By Malkie Gordon Hirsch
They say, “No news is good news,” and although it doesn’t make for the easiest articles to write, I take those weeks to reflect on different issues in life, of which there’s no shortage, at least in my life.
But in the world of news publications, you need to cover the current events of human interest, so with that, I’ve shelved my article that was meant for this week and started another about an individual who had to depart from this world way too soon, but had the chance to impact so many lives before he did.
It all began roughly an hour ago (Monday morning) when I turned on my phone and in addition to seeing some news about a power outage in the neighborhood, I saw a stream of the most common “BDE” phrase flooding my WhatsApp chats.
My heart sank as I saw who had passed and I started trying to gain information from various sources on the things people try covering when they hear about someone relatively young that passes away.
I recently attended a shivah house and a family member sitting for her spouse asked me why people ask so many questions about the nature of the passing, the “who, what, when, where, why, and how” of that particular story. I heard the annoyance in her voice. I reassured her that it’s something that everyone sitting shivah deals with and it’s in response to a person’s natural inclination to cover their bases and make sure they have no need to worry about what the petirah member suffered from or dealt with. I know it comes from a source of worry and anxiety and I try telling shivah house members not to take it personally.
Also, take into consideration that G-d doesn’t need a good storyline to end someone’s life. It can happen when they’re walking out the door of their house. It has happened and it leaves others in somewhat of a panic, wondering if their end might look something like that.
I’ve attended my fair share of time visiting shivah houses and I hear praise about the person once they’ve passed—it’s another common thing that happens during the levayah and shivah week.
And I can say for certain that the loved ones in Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstein’s life are in for a busy week. For all the good that he did that the public witnessed, there were countless stories that they were not privy to.
I know because I was one of those people whose lives were greatly impacted by the words he said to me.
It happened a month or so after Moshe passed suddenly. I was a ball of anxiety and had finally started feeling after the shock started wearing off. People have this misconception that shock isn’t a good thing but sometimes, it’s the only thing that’ll preserve your emotional health.
But once I started realizing that this new life wasn’t temporary and that I’d have to learn how to be on my own for the first time, parent on my own, and do many things I never imagined I’d have to do, I knew I’d need someone to talk to.
My friend’s sister Miriam who worked for Rabbi Wallerstein had reached out to let her know that she was making an appointment for us to speak. She was completely confident that he could help me, and in my mind, as I drove into Brooklyn that Sunday morning, I thought that maybe he’d have insight that I didn’t have.
I recall my feelings vividly on the day that I made the drive in, the first drive after that fateful one on March 27, and I felt intense sadness and also like I was cheated out of a life that I worked hard at having. I was angry and I wanted answers.
It’s as if he read my mind when he said, “I know you want answers. I’m not G-d and I can’t give you those. But I can ask you a question and you’ll probably forget it a minute after you leave here, but at some point, you’ll hear it pop into your mind and that’s going to be your driving force when you’re having a hard day and you don’t think you can do this.”
He looked at me and asked, “Are you in or out?” (Alert readers may recall that I wrote about this conversation shortly after it happened, but because of the longer-term impact it’s had on my healing process, and the timing of Rabbi Wallerstein’s passing, it felt worth revisiting.)
I think I might have had some type of expression of confusion on my face and so, he continued.
He spoke about his early life and the personal challenges he faced. He spoke of his initial unhealthy responses to those challenges and the moment when he realized that it’s not what you’ve been given that determines your actions—it’s choosing your reaction despite the challenges you face in life.
He had faced tough times during his upbringing. He could have been a victim and blamed that for the life choices he could have made in reaction, but instead he decided to take those experiences and help people through their darkest times, using his own past as a blueprint.
As an understanding and as a non-judgmental approach to teach others that regardless of what you’ve been through, and not having answers to the “why,” you can always choose the “what now?”
That’s what he meant when he posed the question asking me if I was willing to be present and fight for my life and my family despite these new developments. In or out? Give up or give all?
Instead of responding the way others might expect, to change the narrative of what it would look like to lose a husband at 38 and become a widowed mom of five under the age of 12.
To inspire others with the same pain that could’ve caused me to retreat and never want to see people again. Living a substantial, meaningful, and happy life isn’t hard when you’re given everything you want and need. But can you still have that life if things don’t look picture perfect? Can you wake up every morning and decide that even though things are really hard, you’re still going to try and make it a great day?
It’s not about the things that happen in life—it’s about how we respond to those things. It’s about how we take life’s challenges and make meaning out of them.
Rabbi Wallerstein made meaning every minute of every hour of every day. He did it in the hour he spoke to me three years ago, and it helped change the trajectory of what my life looked like afterwards.
In one hour. Imagine the number of hours in a day that this man dedicated to others. He did it in the school he started, in the countless people he counseled, in the talks he gave—he gave himself fully and was always all in.
He was right about how at the most random times, I’d hear a voice in my head asking me if I was in or out.
I’d smile and remember his mashal of Moshe Rabbeinu being the leader of B’nei Yisrael and not being allowed entry into Eretz Yisrael. The unfairness of something he felt he deserved to have. Moshe Rabbeinu’s faith stood strong. He accepted his fate even if it was hard and not what he wanted.
I’d think about how much harder my life was now that my Moshe was gone. The effects it would have on my children and myself. The Shabbosim we’d have to plan without him there, the nachas he deserved to have that he wouldn’t.
I knew I had to remain all in, despite those challenges.
Around a year later, I wrote a piece about my life at that point and the reasons aveilim mourn for their loved ones for a year. Despite the chaos happening with the start of COVID, our year came to a close and I felt a weight lifted. I sent the article to Rabbi Wallerstein via Miriam, thanking him for the time he gave me and how much of a positive influence that had in my life. He read it and made mention to Miriam how people sometimes vanish when things are looking up. They appear before him when things are tough, and they ask for help. But as soon as they’re doing better, you no longer hear from them. He thanked me for checking in and letting him know how much better we were doing and how good that made him feel.
I can’t even imagine what his day would have looked like if more of the individuals he helped would have done the same.
And I’m sorry I’m writing this on this Monday morning, on Rosh Chodesh. I’m sorry I’m writing this about someone who lived his life fully to serve other people and that his family has to suffer through this enormous loss that not only affects their immediate family, but in the world.
The world will never be the same without him here.
In a video that went around this morning, Rabbi Wallerstein discussed the concept of why we mourn for loved ones going to a better place, to Olam HaEmes. Wouldn’t we instead be happy for them?
But then he talks about how with the loss of life comes the loss of potential and that’s what we’re mourning here. The loss of a person who seized his own life experiences and transformed them into the most powerful potential energy to revitalize others who were suffering.
To become an empathy giant and create Torah-centered space for mental health healing within our communities, quite literally saving lives.
May he be a meilitz yoshor for Klal Yisrael and continue his efforts to heal wounded souls from his new home, beside the Kiseh haKavod.
HaMakom yinachem eschem besoch avlei Tzion v’Yerushalayim.
Malkie Gordon Hirsch is a native of the Five Towns community, a mom of 5, a writer, and a social media influencer.