Those Who Prayed With Their Feet

January 19, 2009

Andrew posts video of MLK’s final public words, in which he seems equally confident in the eventual success of the Civil Rights Movement and that he will not live to see it happen; that (in hindsight, at least) he will die soon.  That speech has always brought to mind what is possibly the most striking passage in Elie Wiesel’s memoir, All Rivers Run to the Sea, where he reflects on the deaths of Rabbis Saul Lieberman and Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Watching that footage made me go look it up:

“As I said, I wasn’t surprised.  Lieberman had acted strangely when I saw him last.  At the end of our lesson he had stood up and embraced me.  He was to leave that afternoon for Jerusalem, to celebrate Passover with his older brother.  I was in a hurry.  I was giving a lecture at Yale that afternoon.  He walked me to the door, but suddenly exclaimed, ‘Would you like to come back, Reb Eliezer?’  We went back and reimmersed ourselves in study. […]

“An hour went by.  Once again he accompanied me to the hallway, we embraced, and I got into the elevator, but my friend and master took me by the arm and said, “We still have time, Reb Eliezer, don’t we still have time?”  We went back to his desk, took our places, and opened the Talmud for another hour. […] I left with a heavy heart, for during the lesson I had noticed that his desk, always strewn with books, magazines, and papers, was entirely clear.  This unprecedented  fact brought another image to my mind.

“One morning, years before, Heschel had phoned me.  He needed me urgently.  I jumped in a cab and rushed to the Seminary.  Heschel opened his door  and, without saying a word, leaned his head on my shoulder and began to sob like a child.  Rarely have I seen an adult cry like that.  Still standing in the doorway, I noticed that his ordinarily messy table was neatly arranged.  We parted without exchanging a word.  Heschel died the next day.  Now Lieberman’s table was clear too.

“The Talmud tells us that the Righteous are warned of their impending death, to allow them time to put their affairs in order.  Heschel and Lieberman, each in his own way, were surely among the Righteous.”

It’s a story I’ve never known what to make of, but it is one of two or three passages that make me keep that book with me.  And, thinking on it this afternoon, it seems appropriate that King’s death should make me think of Heschel’s, and Heschel’s of King’s, different though they were.

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