Attorney for Heaven

People love stories. People especially love hearing stories that are incredible, that seem almost too good to be true. This is such a story. I’ve never publicized it: What did I do, after all? I was just a messenger. But somehow, the story spread. First one person told me the story, never knowing that I was the man Hashem had sent to put things right. Then I heard the story from someone else, and them from someone else. On and on. But they were missing details, and some of the things they were telling me just weren’t right. I’m sure you know how it is with stories. Sometimes they sprout wings and take off, until nobody knows where truth ends and fiction begins.

Matters came to a head when a certain man was staying as a guest in my home. He shared my story with us at the dinner table. I told him that his version was incorrect. He claimed to have heard it from an impeccable source. He continued with the story. Again I interrupted him; the details were wrong.

“Reb Simcha,” he said, “how do you know I’m wrong?”

A perfectly reasonable question.

“Because the story happened to me.”

And that’s why I’ve decided to set the record straight once and for all. Again I must stress that I can’t take the credit for the amazing outcome. I was merely a puppet on a wire.

But what a puppet show it was…

***

It all began when we sent our son Josh on a Birthright trip to experience Israel close, up front, and personal. We were proud yet unaffiliated Jews and wanted our only son to get to know the country of the Jew. The unexpected occurred and 10 days became 15 months. Somehow, Josh hooked into his religion. He called us to tell that he had checked into a yeshivah. And now, after 15 months, the prodigal son was coming back to town.

It was a long flight, and I went to pick him up at the airport. You try flying to Oregon from Israel and you’ll know what I’m talking about. I know you’re probably asking yourself how a Jewish family got to some tiny town in Oregon in the first place, and yes, you have a valid question, but that’s beside the point right now. Fact is, Oregon is where we live.

I watched him emerging from the gate, familiar yet unfamiliar, a different person from who he’d been when he’d left home. He was still my son, my Josh, and it didn’t matter that he’d changed. What mattered to me was whether this boy we’d raised still held dear the values we’d instilled in him.

After a long embrace, I looked my boy in the eye and said, “Josh, I hope you remembered to bring your mom a present.”

My tone was half question, half expectation.

“Of course I brought Mom a present.” As if I were sill y for even imagining for a second that he would have forgotten.

“Well, what is it?”

“I’ll tell you when we get home.”

We drove along the picturesque roads of my home state. We pulled up to the door. I helped him with his bags. My wife came out of the house, overcome at seeing her son for the first time in so long. A moment of family togetherness. Something to see. Josh was still our boy; at least one thing was the same.

“Well, son, where’s that gift?”

“I have the greatest gift in the world.” He was staring straight at his mother. “It’s called Shabbos and it’s going to change your life.”

Three months later, my ponytail was gone. Three months after that, I was wearing a black suit and hat, white shirt, and dark shoes, dressing as if I resided in Brooklyn instead of Tiny Town, Oregon. We had become frum. And we never looked back.

***

From time to time, I’d fly to New York for business. On one of my trips I met the man who’d become my rabbi. The moment I met him, I knew that I wanted this man to advise me in all aspects of my newfound life. True, I was in Oregon and he in New York, but he was only a phone call away for any of the thousands of questions I had about my newly kosher kitchen or just for some good, old-fashioned advice.

“Rabbi”, I told him, “I need a chavrusa.”

I wanted to learn, but it was tough going in Oregon. The best I could hope for over here was maybe hooking up with one of the lamed-vav tzaddikim. So far, I hadn’t met any, though.

“Call Partners in Torah or Torah Mates… both great organizations.”

I made the call and they introduced me to my future chavrusa, a fine man from Lakewood. We spoke on the phone, hit off. He was a real learned Jew with a wonderful personality. I knew that learning with him would change my life. Although our learning sessions were held over the phone, I felt like I knew Aryeh like an old friend. Still, I was looking forward to meeting him. A couple of months later I once again had to travel to the Big Apple on business. This time, my itinerary included Lakewood. I met my chavrusa’s family. Loved them all. So friendly. So warm. Ambassadors for the Torah world. I’ve seen a lot in my life: vice president of this, president of that. This company, that company. But the warmth exhibited  in that home went unmatched.

I spent Shabbos at the Bernsteins[1]*.

