I go to my fair share of funerals. It is part of what I do for a living. While I would never say a rabbi becomes callous regarding funerals, he may find a way to suppress emotions to allow for a more professional job to be done. But this is not always the case. Sometimes the scope of the loss is so enormous that even the most seasoned rabbi cannot bear the pain.
I was completely unnerved by the tragic murder of Ezra Schwartz Hy”d. I did not know the Schwartz family and they did not know me, but I needed to make the trip to Sharon to attend Ezra’s levaya. I needed to somehow let this family know that they were not alone.
As I approached my destination I was thrust into the harsh reality of this tragedy, with the sight of police vehicles escorting the family to the funeral, along with many, many community volunteers.
Once inside, the first thing that hit me was the number of young people present. Even at large funerals we are not accustomed to seeing many people under the age of 20. The scene of young boys and girls sobbing and weeping and hugging was heartbreaking.
Every seat was immediately taken or saved. At 11:30, the room went absolutely silent.
Several young boys entered with a coffin on their shoulders. A lone, white tallis draped the bier and everyone stood. All you could hear was the wailing, I mean absolute wailing, of these young boys tasked with carrying their dear friend. There was no dolly, no wheels, no easy way. They did it the real way because this was their friend. Ezra had now arrived in the room.
One rabbi got up and for almost 30 minutes the crowd recited Tehillim 119 with the paragraphs that correspond to the name of the kadosh, Yechiel Ezra Ben Ari Yonah.
Then, there was silence in the room that hung, as the assembled group awaited the arrival of the family. You could hear a pin drop as they arrived.
After the community rabbi spoke stirringly, Dr. Ari Schwartz, Ezra’s father, followed him. Now, I have heard many people speak at funerals. I have heard people speak at difficult funerals. But I have never heard anything like this. Ari, his wife, his daughter Mollie and his sons all got up and delivered heartwarming and wrenching tributes to Ezra. I am amazed that they had the composure and clarity of mind to write and deliver such beautiful and inspiring words.
One thing that resonated with me came from Ari. This father who has just suffered the unthinkable was able to clearly articulate what he had, what he had lost and what he plans to do to get through this.
For over two hours we heard from friends, coaches, teachers and family about this boy named Ezra. Suffice it to say that we heard from each and every speaker that we had lost a beautiful, young man who loved his family. He was a gifted athlete, he loved Israel, he was a great and caring friend and was simply stolen from us way too soon.
As the ceremony ended we rose for the Keil Malei and watched in agony as the pallbearers once again lifted Ezra on their shoulders to escort him to his final resting place. As the casket moved within one foot of me, I clenched the tear-soaked tissue in my hand as I saw the anguish on the faces of these boys, yes, boys, who had to perform this awful task. One boy kept kissing the casket in between sobs.
By now, the sky that was clear when we arrived was now stormy. There must have been hundreds of people who stood outside in this miserable weather to pay their respects. “What a Kiddush Hashem,” I thought.
We were told that we would walk to the cemetery. Fittingly, the skies opened up and wept with us as we walked quietly to Sharon Memorial Park.
After several minutes of walking, we arrived at the gravesite. There were two tents set up for people to stand under, but there were too many people to fit. I managed to come around to the other side near the grave. This is when it hit me like a ton of bricks.
Let me preface by saying that for years, people have told me that the hardest thing for them to handle at a funeral is the sound of the earth hitting the coffin. When it is cold or wet, the sound is much more pronounced. I am not insensitive to this, but I am used to it.
THUD! The first shovel of mud hit Ezra’s coffin and it might as well have been a two-ton boulder, for that is how it felt to me.
THUD! There it went again. A loud, crashing sound of a door being slammed on this promising life.
THUD! Ezra will never ski or play baseball with his friends again.
THUD! There will never be a wedding for Ezra.
THUD! There will never be a child for Ezra to play with.
THUD! There will be an everlasting void without Ezra.
Each time I heard it I shuddered at the finality and reality of what I was witnessing. I prayed that the first layer of earth over the coffin would be finished so that the awful
THUD would go away.
Watching parents bury a child is one of the most sobering things one can witness. As those in attendance lined up in the traditional shurah and recited the consolation words of “Hamakom yenachem,” I wondered how many times over the course of shiva this family would hear those words.
When I arrived home many hours later, my infant son was cranky and would not go to sleep. I just sat there and watched him and gave thanks that I could pick him up and hold him and hug him and kiss him and love him.
I thought of Ezra.
These reflections were written by Rabbi Klibanoff upon returning home from Ezra’s levaya. Rabbi Klibanoff is spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston.
By Rabbi Samuel Klibanoff