In the midst of the hustle and bustle of packing up everything on the eve of our aliyah, my son called.
“If you can get it to fit, would you mind taking something for someone in your lift?”
My son had been storing Shachar Weissberg’s shtender (a type of bookstand intended for supporting heavy tomes on a tabletop) for several years in his shed in Baltimore, with no way to get it to him now that he was living in Israel.
Although Shachar had always dreamed of living in Israel and had strong roots there (his mother is Israeli and many of his siblings live there), you might call his aliyah “accidental.” While on a visit to Israel, Shachar fell seriously ill, yet another episode in a long string of ups and downs that were part of the degenerative illness that had plagued him for years. There were many times when he almost didn’t survive, but this time it was clear that he would be unable to travel back to America without great risk to his life. He was happily “stuck” in Israel, and Jerusalem is where he would spend the remainder of his too-short life.
He made aliyah only with the clothes that were in his suitcase, intended for a short visit. From Israel, Shachar asked my son if he could store his shtender.
Normally when we think of a shtender, it’s a tabletop model. But this was a large piece of wooden furniture, designed especially for use with a wheelchair. Its tabletop stretched across the width of his wheelchair, and its legs reached along the sides, to the floor. Shipping it was simply not feasible – – until now.
Our lift arrived 4 weeks after we made aliyah to the Galilee, in northern Israel. At the time I had no car, and couldn’t figure out how I was going to get the shtender to Shachar in Jerusalem. It sat in a corner of my rental apartment for several weeks. After speaking to his mother, who also didn’t have a car and was immersed in her role as Shachar’s caretaker, it was clear that somehow, I’d just have to make it happen.
Fortunately there is a direct bus from my village in the Galilee to Jerusalem’s central bus station. With a hand cart, I was able to roll the shtender from my apartment to the bus, load it in the storage area under the bus, and so I made the two hour journey to Jerusalem. Shachar lived in an apartment near Machane Yehuda, a short 10 minute walk from the bus station, and thanks to the dolly, I was able to roll it all the way to his house.
Although I had davened regularly for Rafael Shachar ben Zehavit, I hadn’t seen Shachar for several years, and I’d heard his condition was poor. Nothing could have prepared me for the shock of seeing how much he had deteriorated. He was bedridden in tremendous pain, could barely speak, and was clearly suffering. I will spare you the details, but it was clear to me that he would be unable to use the shtender in his current condition, and things were unlikely to improve.
I felt terrible for bringing Shachar the shtender! I was bringing him a relic from his past that was a bitter reminder of how much better things used to be, and it only emphasized all the things he could no longer do. If the purpose of visiting the sick is to bring comfort, this was not it!
But Shachar greeted me with a huge smile. And his face lit up when he saw his shtender. With great effort to speak, he thanked me profusely for bringing the shtender.
“This shtender is a source of great joy to me,” he said. “It reminds me of such happy times. I made this shtender with my own two hands in Camp Simcha. I worked so hard on building it, and I was so happy that I was able to accomplish it. That was huge for me. Every time I learned Torah with this shtender, it made my learning so much sweeter. Having it now will give me so much joy and strength, even if I can only just look at it.”
And that was the greatness of Shachar Weissberg a’h. He only saw the good in situations, in people, in life. He lived every moment of his life to the fullest and with meaning. He never took anything or anyone for granted. He appreciated everyone, and anyone who came to visit him with the idea of giving him encouragement, instead walked away encouraged and strengthened by him! He loved people from all walks of life and they loved him – – literally thousands of people from across the globe. His neshama was holy and pure.
He transcended his illness with his indomitable fighting spirit, yet was a gentle, kind, patient and loving friend to all who crossed his path. I confess I wondered how much longer he would be forced to suffer the ravages of his illness; it was awful and so unfair. But the world needed him more than he needed the world, and perhaps that is why he lived as long as he did.
His quiet greatness will never be forgotten. May we merit filling the tremendous void of his passing with kindness, fortitude, love and hope, as he would have wanted.
Rest in peace, Shachar Weissberg.