One of my dearest friends recently flew to New York to be with her ailing father who had suffered a severe heart attack. Sadly, he did not survive.
Her father lived in the same Boro Park building for over 60 years. His children grew up there. His wife had passed away a few years earlier. My friend’s father stayed in his apartment. It was his home.
Over the years, the neighborhood changed. The apartment building became more and more haredi. The elderly man in the knit kippah was now an anomaly, but he managed with a pleasant word and lighthearted banter toward all.
During the dark days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he became the information center for the building. He was the only one in the entire apartment house who owned a television. He graciously accommodated everyone who came to his door seeking news.
His death occurred on the first day of Sukkot. My friend stayed in her father’s home throughout Chol HaMoed. Because of the holiday, she would not be able to sit shivah until the Motzaei Shabbat after Simchat Torah.
The normal sadness of losing a father was exacerbated by the strange behavior that she observed as exhibited by the tenants of the complex. Residents passed in the hall. People came in and out of the same doors. No one offered a condolence. No one spoke a single word about the loss of a longtime neighbor.
My friend is one of the nicest and kindest human beings I have ever met. Her fuse is long. Her patience is incredible. Days went by. Finally, even she had enough.
She exploded. “What’s wrong?” she asked one of the women. “You know my father just died. Don’t you even have the decency to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss?’ ” The woman responded, “It’s Yom Tov. We are forbidden to take part in mourning.”
Obviously, the neighbors in the building were acting in accordance with what they thought was proper adherence to Jewish law. The regulations of mourning during holidays and the Sabbath are actually quite restrictive. However, a few words of condolence are not the same as an effusive public eulogy.
The neighbors in this apartment building certainly did not purposely act with malicious intent. They meant no harm. Nonetheless, their actions left behind a hurtful aftermath. Medical doctrine advices, “First do no harm.” We would all be well advised to follow that credo.