During my years as a synagogue rabbi, I would often speak at funerals and do my best to comfort the bereaved, but it wasn’t until I myself experienced a loss that I could truly empathize with the mourner. With time, we do adjust to the loss and life continues; but the shadow still remains. It is felt particularly when we have something good to share with family members, and we suddenly realize they are no longer here to share the moment with us.
When I achieved my crowning academic achievement, a doctorate in English Literature, my mother and father had already passed away; and I felt their absence acutely, for they would have enjoyed the moment with me as only a parent can celebrate the good things that happen in the life of a child. This sense of loss was intensified when I suddenly lost my wife in January of 1989. This was a tragedy of a different kind. My world fell apart. It was my personal 9/11.
Let me share a strange yet normal memory. I remember very vividly having chicken soup at the home of a friend in Israel after the funeral in Beit Shemesh. The soup was so tasty that I asked my host for the recipe so I could give it to my wife. I could not comprehend that she was no longer here.
I still can make no sense of the tragedy that affected our entire family during those dark January days. Perhaps this is why I responded positively to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a film that deals in a thoughtful, nuanced way with the loss of a husband and father on 9/11.
The film recounts the story of Oskar Schell, a young boy whose father perishes on 9/11 in the Twin Towers. Through flashbacks, we see the close and loving relationship that existed between father and son. When Oskar’s father dies, the loss is devastating and he is inconsolable.
A year later, he explores his father’s closet and discovers a key in an envelope with the name “Black” written on it. Oskar then sets out on a journey to find out what the key fits, thinking that it is a message from his father. The journey connects him with a wide assortment of people who listen to his story, often befriend him, and share life’s wisdom with him.
In time, Oskar comes to terms with the reality that some things in life never make sense. His mother, suffering her own emotional pain, remarks: “It’s never gonna make sense because it doesn’t.” That does not mean, however, that one cannot find comfort in the memories a loved one leaves behind, in the life lessons learned from a beloved spouse or parent who is no longer in this world. The mystical figure of a person falling to his death at the beginning of the film is reversed at the end. The falling image falls up instead of down, signifying that Oskar has matured, conquered his fears, and is now ready to move on with the memories of his Dad animating him as he transitions into adulthood.
What happens in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is in many ways a reflection of the Jewish mourning cycle. The initial seven day grieving period is intense. The mourner does not even leave his home. But at the end of the week, the custom is to walk around the block, to begin a new cycle as it were. The pain is still there, but God is telling us to keep going in spite of tragedy. We will never understand the reasons for tragedy, but Jewish tradition reminds us that tragedy should not be the only thing that defines us, nor should it paralyze us as we face an uncertain future.