Friday night. We’re sitting around the Shabbos table, children singing, divrei Torah. Unbelievable food. A feast for the body and the soul.

“So, where are you from, again?” the rebbetzin wanted to know.

“Oregon.”

“Incredible!”

“Why’s that?”

“It’s a long story.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“Well,” she said a little hesitantly. “I suppose you could call it a family feud. My aunt got into such an argument with her family. Except that they never got out of it. My aunt was so upset that she packed her bags and moved as far away from Brooklyn as she possibly could.”

Pause.

“She went to Oregon. How’s that for a coincidence?”

“Pretty smooth.”

“We haven’t been in touch in like forever. Would you please take a gift back to Oregon for us and bring it to her house? We want to mend this rift. It’s been so long already.” There was longing in her voice.

“Of course I’ll bring it to her. It will be my pleasure.”

I took the gift back home with me. I meant to go visit Mrs. Bernstein’s aunt right away, but I got busy with the upcoming yom tov of Pesach. You know how it is. I told myself I’d go right after  yom tov was over. It was a wonderful holiday. I was on a high. Just back from my chavrusa’s house. Just back from Lakewood.

The day after yom tov, everything fell apart.

***

Wednesday morning I saw that someone was desperately attempting to reach me. There were 20 missed calls on my cell phone. I called back the last number. It was the Bernsteins from Lakewood.

“Reb Simcha!” There was emergency written all over this.

“What’s the matter?”

“We just found out this morning that my aunt passed away a few days ago. For some reason she was brought by ambulance from the city where she lives to the hospital in your town.”

This was pretty incredible. The Bernsteins’ aunt lived on the ocean, about an hour away from my town. The fact that they had transported her here was a miracle in itself.

“The entire family has been trying to get through to the proper authorities ever since we heard the news, but I’s like we’re speaking two different languages. They’re getting angrier and angrier at us for calling so often. Now they’re just hanging up on us! What should we do? We need to find out what happened!”

I understood immediately. Oregon was not used to dealing with a bunch of hysterical Yidden calling every five minutes from New York. The authorities probably couldn’t even understand what these people were saying. After all, in Oregon, English is English. In Brooklyn, or in Lakewood for that matter (where the vernacular is Jewish Brooklyneese), English is interspersed with Yiddish, Hebrew, and even Aramaic. Of course the hospital in Oregon was hanging up on them. For all practical purposes, they were speaking a foreign language! Combine that with the fact that nobody calling was familiar with the numerous laws concerning a deceased individual, and you can understand why the hospital was getting more and more frustrated.

There was no choice. I would have to get involved. From that point on, events began taking place at lightning speed.

***

My earliest calls met with no success. Nobody in the local Jewish community had any access to the powers that be at the local hospital.

I was desperate. And desperate people do desperate things.

“Good morning, County Hospital*, Dorothy speaking. How may I help you?”

I knew that were I to tell Dorothy what I needed from the hospital, our conversation would be over within minutes. Legally, I didn’t have a leg to stand on. I wasn’t a family member; I had no legal papers granting me the right to handle this situation. According to the law I was a nonentity here, and the hospital would be forced to tell me to get lost. I could hear the conversation in my mind.

“Yes, Dorothy,” I’d say. “I need to walk out of the hospital with one of the bodies in your morgue.”

“I’m calling the police, sir.”

They’d throw me off the phone faster than you could say, “There’s a meis mitzvah in Oregon.”

There was no way I was going to tell Dorothy what I needed. Instead, I tried a different tack.

“I need to meet with the hospital administrator immediately.”

“Can I ask what this is pertaining to?”

“I’m sorry. This is a delicate matter between the administrator and myself. I need an appointment with him as soon as possible. In fact I can be at the hospital in half an hour. Can he meet with me then?”

I held my breath. What an audacious request! Dorothy put me on hold while she checked whether the administrator was available on such quick notice. Turns out he was.

“You have an appointment, sir. Good luck.”

Half an hour later, I walked into the hospital. Things were beginning to heat up.

