abbi Moshe Goldberg stood up at the levayah of his son last week, grief etched into his face, so overcome by exhaustion and heartache he could barely stand.
Refoel had been born with his internal organs on the outside of his body. His parents were told he wouldn’t live a single day. Yet he went on to learn Torah and daven and play with friends and soak in the warmth of family, nine years and two months of laughter and love.
Just a few days earlier, the Goldbergs’ most fervent dream had seemed within reach when they’d been summoned to Washington: Doctors were ready to do a transplant on little Refoel.
It hadn’t been simple, and the pre-procedure video of the angelic child asking for people to daven along instantly turned him into Klal Yisrael’s little brother, Refoel ben Fraidel Miriam capturing the hearts of a nation.
There had been worry, then miracles, then panic, and after a few more ups and downs, as doctors conceded that they were operating in a realm well beyond nature, there was complete and total heartbreak.
At the levayah at the Yeshiva Gedola of Montreal, Rav Moshe — a maggid shiur at the yeshivah — stood before the aron kodesh and delivered a hesped for his son, the child with the bright eyes and glowing smile and tangible chein, by reading out letters he’d somehow penned before the levayah.
The first one went like this:
Dear Ribbono shel Olam,
Thank You for entrusting us with this special neshamah for the past nine years and two months… for giving us a child who would show the world what real simchas hachayim means, who never complained though there was much to complain about, who showed everyone what a davening should look like…. Thank You, Hashem, for giving us a child who brought out the best in every human being he came into contact with… who united all of Klal Yisrael in tefillah…
Dear Friends, he continued in the second letter, expressing the hakaras hatov characteristic of his family to the friends, talmidim, doctors, and organizations who’d been part of Refoel’s short, meaningful journey.
Then he took a deep breath and read one more letter.
Thank you for showing us true derech eretz, as a child who never raised your voice or questioned. For showing us complete trust in Hashem. For being so sensitive to the feelings of others. Last week a friend told you a secret in front of another boy and you were torn, not wanting to hurt the teller, but also feeling the pain of the boy standing on and watching. You told me after school that it was frustrating because you weren’t sure what to do… thank you for showing us how to yearn for Mashiach….
It wasn’t the longest hesped, but it didn’t have to be long to be transformative.
Allow me, Reb Moshe, to reply to you in that manner as well, by letter.
Dear Reb Moshe and Mrs. Goldberg,
We walked into Refoel’s levayah in disbelief.
We were let down. So let down. Anyone blessed enough to be consumed by that whirlwind of tefillah, that frantic, intense, around-the-clock Tehillim rally, had been certain of a happy outcome.
For five special days, it was normal to see children falling asleep with open Tehillims in hand, to see normally unemotional people bent over in desperate supplication during Minchah.
Could there be any other ending?
And then it was suddenly over, and the sense of acute disappointment hung there, heavier than any blanket.
The levayah started, and within moments, the tone had changed to gratitude.
You changed it, Reb Moshe.
We heard that you’d been told that this boy, this beloved, charming boy, wouldn’t live a day. That the doctors told you it was ethically wrong to keep him alive when he was one month old. How he’d defied prognosis and prediction, again and again, forging on: a courageous little soldier running, jumping, riding a bike as if there weren’t a backpack, carrying his digestive tract and the nutrients he needed to live, attached his back. How when the doctors opened Refoel up last week, they were astonished — for inside was virtually nothing, just organs that appeared as useful as plastic toys.
It made no sense.
You thanked Hashem and we felt your gratitude.
You shared part of the secret of Refoel’s purity, sweetness, and magnetism.
Because he was a neshamah with so little guf attached. He couldn’t eat or drink. His great joy in life, as you and your children so movingly related, was sitting at the Shabbos table and singing, davening with his finger on the place, reviewing his Chumash with enthusiasm.
He was a person among people, but really, he was a living advertisement for what it means to live an elevated, ruchniyusdig life.
His favorite day was Simchas Torah, when the boy who could eat no candy danced with exuberance, the backpack bouncing along. In the hospital, before the surgery, the boy whose voice rang high and clear, who sang the music of Heaven for nine years, refused to listen to the music you suggested to calm him. He was worried about transgressing the strictures of Sefirah, even after you told him the rav had ruled it permissible. When you told him he could say Shemoneh Esreh lying in bed, he needed to be convinced.
But in truth, Reb Moshe, you and your rebbetzin were our teachers well before this levayah. You were our role models in simchah, in kiddush Sheim Shamayim, in respect and warmth and kindness.
As a maggid shiur, you’ve imbued two generations of talmidim with your trademark geshmak. Mrs. Goldberg, you somehow managed to find time to become Montreal’s shadchan — using heart, determination, tzniyus, and genuine concern to help build hundreds of new homes. You are trusted because you live in a world where superficiality is seen clearly for what it is.
In Refoel’s final moments, when you were instructed to say goodbye, you directed your beloved son, the boy who always listened, to go before the Kisei Hakavod and plead for those waiting to build their own homes.
You were the couple who showed us that one can have a large family and every single child can appear content and well taken care of, each of the 18 children with a special place in your oversized white van. (In his hesped, your older son said, “We used to have 18 children in our family — and we still have 18 children. Our army is complete — it’s just that one soldier has been moved to a different battalion!”)
One Yom Tov day, Reb Moshe, you invited me into your home to meet your unforgettable father-in-law, Rav Shmuel Kaufman, pillar of Detroit chinuch. He, in turn, was the grandson of the first soldier of the American Torah world, Reb Yaakov Yosef Herman.
In conversation, he told me how he’d once heard someone comment, “My father was a rebbi, but Baruch Hashem we’re not in chinuch.”
Rabbi Kaufman shuddered at the words, and exulted, “Baruch Hashem my children are in chinuch!”
I don’t think he ever dreamed of the chinuch opportunity yet to come.
You, along with your dear Refoel, taught Klal Yisrael about tefillah, about achdus, and ultimately, about emunah.
In your hesped, you called it emunah peshutah, but it was the deepest, most sophisticated truth in the world.
Refoel would say he was waiting for Mashiach, and then he could eat candies and drink soda.
Your family, your friends, your community, your nation are all also waiting for Mashiach.
We want to see Refoel again.
The backpack won’t be there, but the smile will surely be the same.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 761. Yisroel Besser may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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