More than 25 years ago, I went to the funeral of a woman who died at only 35 years of age. It was, by everyone’s assessment, a tragic death. She left behind a devastated husband, a lost and confused young son, and her parents, who were Holocaust survivors. I didn’t know who suffered most – her husband who had lost his partner and love, his son who had lost a mother, or her parents who had lost their only daughter so young.
It was an agonizing experience and, if I am remembering correctly, my first adult encounter with death of a relative contemporary. She was several years older, but still, nowhere close to an age one would expect death to result from a relatively simple medical procedure. At the funeral, they spoke of her love for her husband and son and said she was a kind and giving person. What else could they say? What other accomplishments could be valued more?
About five years ago, a dear friend passed away – she’d been struggling with health issues for many years. She was just a few years older than me and this time, I felt those years so much less than that other time. She was a young middle aged person, one who struggled with getting older and resented it. At her funeral, her children grieved with such agony, the rest of us were knocked to our knees. How could we help them ever cope with the loss of their mother. She was, so many said at her funeral, the epitome of life. She was fun and funny, sweet and loving.
And what brought all this back was that I went to a funeral today. I knew him from a bit from a professional point of view, though I had met him personally as well. I knew that he had advised presidents and prime ministers and I knew that his love of Israel had been instilled in his family. When Charley Levine died two nights ago and when he was buried last night on a rainy afternoon in Jerusalem, he left behind a void in the world of Israel advocacy that will be felt for many years.
He too was a few years older than I am now. It was every bit as sad and agonizing as I expected it to be. I’d heard some of the stories about him; heard more as we waited for the eulogies and even more before the evening ended.
I had seen him bowl with his grandsons and heard the story about how he’d fallen in love with Shelley from a picture and decided that she was the girl that he would marry. They are both pillars of our community in Maale Adumim, well known throughout the Anglo communities in Israel. I listened to what they said about him and wondered what people would say about me. Silly, I know, but it was what came to mind.
Death at 35 is a tragedy for all the unfulfilled things in life she would have done; death at 55 is an agony because despite all you have accomplished, there remains things not done. And death at 62 is a tragedy because having accomplished so much, no one doubted there was so much more Charley would have done. One person said he’d done 120 years of amazing deeds in the short 62 years he had on this earth.
One speaker said there were two things that defined Charley – his love of Israel and his love of his family. As I listened to each speaker tell us how much Charley focused on his family, how close they were and are, how much he had done for Israel…and as I saw all the tears around me, all the people quietly nodding their heads in agreement, I wished that others beyond those in the room could have heard more about the life of Charley Levine.
What I didn’t do in my late 20s and what I didn’t do in my late 40s was to internalize the experience. In those and other funerals I have attended – parents of friends, soldiers, terror victims who died so young, I listened and thought about the person who was now gone and the people they left behind. Last night, for the first time, I thought that if I have to die, as we all do, this is what I hope someone, everyone, says about me.
My heart breaks for his wife. She is such a strong woman, with amazing accomplishments of her own. So many cities in Israel owe their vast growth to her dedication and brilliance in business. In her place, I doubt I could have been so gracious to greet people and thank them as they arrived yesterday. A hug for each, a kind word.
I left the funeral with the thought that nothing better could have been said about an individual than that he loved his family, his wife and children and those they married, his grandchildren, completely and entirely. And at the same time, he spent his life doing important work and was recognized and loved for it.
And the other thought, for myself, was the feeling that all I’ve done isn’t really good enough. I haven’t spent enough time on the things that are really important and let too many things distract me.
And the final lesson can sort of be explained by a Garth Brooks song I heard years ago – there’s the date you are born on your tombstone and the date you die. But what is important is the dash in between. That little dash says it all. It isn’t about dying at 35 or 55 or 62. It’s about living each minute so that someone can stand up at your funeral and say the things people said about Charley last night.
May God bless his memory and may his family be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. May his children and grandchildren always feel about him as they did yesterday and find comfort in the knowledge that for whatever time Charley was given on this earth, he truly accomplished all that God intended for him and perhaps after advising all those presidents and prime ministers, politicians and businessmen, maybe God wanted some advice Himself.
I have no doubt that Charley will continue to watch over his family and over Israel from above. What is left to the rest of us is to think about what we want people to say when our time comes and do all we can now to live the life that would bring forth those words. It isn’t always easy – life gets in the way so often, but maybe Charley and the life he made can guide us and light the path.