***

Oregon is a very pretty state. It is a wonderful place to live, to raise children. In the place I call home, there is an abundance of almost everything. One thing, however, is lacking: There is a definite lack of Jews. That was why my entrance made such an impression. Nobody in that hospital could remember the last time a man wearing a black hat and suit, and let’s not forget the beard, walked into their lobby. They couldn’t remember it, because it had never occurred. I was the first. Silence filled the lobby, as every member of staff and patient gawked at the sight of the first openly Orthodox Jew they had ever laid eyes on. I smiled graciously at one and all and asked for directions to the administrator’s office.

I was on my way when I was intercepted by the hospital’s risk manager. The one and only Mr. Korkland*.

All smiles, he ushered me into his office, shook my hand, concern in his voice. How could he help? What could he do for me?

The concern froze when I explained why I was there.

I had come for a body.

They could never give me a body, not in a million years. There was a will. The will had specific instructions to which I was not privy. In fact, I had no business even asking about this person.

“Look,” I said to the man, “I understand that you are worried. Perhaps you think I am here to question the way you handled the death of this individual. But that is not true. That’s not why I’m here. All I need to know is where her body is. She needs to be buried according to Jewish law. That’s all the family cares about!”

“I’m sorry, there is nothing I can do for you. The law is not on your side.”

It was time to remember who had sent me. I wasn’t here for myself.

“I would like to introduce myself to you again,” I told the  man. “My name is Simcha Stein* and I am an attorney for G-d. I am representing G-d’s interests here in this matter. There is nothing more important to G-d than this woman receiving a proper burial in the manner He prescribes.”

The meeting ended abruptly.

I was about to leave. “Give me your cell phone number.” Korkland requested. I was shocked. But if this was an olive branch, I was grabbing it.

“Search your heart and you will know that I am telling the truth about this. You will know that I am here for the One Above and His honor.” I walked out of the office, down the hall and past the still silent and staring lobby full of people. I reached my car. Sat down in the driver’s seat. Contemplated the situation. So far, I had been greeted by failure. What to do? This was an emergency; time was of the essence. For all we knew, the long-lost aunt had written in her will that she wanted to be cremated. (This was in fact the reality.)

I accepted my limitations. I was but a messenger for Hashem. It was all in His hands. I put the car into drive and began pulling away from the hospital. The phone rang. I snatched it up, pressed the yes button.

“It’s Mr. Korkland from the hospital.”

“Thank you for getting back to me.”

I’ve thought it over, I want to help you.”

Wonder of wonders. An absolute miracle! I forced myself to focus on what Mr. Korkland was saying.

“The ambulance brought the woman to us about a week ago. She passed away under our care. As soon as she was gone we followed what it said in her will: to have her body cremated. We contacted a funeral home in the ocean town she lived in and requested that they remove the body for cremation right away, after which they were to inform the deceased’s next of kin. It’s the Cherry Acres Funeral Parlor* on the coast of Oregon. Here’s the phone number.”

Part of my mind took down the number, but the other part was flying all over the place. I couldn’t keep my mind on what he was telling me. I was astounded. Mr. Korkland had called. And yet, the news was terrible. She had been taken away, slated for cremation. My mind was playing on autopilot. It took me a few seconds to catch up with myself.

“Wait a second,” I said after a long pause. “Why are you telling this to me now? How does help? If my friend’s aunt was taken to Cherry Acres a few days ago, and you requested cremation to be done immediately, then we’re too late. She’s nothing but ashes.”

Korkland was speaking again. I forced myself to listen.

“No, no you’re misunderstanding the situation. The body was sent to Cherry Acres a few days ago. But they always take their time. Maybe nothing’s been done to it yet.”

I thanked kindhearted Korkland for his invaluable assistance. Why had he done it? I would never know. There was no time to wonder. Now was the time for action.

***

The phone was picked up on the second ring by someone who was clearly waiting anxiously for new.

“Yes?”

“I have managed against all legal odds to secure the location of the body.”

“And?”

“I’m about to call the funeral home right now. Please daven that I should be successful. I have to call now. Every minute counts. I’ll keep you posted.”

***

“Cherry Acres Funeral Parlor, Michelle speaking. How can I be of assistance?”

“Can I please speak with the managing director?

“Putting you through.”

I’m on hold. Music playing. “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes… she’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes…”

Interesting choice of song for a funeral parlor. The mountain; clearly a metaphor for the afterlife…

“Dr. Stephen O’Keene* speaking.”

“Dr. O’Keene, my name is Simcha Stein and I have an extremely important request for you.”

