THE LORD WORKS IN MYSTERIOUS WAYS
My law school class was divided into four sections of 140 students each. In my section, we had three class clowns. All were nice people, and all three made people laugh. But that’s where their similarities ended. One was funny because he kept cracking jokes even though none of them was clever, witty, shocking, interesting … in short, the jokes were stupid, but he became a comic character for his perseverance. The second class clown was funny because he was, well, he was nuts. And in a place as boring as a law school classroom, an odd duck cracking crazy jokes is pretty darned hysterical.
That brings me to the third class clown. He was a cool guy who always loved to laugh. He loved obscene jokes most of all, but he couldn’t tell those so much in the classroom. So in the classroom, he just figured out a way to laugh at his fellow classmates – only in a way that even they had to laugh with him. This guy, you see, didn’t have a mean bone in his body. He was just a super nice person who appreciated the basic human principle that we all need a good laugh, and the zanier and dirtier the joke, the more visceral the laugh.He frequently called me up and made all sorts of obscene, sexual propositions that made no sense, given that we were both heterosexual males. He used to scream out the window when his wife was approaching his apartment walkway: “Get out of here bitch, my wife is coming!” He would hold parties in which, instead of playing music, he would play Rodney Dangerfield albums. He gave many people absurd nicknames that have lasted with them the rest of their lives. One time, when a friend named Jon was scheduled to answer the professor’s questions in Corporations class, he arranged to have people chant Jon’s first and last names, and then to rate Jon’s answers on a scale of 1-10. He gave the lowest possible rating.
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Last year, on November 11th, he was driving alone to his home in the Catskills, his family having recently moved from the NY City Area. He and his wife now had three children, and he had a successful practice as a bankruptcy lawyer. Alone in his car, sober and seat belted, he drove off the road on a rainy evening, fell down an embankment, and died. At his funeral, nine people gave eulogies. And well over 100 people had to stand, for all the seats in the synagogue were filled. I missed the funeral, but saw his surviving family the next day. Many of the neighborhood kids were there – despite how recently he moved to the area – and all of them referred to him by his first name. He was just one of the boys, to them. Totally unassuming. Totally friendly. Totally fun.
When I first heard the news of my friend’s death, my primary emotion was shock. I likely didn’t immediately perceive how much this would affect my life -- after all, while the two of us had spoken a few years back, I hadn’t seen him since we graduated from law school more than 20 years earlier. As soon as I learned the news, I instinctively took a shower, and that’s when the news really hit me. In fact, I started to bawl my eyes out. I felt badly that my friend was gone. I felt badly for his family. But most of all, I felt badly for my world, that in an environment where most people would live well into their 70s, this guy of all people would never reach age 47. He was so vivacious, so much fun, so full of love. And now, he is gone.
The police report said that he was exceeding the speed limit at the time of his accident. So is that the lesson here – that we should drive slowly? That’s one lesson. We could add other clichéd lessons like: (a) you never know when your time is going to be up, or (b) make the most of your days, because they are scarce. But those are not the deepest lessons I’ve taken from the episode.
First, I’ve realized that when people are both loving and vivacious, and particularly when they have a knack for making other people happy, they will be deeply appreciated in ways that most of us can’t understand. This man left quite a mark, didn’t he? In that sense, even someone who dies young may be said to have lived a full life.
Second, this episode reminded me of how much I not only loved my friend but life itself. It’s precisely because we adore life so – at least those of us who don’t set off suicide bombs – that we feel so awful for a person who dies before “his time.” Life may not be as fair as we’d like, but it is every bit as precious.
Third, one of the most beautiful things about my (Jewish) culture is how it deals with death. Last year, I was able to celebrate my friend’s life with his whole surviving family because, in Judaism, the family spends a full week together at home to remember and mourn the dead. This year, several of my classmates from law school are going to get together in my synagogue to honor our friend. We will be standing up in unison when his name is mentioned. And this will go on every year on or around November 11th, which will allow us to keep him alive in our thoughts during the weeks and months ahead.
Last, but certainly not least, this episode reminds me, as if I needed a reminder, that what goes on in this world is not the product of a great puppeteer manipulating human events. Out of respect for my friend, I refuse to believe that some deity made a conscious decision to take him away at a young age from his loving wife or his three adoring children.
Of course, that deity could have viewed his murderous decision as some sort of off-color joke – “Let’s allow all the cut-throat, status conscious pricks to live, and take the life of the guy who makes everyone happy. Yeah, that’s the ticket!” If that’s really what’s going on, maybe someday, in the spirit of my friend, I’ll figure out how to laugh at death. As Mary Richards said at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown: “a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.” In other words, the more awful life gets, the more viscerally we can laugh at its absurdities. Frankly, that’s one of the truths that have kept Jewish culture alive through crusades, ghettos, pogroms, Holocausts, and above all else, our own stupidity.