After a funeral I recently conducted in Congregation Beth Israel’s cemetery in Hartford, I was struck by something I had seen many times but that had never struck me before.
To my right was the grave of Rabbi Abraham J. Feldman who served Beth Israel for 43 years. He was a Hartford legend who received almost every accolade a rabbi can garner.
On my left were the remains of my friend and classmate, Rabbi David Mark Sobel. After his ordination Rabbi Sobel enlisted as a chaplain in the United States Air Force. Less than a year later he died in Bangkok in an automobile crash.
The two graves lie almost equidistant from the cemetery’s exit.
David was funny, creative, smart, intense and a fine athlete. We played basketball and tennis with each other in the summer of 1968 when we both studied at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
I asked out loud, “Why was Rabbi Feldman allowed to live out his years and be crowned with honor and glory? And why was it David’s fate to die as a young man with almost all of his dreams unfulfilled?”
Life is strange sometimes. Perhaps cruel is a better word.
Rabbi Feldman’s story is familiar and accessible to all who want to read it, but David’s story is also well worth knowing. I am grateful to the late late Mort Glotzer who remembered David as a boy and shared these memories with me:
“David was a fine athlete. I believe that he wrestled in high school and college. He worked as a construction laborer during summer vacations. He worked in the engine room of a freighter ship on his trip home.
After his ordination, David served as a chaplain in the United States Air Force.
We were stunned…The chief Chaplain from the Air Force preached at his funeral. There was a military honor guard but his mother, Bea, declined a rifle salute. It wasn’t the kind of honor that was appropriate for a Rabbi.
In another memorial tribute to David, navy chaplain Rabbi John J. Rosenblatt wrote:
“To know David Sobel … was to feel life and to sense an unusual creative ability. No one who met David was ever unaware of his presence. His keenness, his sensitivity, and his reverence for life were part of his being that made you aware that life was doing something for others.
David Sobel was a young man in his middle twenties who made those around him feel as young and as important as one could be. He was completely genuine, utterly sincere, and …His quick response was like a new beat to life’s call to action…
David felt that he was in God’s service to bring spiritual comfort where it was most needed. Individuals were his congregation. Open fields were his synagogue.”
Seeing David’s tombstone again today reminded me how fragile life is. It is a gift we can lose in an instant. Each visit to his grave is another reminder to try to make each minute of each hour of each day count for something meaningful and purposeful. We never know when our time is up.
“Alas for those who die with their songs still in them!” (Paraphrase of quotation by Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Homes, 1809-1894)
I see David now with the eye of memory … slashing toward the basket … going for broke by trying for an improbable winner on the tennis court … playing his guitar … speaking in the short clipped tones I remember, a kinetic, energetic force, small in stature, strong of body, persistent of mind.
His energy was so palpable that it is hard for me to imagine him gone even though he died more than 40 years ago. We played together. We learned together. Now he is gone, and I am still here.
“Why?” I ask, but the question brings no answer.
“Repent one day before your death,” Rabbi Eliezer taught. But how do we know when we shall die, a student asked?
“We do not,” answered the Sage, “so we had better repent today, for none of us has a guarantee on tomorrow (B. Shabbat 153A).”
Before I left the cemetery, I cleaned the mud from David’s tombstone. It was the least I could do—and sadly, the most I could do—for my old friend.