In this past week’s Torah portion, the Talmud (Megillah 10b) tells us that during the miracles at the Splitting of the Red Sea, when the Egyptians were being drowned, the children of Israel burst into song. The malachai hashareis — the ministering angels — also wanted to sing, but God stopped them, asking, “Creations of My Hand are drowning and you want to sing (praises)?”
An obvious question arises: if the malachim were precluded from singing praises over the destruction of the Egyptians, how could Moshe Rabbeinu and the entire Children of Israel do so? Assuming these angels are the same ones sent to destroy the Egyptians, Rav Shimon Schwab recalls the following answer: The Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 50:2) tells us “One malach cannot perform two tasks.”
A malach can do only one thing at a time. This is based on Ezekiel 1:7: “V’raglaihem regel yeshara” — “Their feet are one” (emulating this, we put our feet together during the kedushah during the Amidah prayer, as if they were one). In contrast, a human being has the ability to do two contrasting things at the same time: He can feel sorry for the drowning Egyptians, while he rejoices over his own redemption.
The tragic death of Matthew “Tatsuo” Nakata in November, 2006, is beyond words. His life cannot be replaced; the loss to his family and friends cannot be filled.
I remember the shock and sorrow we felt upon hearing the news. Since the accident, I know Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz has spent many sleepless nights — questioning why it happened, what lessons he needs to learn, and how he can continue working on himself. Anyone who meets Rabbi Schwartz immediately notices his spirited energy, his exuberant passion and dynamic personality. Those who know Rabbi Schwartz are well aware that these qualities are irrepressible and unstoppable. That is, until November, 2006. Since then, I have noticed a sharp decrease in the incredible amount of things he has generally accomplished and his productivity has dropped down to nearly “normal.”
We are filled with contradictory feelings, as we are deeply saddened and realize that the Nakata family will never be able to fully heal, while at the same time we are hopeful that Rabbi Schwartz and his family will regain their full energies, because they have so much to give to the Seattle community, in particular the Seattle Jewish community.
Nearly every family of the Seattle Kollel has either lost a sibling under the age of 20 or lost a parent when they were very young — even one due to a driver running a stop sign. My family lost a daughter nearly three years ago, and, when I was the age of 5, my own father died, at only 34. At age 3, Rabbi Schwartz also lost his father.
But what is unique about the Jewish people is our ability to turn tragedy into a learning experience and to allow it to give us the drive to accomplish more with the life we still have. Perhaps that is why many of us in the Kollel have dedicated our lives to helping others, which is what the members of the Seattle Kollel do. When opening our minds, hearts and homes, we enrich people’s lives by introducing them to the joys, depth and beauty of Judaism.
More than any other Kollel family, the Schwartzes have opened their home to every type of Jew, as well as their spouses, Jewish or non-Jewish. The family welcomes Jews who have no one else to turn to. These people are warmly invited into the Schwartzes’ home and absorbed into the growing West Seattle Torah Learning Center’s community. Rabbi Schwartz is an amazing person, involved in an endless number of people’s lives, giving selflessly of his time and often his family’s time (although he works to make it up on family vacations). I marvel at the number of people he touches and is constantly in touch with.
Over the past year and a half, I have been filled with complex emotions: sadness for the Nakata family and their friends, while at the same time the deep and sincere desire for the Schwartzes to regain their full energy and focus so they can rebuild to once again fully and selflessly give to the Seattle Jewish community.