Kelly: Pondering the unthinkable after a tragedy
The wind and rain of the weekend’s nor’easter took two good men.
A TREE FALLS in Teaneck and two good men die — and then people naturally ask a question for which there seems no good answer: Where was God?
The deadly nor’easter that swept across North Jersey last weekend, uprooting hundreds of trees, cutting power lines and flooding rivers and streams, left many scars that need to be patched. But one scar persists in the form of an intractable question: How do we explain the randomness of nature’s violence on its victims?
Why did some basements flood and others did not? Why did a solitary tree smash into a home on one block while more trees fell a block away, and none struck anything except the asphalt on the street or the soft grass on a lawn?
In Teaneck, the question is far more personal. Why did a lone, 50-foot Norwegian maple tree suddenly crack and crash down last Saturday near the intersection of Jefferson and Winthrop Roads just as two men — Ovadia Mussaffi and Lawrence Krause — were walking home from a synagogue service?
Mussaffi and Krause, who are neighbors, were killed instantly, police say. The Orthodox Jewish synagogue where they had been praying, Congregation Shaarei Orah, sits across the street, and Mussaffi and Krause had left only a minute earlier to return to home.
In other words, Mussaffi and Krause were not taking a long, risky walk in a violent storm. Yes, it was windy and rainy. But they were basically crossing a street in an otherwise pristine and peaceful neighborhood of carefully manicured lawns and stately homes. It’s not the kind of setting where you expect someone to die.
But death did come, as randomly as a bolt of lighting that streaks across a summer’s sky.
One morning last week, at Teaneck’s Butterflake Bake Shop, a popular township gathering spot, the conversation among customers understandably turned to the deaths of Mussaffi and Krause. Standing near the counter, a woman paused before selecting a cookie for her daughter.
She shook her head silently as she pondered the tragic timing and inherent mystery in trying to understand why the men died. "If only they had been 10 seconds slower or faster," she said finally. "That tree might have fallen and we wouldn’t be talking about these deaths."
Whether it’s a hurricane that rolls through the Mississippi delta or a speeding tractor trailer that smashes into a family mini-van on the New Jersey Turnpike on a sunny August afternoon, it’s only natural to ponder those two words: If only.
The rabbis who minister to the synagogue where Mussaffi and Krause were praying the night they died say they were asked that question or a variation of it many times last week.
"Why do tragedies take place? This is the question that all religions struggle with," said Rabbi Ely Allen.
"Why do bad things happen to good people?" said Rabbi Howard Jachter, echoing the title of the best-selling book. "That is what is on people’s minds. What was God thinking? That’s really the question: Where was God?"
The rabbis have asked the congregation’s members to gather this afternoon for an informal memorial service for Mussaffi and Krause. In the month before Passover, the rabbis said, Orthodox synagogues generally refrain from conducting services with eulogies. But the rabbis said they felt that the deaths of Mussaffi and Krause were so tragic that the congregation needed to find some measure of meaning, perhaps even a lesson to apply to the lives of those left behind.
"An Orthodox Jew does not believe that things are random," Rabbi Jachter said. "We believe that God has some kind of reason."
Nonetheless, the rabbis conceded they are having a hard time explaining this tragedy, in part because both men who died were so beloved.
"These two men – they were the best of the best," said Rabbi Allen. "This is why this is particularly cutting."
Mussaffi, a father of two boys and two girls, ran a fur and leather store in Manhattan and was the synagogue’s president.
"A positive, upbeat person," said Rabbi Jachter, describing what he remembers most about Mussaffi.
"A living angel," added Rabbi Allen.
Krause, a Manhattan attorney and father, belonged to another synagogue but often prayed at Shaarei Orah because it was close to his home. Neighbors remembered him as one of the most dignified and respected men they knew.
"A mensch," said Rabbi Allen, using the Yiddish term to describe an admirable person of integrity and honor.
"Friendly and not pretentious at all," said Rabbi Jachter.
Hearing such accolades makes the deaths of Mussaffi and Krause all the more tragic. The wind and rain of the weekend’s nor’easter took two good men.
Left behind for the rest of us to wrestle was a difficult question with no easy answer.