Selected Sermon/Article
2006-09-02 Ki Seitzei 5766 by Rabbi Zeev Smason
On the Petirah of Mark Cassorla, a'h
This past week has been a difficult extremely difficult and painful week. The pain was so thick and palpable, that the only recent experience I can compare it to is the feeling that was in the air immediately following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. During this week I found myself thinking that this is the way I'm supposed to feel on Tisha B'Av, as we mourn the various tragedies that have historically befallen the Jewish people. I never quite 'get there' on Tisha B'Av, because there's a vast difference between what my mind knows and my heart feels. This past week, however, the pain was immediate, shocking, and numbing.

Today, on Shabbos, we hope for some type of respite from the aveilus/ mourning from the sudden tragic passing our dear friend Mark Cassorla, a'h. 'Suicide' is an extremely uncomfortable word -- a word we very rarely hear mentioned privately , much less discussed in a public setting. But the situation demands that we confront our pain, and that we address the issue of suicide directly. I'd like to share with you some of the thoughts that I've had over the past week. My hope is that I can share a spiritual perspective about this difficult issue, as well as helping even in an incremental way to lessen the pain and suffering that we're experiencing.

Let us begin.

I was asked many direct questions about Mark's suicide over the past week. Here are the four most common questions that were posed to me.

'Why did he do it?' 'Rabbi, how could he have done something like that , leaving behind a wife and young children?' 'How, exactly, did he kill himself?' 'How could he have had a public funeral and have the family observe shiva, given that Jewish law seems to prohibit those observances in the case of suicide?'

Let me answer the last of these questions first. By doing so, I believe we'll have an approach to dealing with the first three questions.

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) states that a person who is 'm'abayd es nafsho' -- one who takes his own life -- is not allowed to have a public funeral, and the family can't sit shiva. HOWEVER -- the language of the phrase 'm'abayd es nafsho' -- literally translated, 'one who destroys his own nefesh' applies, our rabbis say, only when there is a requisite level of intent and sanity (one who acts as a 'nefesh' -- a cognizant, thinking soul).

To state this differently, in the eyes of the halacha there exist certain situations of great duress where an individual is categorized as mentally incompetent. The circumstances of Mark Cassorla's suicide were presented to a Gadol, who issued a psak that such 'duress' was indeed the emotional state of mind of Mark Cassorla at the time he took his own life. If it helps you to understand it better, therefore, we can look at Mark as having been mentally ill and not fully responsible for his actions at the time of his death.

Mark Cassorla on Monday morning was not the Mark Cassorla that we all knew and loved. He was literally not in his right mind, and what he did had nothing whatsoever to do with the way he felt about us, or his dear family which he left behind. return to the question of 'why did he do it?' The answer is, is that there is no answer. Trying to figure out why a person kills themself is usually an excercise of trying to rationalize the thoughts of an irrational person -- an excercise which is doomed to failure. Even if there seems to be 'reasons' and 'proximate causes', any answer we come up with to the question of 'why' is, by definition, wrong. We can be angry at someone, but only if we think that they should have known better. Therefore, we should mourn Mark not being able to make the right choice in a time of crisis, and not tarnish our memories of him.

What follows from this, then, is the understanding that concern and preoccupation with how a person kills themself is inappropriate. Why? Because it leads us to identify a person not by the way that the lived, but by the way that they died. Jewish law prohibits looking upon the face of a person who has died, unless one is involved in preparing the body for burial. The concept of a 'viewing' and 'open casket' is anethema to Jewish sensibilities. A person isn't their body! The essence of who we are is our neshama -- our soul. Therefore, we have to direct our minds and thoughts away from those few final horrible minutes of Mark's life, and allow our memories of him to be defined by his wonderful personality and character and accomplishments -- not, the way that he died.

A second point: Now more than ever is the time for the fullfillment of the mitzvah of 'V'ahavat es ray'acha kamocha' (Love your friend as yourself). It goes without saying that the situation requires that we do all we can for Kate and the children materially. However, beyond that, we can use our unique strength of 'ha'kol kol Yaakov' (the voice of prayer of Jacob) to come to help in this situation.

We all believe that prayer works, and that a sincerely offered prayer helps. Why and how prayer works is a topic I've discussed with you at various times, but let's just remind ourselves of what we know to be true: when we pray, it makes a difference.

With that having been said, the order of the weeks and months and years ahead, for those who truly care about Mark Cassorla and his family, is to pray that Hashem give Dina and Meira and Eli and Kate and Mark's entire family the strength to get through this horrible ordeal. If we who are Mark's friends think we've had a rough time of it -- which we have -- there's no comparing our pain, to the challenges and obstacles that the Cassorla family faces. How can a wife and children survive knowing that their husband and father is gone through having taken his own life? It will take a) a tremendous amount of support from family and friends, b) spiritual and psychological support from rabbis and counselors, and c) our prayers that Hashem give Kate and the Cassorla children the strength to go on, and to cope with this disaster. This is what is required of a 'kehilla' (a 'community), and this is what is required of us individually, and of us a congregation.

Third and finally:

We need to respond to the tragedy of Mark Cassorla's suicide on a personal level, in a personal way.

The Rambam says that whoever doesn't respond to a tragedy is acting with achzarious -- cruelty.

Why cruelty? There are lessons to learn from a tragedy, and opportunities to change. And if our only repsonse to a tragedy is to feel bad over time to let the pain fade away leaving us unchanged, then the tragedy happened for naught. Personally and communally, we can't allow ourselves to ignore what happened. We have to respond by searching our own deeds and our own lives, and in some way trying to commit ourselves to doing something different, and something better.

We have to tell those who mean something to us that we love them; we have to verbalize and articulate it as often as we can. Hug your kids, hug your families, and tell people who are in your lives that you love them and appreciate them. Personally, I'm considering making a list of people who I haven't called or been in contact with for a long time, and reestablishing contact with them. We all have cousins and friends who we've been out of touch with. Now is a great time to do something about it. And of course, the cataclysm of Mark's suicide should inspire us to move beyond trivialities. Let's drop the pettiness with which we often seem to find ourselves immersed in.

In conclusion, we find ourselves in a period of the '7 Shabbatot of Nechama (Consolation), which promises that Hashem will console us from the tragedy of the destruction of the Bais Ha'Mikdash. May Hashem console us over the terrible loss of a wonderful person -- of Mark Cassorla, a'h.

Let us not be judgemental of Mark. It's not our place to judge him, but only to miss him and to mourn his loss from our presence. Let's help Kate and her family, and daven that Hashem give them strength, and that He guard and protect them. And lest us commit ourselves to savoring life with the ones we love, and enjoying the brocha of life here on earth, with lives lived to their fullest.

Good Shabbos