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Rabbi Ozer Glickman, zt”l: Eternal Life in the Shadow of Despair

Each year as the month of Nissan approaches, the loss that always accompanies me is brought to the forefront as I face the challenge of life in an increasingly distressing world without the guidance of my Rebbe, Rabbi Ozer Glickman zt”l.

This year, under the shadow of the worst atrocities committed against the Jewish people since the Holocaust, with hundreds of new widows, orphans, bereaved parents and siblings, in addition to thousands facing the daily pain and suffering of unknown fates of loved ones in either fighting or in captivity, accompanied by the deeply troubling rise of global and American antisemitism, it is a year where Rabbi Glickman’s insight and moral beacon is missed more than usual.

While pouring back through Rabbi Glickman’s writings, I felt myself drawn again to a passage he penned that I wrote about for his fourth yahrzeit in 2022. At the time, the global pandemic and war in Ukraine were the most destabilizing events upending our accustomed sense of comfort, and שפתיו דובבות בקבר, Rabbi Glickman’s insight from years prior gave me company amidst my discomfort.

“It is creeping up on me again, the feeling that life will never be as good for my children as it was for me… I lost the feeling that life would always improve, that just as my parents had surpassed their immigrant parents and my first-generation impoverished family, that my kids would know more, achieve more, and live even more secure lives.”

As I wrote two years ago, I experienced the truth of the Gemara in Avoda Zara 5b “אין אדם עומד על דעת רבו עד ארבעים שנה”—“A person cannot fully understand his rebbe’s knowledge until 40 years have passed.” I reflected on the first time I read his post, as a college undergraduate with the optimism of a life ahead of me, thinking Rabbi Glickman was perhaps overstating things. The naivete of youth coupled with an unconscious bias made me hope his prediction and the impact it forecasted for my own future might prove to be inaccurate. Afterall, I thought, even after 9/11 and the rise of terrorism, there had been sustained global peace between most Western countries and in Israel, medical science continued to show human’s progress in controlling the disruption of disease in our life, and in America Jews remained safe and welcomed within all parts of broader society and higher education.

Sadly, the events of the past six months robbed what remaining optimism I had, and I began to feel suffocated by that same feeling of despair Rabbi Glickman described.

Thankfully, Rabbi Glickman didn’t just write about his challenges, but his response as well.

“Davening Musaf from the amud that first year with my former neighbors and lifelong friends in West Orange, I cried for the first time ever. מה אנו מה חיינו. I knew for the first time the truth of the starkest words every recited by people anywhere: הכל הבל (all is but a shallow breath)… One cannot consider oneself an adult until one recognizes the truth of הכל הבל. And then with healing comes the only response that I know: אבל אנחנו עמך בני בריתך, however, we are His people, and members of the covenantal community. We are through family and people vouchsafed a share in immortality.”

This approach, written years ago, seems to capture the initial response of the Jewish people. The images of Jews uniting across religious divides; in the Diaspora gathering to daven or pack supplies, and in Israel the erosion of pre-existing societal divisions was the tacit recognition that all of us are connected in what The Rav called the Covenant of Fate, our shared Jewish destiny and identity.

That passage provided a slight relief, helping me recognize that despite the challenges of our time, we remain the עם הנצח—the immortal nation.

Yet, as the war, suffering, insecurity and despair continued, I longed for a new answer, a new approach that Rabbi Glickman might have given to the challenges that seem qualitatively different from years before.

While his loss is compounded by the absence of those insights, צדיקים במיתתם נקראו חיים, the righteous even in their death remain alive, and turning back to his writings I found another insight when he again had written about his loss of optimism for the Jewish future.

In a post that only Rabbi Glickman could write, marshaling his knowledge of Rambam and Shulchan Aruch to contextualize a song lyric from Rav Nachman of Breslov, while contrasting it to Soren Kierkegaard’s approach, all based from his witty and nuanced critique of a song played at a wedding, Rabbi Glickman concluded:

Despair is essentially an act of sin. It denies the relationship between the finite and the Infinite, between man and his Creator. As a Jew, my act of despair threatens my physical and spiritual health. It removes me from the community of God and those who trust in ,מעומקא דליבא His covenant, Am Yisrael. I perceive my own despair as the act of an egoist, a posture singularly antithetical to our Torah, and it saddens me. Despair is a failure of the spirit…

The spiritual slumber of the Jews in the time of R’ Akiva was due to the sin of arrogance. They deemed themselves above Jewish history. In their despair, they elevated their own political and religious struggles above those of the Avos who preceded them.

…And so, as we read Megillas Esther, we must remember that our own struggles with Islamicism are nothing more than the perennial struggle with Amalek. Hamas and Al Qaeda are nothing more than its latest incarnation.

Of course, there are questions I still wish I could ask my Rebbe. How to thread the needle between appropriate pain of mourning while avoiding despair? How to strengthen the relationship with our Creator at a time when he seems infinitely far? How to view ourselves within rather than above Jewish history at a time like this? Yet, I sense Rabbi Glickman would value the religious experience he would see in struggling with those questions.

Rabbi Glickman’s approach would likely be as multifaceted and complex as his personality, and of course tailored to the nuances of the individual grappling with the question. However, the one theme I take away from his brief musings is that the more we see ourselves as connected to all members of Klal Yisroel, regardless of religious or political affiliation, the less we will despair. If we can see ourselves and even those different from us as equal members of the Covenant of Fate, then we can acquire the vision of R’ Akiva who could gaze into the destroyed remnant of a Bais Hamikdash and exiled people and find hope in the eternality of the Jewish people. By attaining that perspective, we can remove ourselves from the sin of despair, and face our own uncertain future, as long as we do so together, connected to our shared history, past suffering, and future redemption.

Ari Friedman is a cardiology fellow and was a talmid of Rabbi Glickman in Yeshiva University/RIETS.

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