie asked what was wrong and was told by the girl that her parents weren’t there and she was afraid. Sophie responded by noting, “My daddy is at a hotel just a few blocks away. If I need anything, he’ll come back for me. Your parents are probably there too, so if you get sad you can ask for them.” The girl’s tears immediately turned into a smile, her outlook transformed with those words of comfort—selfless words from a child who literally was experiencing her last days on earth. Rabbi Markowitz closed by noting that the community continues to gain inspiration from young Sophie’s life.

Rabbi Benjamin Yudin followed by noting what a privilege it was to have Rav Weiss address the shul, commenting, “It’s not the place that honors the individual, but the individual that honors the place.” He noted that to hear Rav Weiss was nothing less than to hear a symphony, marveling at Rav Weiss’ ability to share Torah thoughts from a variety of sources and present them in a clear and exciting manner. He then gave his thanks to the guest speaker for “fulfilling the 611th mitzvah, walking in Hashem’s ways.” He closed by noting Rav Weiss’ accessibility to all sectors of Judaism, and of his constant outreach to the Jewish people.

Rav Weiss began by saying that while it was a privilege to be there, it was not without profound sadness. He had heard that Sophie was a beautiful girl. He then shared his own similar personal experience. He had lost his 2-year-old grandson, the child of his daughter. “Seeing the suffering and demise of a child,” he offered, “is one of the most unbearable things to witness.” He continued by explaining, “Sophie is in Gan Eden. We don’t know, we can’t know Hashem.” He added that Rashi has stated that Hashem Himself teaches Torah to little children who leave the world too early, so Sophie has the best teacher. “Let us be comforted that she is hearing Torah from HaKadosh Baruch Hu.”

Rav Weiss, a cadence to his voice, then delved into various aspects of the Three Weeks and the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. Although it would be futile to attempt to capture all of his thoughts and nuances, below are some of the themes that emerged.

Rav Weiss shared, “For every generation that doesn’t have a Beit Hamikdash, it’s as if we personally destroyed it. We bear responsibility.” He went on to quote a pasuk regarding our current period from Neviim. The first part referenced a blessing that the sad day will be transformed into joy, and the second that we should love truth and peace. He asked rhetorically what one had to do with the other. His response was that the first Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of a lack of truth, which represented Torah study, while the second saw its downfall based on the absence of peace, which took the form of sinat chinam. The strengthening of each positive midah is the key to turning a day of mourning into one of joy.

He spoke of the tragedy of our time, the infighting among Jews, noting, “As if there wasn’t enough hate of us from outsiders!” Regarding Torah study, Rav Weiss spoke of Jews from various parts of the world who do not have a common culture, customs, language or even siddur. “The only thing they can do together is to learn, and that’s how we made it last for the past 2,000 years. “Mashiach is almost here,” he continued, but until then “we must talk and learn together, which will teach us to love truth and peace and give us a fair chance of having a Beit Hamikdash again.”

He spoke of the Three Weeks as a period in which we can engender a renewed devotion to Torah learning. After 120 years we are all asked if we learned Torah each day, although he acknowledged that it’s impossible to quantify how much is enough for each individual. He relayed a personal story of his father’s time in Birkenau, and how he risked his life as an 18-year-old when he heard the Klausenberger Rebbe was in a barracks at the same camp. His father snuck over to the Rebbe and was adamant that they learn together. “Otherwise, we can’t survive.” They spent 13 months learning together in the camp, and decades more after their liberation.

Rav Weiss acknowledged that it is a challenge to mourn the loss of the Beit Hamikdash. “How can we cry for something we haven’t personally experienced?” Returning to the theme of the night, he posed the question, “What does personal tragedy have to do with the loss of the Beit Hamikdash?” His response was that the loss of a child in a way is a manifestation of churban Beit Hamikdash, with the feeling in both instances that Hashem is concealing His face. A personal tragedy is therefore very much a part of the Three Weeks theme, and its accompanying pain can be transferred to better identify with the loss of the Beit Hamikdash. Rav Weiss closed by tying the loss of Sophie to the Three Weeks, and praying that her neshama will be lifted as a result.

In his eulogy for Sophie, Rabbi Markowitz had referenced the challah bakes, mitzvahs and good deeds that had regularly been undertaken on her behalf during her long illness. Perhaps, as we hearken back to the words of Rabbi Weiss, the outpouring of learning and ahavat Yisrael generated in Sophie’s name will help inch us closer to the building of the third Beit Hamikdash.

By Robert Isler


Robert Isler is a freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected].

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