“That being…?”

“A few days ago, you received the body of a Ms. Judith Silver*, along with instruction that she was slated for cremation. For reasons unknown this has not taken place. I am representing the family, Ms. Silver’s next of kin, who request that the body be buried according to Jewish law. Please allow me take possession of the body. I will ensure that it will be properly cared for according to Jewish law.”

“Are you out of your mind?”

“Excuse me?”

“You hear me, sir. There is absolutely no way in the world that I could release or relegate this body to you even if I wanted to – which I don’t – and you know it! Every citizen has rights, even those who are no longer alive. If this woman desired to be cremated, and she went so far as to spell that out clearly in her legal will, then there is nothing I can do, and that’s all I have to say on the subject. Good day, sir.”

Once again, I was up against the wall. But I was Hashem’s messenger. He had held the body for us this long; surely, He wanted me to keep on trying until I succeeded. I didn’t even have to do anything. He was doing it all! I would try the funeral parlor again.

“She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes…”

“Cherry Acres, Andrew speaking.” The voice spoke with an accent. The man was obviously not from around these parts.

“Andrew,” I said. “You have got to help me.”

“I will do everything within my power to help you, sir.”

“Andrew, allow me to paint a verbal picture for you right this second, O.K.?”

“Certainly, sir.”

“Picture a man with a black hat, black suit, and side curls on his head, like the Chassidim have. You with me so far?”

Yes, sir, I’m from Boston. I only moved here about a week ago. I worked in a Jewish funeral parlor in Brookline. I know exactly what you’re talking about. You’re one of them religious Jews.”

Hashem was on our side.

“Andrew,” I said, “This is the situation.” I explained the case so far. “Are you willing to assist me in saving this woman from being cremated? Cremating her would devastate her relatives. I’m sure you recall that Jewish people simply don’t do this type of thing.”

Andrew was obviously struck by my plea. “I’m going to help you as much as I can. What you need is the number for Ms. Silver’s lawyer; the man who handled her will. He is the only person who can help you. This is his phone number. But please, sir, don’t let on who told you. I could get into big trouble for doing this.”

He told me the number. I couldn’t believe my ears.

By then it was Thursday afternoon; evening was fast approaching. But we were almost there. I hadn’t slept in a very long time, couldn’t recall the last time I’d eaten, but it didn’t matter… I was saving a meis mitzvah and that was the only thing that counted. I was a lawyer in the service of Hashem.

“Andrew, thank you, thank you.”

“You’re most welcome, sir.”

***

Thursday, late afternoon.

“Dasher, Williams, and Binglewood, Cara speaking.”

“Can I speak with Mr. Binglewood please?”

One moment, I will check if he’s available.”

“This is Tom Binglewood*.”

“Mr. Binglewood, my name is Simcha Stein. I have to talk with you about the body that’s sitting in Cherry Acres Funeral Parlor, slated for cremation. It’s Ms. Judith Silver and I’m repre – “

“Mr. Simcha Stein,” the lawyer interrupted me. “I will have to take your number and get back to you. I’m in the middle of another phone call right now.”

“I’ll be waiting right here.”

Ten minutes later, the phone rang.

“Mr. Stein, Tom Binglewood here.”

“Oh, good, I have so much to tell you.”

“Before you say anything, Mr. Stein, you should know that we have a big problem on our hands. I have just received a phone call from the managing director of Cherry Acres Funeral Parlor. He told me that they are going crazy over there! The phone will not stop ringing. Calls coming from around the world. New York, Israel, this city, that town. They can’t keep up with the calls, the secretary is having a nervous breakdown, and things can’t go on like this.”

It took me a few seconds to remember that I had given the number of the funeral parlor to my friend back in Lakewood. Apparently, the Jewish network had swung into action.

“What can be done to stop this craziness?” Binglewood was asking, almost imploring, me.

“Very simple. Give me the body; I assure you the calls will stop.”

“You know I can’t do such a thing.”

“You have to. This is a matter of G-d. The fact that I reached this far has been a clear miracle. Don’t be the one to place a stumbling block in my path. Don’t keep this woman from getting the burial she deserves.”

A pause.

“This is all highly irregular, you understand. I will have to confer with the state attorney. Wait on the line while I peg the state attorney into our conversation.”

