It’s been a week now since the tragic and untimely passing of our dear friend Yudi Dukes, Schneur Zalman Yehuda ben Aharon Leib, a’h. Since his petirah I have read and analyzed the reflections that have appeared on various websites across the blogosphere and wanted to contrast them using a Gemara in Chagigah (13b) that distinguishes between the prophecies of Yeshayahu and Yechezkel. The Gemara says that Yechezkel is compared to a villager who has seen the king, whereas Yeshayahu is the big-city dweller who has seen the king.
Many of the reflections written about Yudi until now were done by people who knew Yudi from years ago, or by those who didn’t know him at all and needed to speak to people in order to commit their thoughts on this unfortunate event to paper. However, living here in Cedarhurst and davening in Chabad of the Five Towns, where Yudi was part of our chevrah, I was able to see personally the sentiments expressed by those who realize now what kind of jewel was snatched from amongst us. The aforementioned Gemara carries greater relevance to this story than just merely the contrast in perspectives that it encapsulates. And although all Jews possess the moniker of bnei melachim, sons of royalty, let’s just say it is more noticeable on some people than upon others. But before I give you, the reader, a window into Yudi’s stellar character, I wanted to just analyze his name for a moment. There is so much wisdom within a name; it tells us so much about a person if we are so inclined to study it.
I often sat next to Yudi in shul during the week and found myself glancing over at his tallis bag (only bein gavra l’gavra, of course), and I came to notice something rather fascinating. Aside from the fact that Yudi had the name Yehuda as one of his given names, which the Torah equates with gur aryeh, a lion cub, which is characterized as the king of the jungle, his surname was Dukes, which is a position of nobility just below the rank of monarch. Knowing Yudi well, I had the opportunity to watch him up close since he and his family moved into the Five Towns, and this imprint of royalty was noticeable in every step and motion that he made and in every word he spoke, and has been passed down to the members of his family who carry themselves with such distinction and make a kiddush Hashem wherever they go and with whatever they do.
There are a couple of aphorisms that entered my mind when reflecting on Yudi’s life. One has its origin in the Likkutei Torah of the Alter Rebbe and the other is from a letter of the Rebbe Maharash. The Alter Rebbe in Parashas Behar-Bechukosai wrote, “The servant to the King is ultimately a King” and the Rebbe Maharash wrote, “In the depth of a chassid one can behold a Rebbe.” In their original Hebrew they are: “Eved melech, melech” and “Omek chassid, Rebbe.”
I believe that at their core, both of these aphorisms are saying the same thing. Following the signs of royalty with which Yudi was imbued and literally surrounded, you will see that this is who he was and what set him apart from everyone else.
Having just observed the 10th of Shevat last week, in this year’s portions of the ma’amar of “Basi LeGani” the Rebbe cites a teaching of the Maggid of Mezeritch on the words in Pirkei Avos “Negad shema avad shemeih,” which essentially says that ultimately the path towards the deepest level of success is to draw upon the infinitude of G-d through negating oneself. I believe wholeheartedly that this is what Yudi accomplished in his short but fulfilling lifetime in this world. It is well-known by now that Yudi was the founder and director of JNET, which is a Chabad organization geared towards pairing people seeking to teach with others thirsty to learn. I could attest that Yudi’s whole life was dedicated to this mission and it was what gave him the greatest satisfaction in life. At every opportunity he would push the importance of teaching, learning, or being a benefactor towards bringing these people together. Yudi submitted himself completely to G-d and therefore he had the spirit of G-d working vicariously through him.
I’d observe how he davened and learned his various obligatory shiurim of Chitas and Rambam immediately upon finishing davening, exactly the way the Rebbeim mandated doing them. Yudi’s day didn’t start until these items were fulfilled. He was completely given over to his Chassidus and the Rebbeim, and he was a great friend and an even greater family man above it all.
Yudi took immense pride in his family. He would always promote the great talents of his children and his wife, Sarah, shetichyeh l’oirech yamim v’shanim tovos. As many are aware, Sarah is a classically trained pianist and composer whose music has been featured widely across the music world. She was even nominated a few years back for a Grammy. I distinctly remember then how Yudi promoted this effort valiantly, doing whatever he could to make this dream a reality. When his son recorded a few songs as a memento for his bar mitzvah, singing songs of his own, Yudi disseminated it on all the shul chats and urged people to vote on the various Jewish music sites in order that his son’s release should win the song of the week. Yudi had no reservations expressing himself on these multitude of levels because it wasn’t about him; rather, it was about doing the things that he felt he was put here to accomplish.
It’s apropos here to spend a few words on Sarah, shetichyeh. While having to endure this unspeakable tragedy that fully consumed her every day and night over the past ten months, she still played the role of mother to her six children. In doing so, she taught us all, both men and women, the power of positive thinking and what it looks like to live a life of faith, particularly at a time when it seemed like she would be the one in need of support, emotionally and on so many other levels. She was there, day in and day out, possessing the presence of mind to articulate the whirlwind of emotions pervading every fiber of her being while including the name of Heaven in her distress.
The Torah tells us that our matriarch Sarah died when she was shown an image of the knife upon the neck of her only son, Isaac, and yet Sarah Dukes lived with the image of her dear husband, Yudi, every day for the past ten months on death’s doorstep and didn’t falter, relent, or succumb to the hands of despair. To the contrary, Sarah Dukes reached into the deepest reservoirs of her faith and compelled us together with her to believe that Yudi would be led from his hospital room back home and ultimately be much stronger than he was prior to his falling ill in the first place.
Chazal state that someone who invokes Heaven’s name amidst his or her suffering merits a doubling of sustenance. To that end, a fund has been set up to ensure that the Dukes family will be financially self-sufficient and that Sarah can continue raising her family with pride and dignity. We ask that you log on to charidy.com/cmp/dukes and contribute to allow Yudi’s great legacy to be perpetuated through his wonderful family and so that they will have the financial wherewithal and emotional strength to continue his great legacy for many long and healthy years. May his great memory be a blessing to his family and to all who knew him and were strengthened by him, and may we all merit the clarity that we seek with the coming of Mashiach, today.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.