When I passed Vanessa M. on a recent Shabbat while I was carrying the Torah, she lifted her arm and softly brushed the royal blue velvet cover. I wondered why she did not bring her fingers to her lips as she had always done. And why had she gotten so thin? For four years she had been coming regularly to our services at The New Jewish Home on the Upper West Side, where I am a chaplain intern. An African-American nurse from South Carolina with a distinctly erect posture, she allowed her hand to sweep downward but not to fall. I had to keep moving toward Ruthie and Rachel and Faye, whose hands were already lifted to kiss the Torah.
Ruthie and Rachel knew the words “baal hachalomot” (“the master of dreams”) from the portion of Genesis being discussed. In this Torah passage, Joseph is bragging to his brothers about his dreams that describe how 11 stars, the sun and the moon, will one day bow down to him. In turn, the brothers say of him mockingly, “Here comes the master of dreams.” Ruthie and Rachel also understood the word balaboos; the master of the house, and the similar root, baal tefillah, the master of prayer.
Following Rabbi Malamy’s tradition of dedicating the service to the memory of a resident who had just died, the service was being dedicated to Barry Gershenhorn, alav Hashalom (may his soul rest in peace), who had passed away the night before. His children were upstairs in his room, cleaning out his belongings. The Torah cover, in honor of his wife, had been his gift to the Home. The glittering silver embroidery reads “In Memory of Rhoda Gershenhorn.” Barry’s son had asked us to sing one of Barry’s favorite songs, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” during the service. One nurse spoke during our Parsha discussion, saying she had only once in her life had a vivid dream: When she immigrated from Russia, her late mother had appeared to her. Upon awakening, her mother’s scent was palpable and all around her. Another man, Harold, who had just lost his mother at The Home, was visiting, and said, “Only now do I understand what you guys do. Only now, after I lost my Mom, can I fully appreciate it.” I felt comforted by Harold’s words. In a metaphysical sense, I knew he had joined us. He had arrived at a “place” — a place that cannot be fully described in words. The Talmud says the ideal process of dying, as it had been for Harold’s Mom, is a very peaceful and spiritual death. It can be as “painless as taking a hair out of milk” [Berakhot 8a]. And Harold has just now begun to enter that place of understanding. Everyone in the room sat briefly, together, in that place.
The challah and wine and grape juice were being passed out and the servers passed by Vanessa M. We thought she was sleeping. We had just finished reciting the Kaddish and, in honor of Barry, had completed our rendition of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” After the standard verses — “He’s got you and me brother,” and “He’s got the mountains and the rivers” — a few spontaneous lyrics were called out, “He’s got Irving and Russel, in His Hands,” and “He’s got the birds and the turtles…”
And then transporters began taking the residents home to their rooms when one woman came running back crying, “She’s dead!”
Vanessa M. had died during our service.
The transporter had taken her upstairs and left her with the head nurse on her floor.
We all gathered in a circle — the volunteers, the transporters, and Patty, the musician consultant, were with us as well. We realized Vanessa must have died while we were singing to Barry. Everyone was stunned and alternatively in awe. Again, we all sat, briefly, in that “place.”
We tried to imagine the heavenly kiss that was granted by the angel of death. What a blessing to be taken, surrounded by singing and prayers. Patty said she must have trusted our space enough to allow herself — to allow her soul — to be released and transported here in this spot. And I feel honored and in reverence that the last thing Vanessa M. did in her life was to touch and caress our Torah.
Dvorah Telushkin is the author of “Master of Dreams,” a memoir of her 14 years as translator and assistant to Isaac Bashevis Singer. She is presently a chaplaincy intern at The New Jewish Home and is graduating from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s College of Jewish Sacred Music and receiving her master’s degree in the spring. The names here, except for the rabbi, the Gershenhorns and Pat, are pseudonyms.