“Hello?”

“Hi Steve, its Tom Binglewood. I’m on the line with Mr. Simcha Stein, a fellow resident of Oregon and someone representing the family of a deceased citizen of our state.” Binglewood filled the state attorney in on the background.

“Mr. Stein, you know just as well as I do that there is nothing I can do for you. As someone who represents the legal will of the deceased, our hands are tied.”

I had heard those words so many times already. But when Hashem is on your side, nothing matters.

You represent the will of the deceased, I thought, while I represent the will of Hashem.

“I would like to point out a legal argument that you fine gentlemen have failed to consider,” I said.

“Certainly.” The state attorney’s tone told me his real thoughts: Finish up already so I can get off the phone. This is a pointless conversation.

“There is a way to contest a will,” I said. I was really winging it now.

“How?”

“When a will is written by someone who is clearly not in full possession of their mental abilities.”

“Wait a second here,” the state attorney interrupted. “Are you suggesting that Ms. Silver wasn’t in control of her mental capacities when her lawyer drafted this legal document?”

“That’s correct, sir.”

“How on earth do you know that for a fact? How on earth could you possibly know such a thing?”

“Very simple. Ms. Silver had a disagreement with her family many years ago. She ran away from them and was filled with anger toward them for many years, decades even. Ms. Silver clearly knew that it is against Jewish law to be cremated. There is only one reason why she would have requested such a thing. Only because she was still so very angry. Which follows that her mind, her power of reason, was clouded by her fury. You know as well as I do, gentlemen, that Jewish people do not normally request to be cremated. There is no way she was in her right mind when she made that request! She must have been mentally deficient to put herself willingly in a position that no normal Jew would ever want to be in!”

“The man has a point!” interjected the state attorney.

Once again, I was shocked. They were actually taking what I said seriously. How in the world?! Then I reminded myself. Hashem was on my side. I was an attorney for Hashem. Of course they were taking me seriously! They heard me out. Told me to be in touch with tem Friday for their final decision.

No time to lose. I got in touch with Andrew at the funeral parlor. I told him to prepare the body for travel. I was laboring under the assumption that matters would come out our way, that the lawyers would pasken in our favor, despite the fact that we had no legal standing whatsoever. Call it a gut feeling, call it intuition. “Prepare the documents that I will have to sign, prepare the bills to pay,” I told Andrew. “Make sure everything is ready for the grand departure.”

All Friday morning, legal documents flew back and forth. The East coast people wanted to know what had been decided. I couldn’t tell them anything. I didn’t know myself. I was sitting on pins and needles, waiting for the clarion call from Hashem. Four minutes before Shabbos set in on the East Coast, the lawyers called.

“We are agreeing to release the body into your care.”

I called immediately… At least they had a happy Shabbos in New York and Lakewood. I, meanwhile, still had a ton of work to do.

***

Here on the West Coast, there were still three hours left until Shabbos. Three hours in which to take care of the death certificate; a process that normally takes a few weeks all done right then. Payment rendered so the body would be released. Contracts signed. Everything was under control. Andrew had done his work well. The body was ready to be shipped out.

The body left for San Francisco late Friday afternoon. It landed at JFK motza’ei Shabbos, and by Sunday it was already on its way to Eretz Yisrael. Monday found Ms. Silver being interred near her father and grandfather on Har HaZeisim. It was over. Al pi derech hateva, through the natural ways of the world, it should never have happened. When you’re working for Hashem, thought, nature takes a backseat to a Higher plan.

It is hard to give our own reasons for things, but in this case, it seems pretty clear that zechus avos was at work: Ms. Silver’s ancestors on that most famous of mountains ensuring that their daughter ended up right beside them for her eternal rest.

***

And now you know. Incredible, isn’t it. A story that doesn’t come along every day. Was it me? Definitely not. But what a merit! It’s not every day that one receives the opportunity to represent the interests of Hashem before a human court of law. At the end of the day, Hashem won. Doesn’t He always?

As heard from Reb Yosef Chaim

(Reproduced from It Could Have Been You 2 by Rabbi Nachman Seltzer pages 89 – 103, with permission of the copyright holders, ArtScroll/Mesorah Publications, Ltd.)


[1] All names have been changed.

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