Recently, 12-year-old Shoshi Stern showed a family member a little box that she kept in her room. It was filled with memorabilia, collectables and keepsakes. When asked what she was saving them for she answered, “To show my children one day.”
Heartbreakingly, that day will never come as Shoshi was tragically killed this past Sunday while crossing a busy intersection in our community. Her incredible parents, loving siblings and devoted grandparents had no chance to say goodbye, no opportunity for one last hug or embrace. In a moment, their lives changed forever, and so did all of ours who knew her.
While nobody can feel this loss like the Stern family, this is not their loss alone. Shoshi’s passing is the entire Boca Raton and South Florida’s loss, a tragedy and devastation that has stolen our innocence, forced our children to grow up way too quickly, to experience a pain that nobody should ever know and to confront questions that simply have no answers. Our Rabbis teach: If one of the members of the community has tragically died, the entire community should be anxious, worried and concerned.
Shoshi was unique; she marched to her own beat. She was fun, warm, sensitive, kind, thoughtful and had her own style.
But this is not South Florida’s loss alone. Make no mistake; this is a Klal Yisrael loss, a loss to humanity as a whole. The world has been robbed of a young woman who was destined to become a fabulous wife, an amazing mother, a devoted grandmother, a fiercely loyal friend, a model of good traits, a performer of kindness, a source of joy and laughter. To be honest, we will never truly know what we lost, because we never had the blessing to experience the woman she would have become. A bright light has been extinguished and the world is a much darker place as a result.
Upon hearing the news, all were filled with a profound grief , an acute pain and an overwhelming ache. Many felt anger and others were plagued by questions and doubt. Why would God take such a beautiful, pure, sweet, kind, and good neshama (soul) in the prime of her life? Why would God cut short her already remarkable journey, a journey that was just beginning, a journey that was so promising, so filled with curiosity, creativity, joy, and happiness?
Shoshi was unique; she marched to her own beat. She was fun, warm, sensitive, kind, thoughtful and had her own style. A unique, individual expression of God has left this world, never to be replaced, never to be restored. Why would He take her at 12 years old, why?
“My beloved has gone down to his garden, to the beds of spices, to feed in the gardens and to gather Shoshanas -- lilies” (Song of Songs 6:2). The book Nahalat Shafrah points out that when the gardener needs fruit, when he needs to be satiated by the sweetness and succulence of his garden, he plucks those matured by age and ripened by time. However, when the gardener yearns for a flower, he is not concerned by its age, only by its fragrance and pleasant appearance.
God, omnipotent and infinite Creator of all life, is called by King Solomon – Dodi, my beloved. He is the Gardener of the universe. Most often He lovingly plucks ripe matured fruit, tired elderly people sated with life and yearning for eternal rest. Then, there are times like this. Moments that are unfathomable, incomprehensible, when meaning and reason seem suspended in time, replaced by a cloud of enigmatic mystery that surrounds us.
The Divine Gardner has not taken a ripe old fruit, but rather He has come to his garden and plucked a young flower. Without warning, He has paid a visit to his garden “to take from among his Shoshanas.” He has snatched our beloved Shoshana Rochel, our beautiful Shoshi.
The ways and practices of the Divine Gardener are a mystery to us, unintelligible and incomprehensible to mere mortals. To suggest that we understand why this happened is both an insult to the bereaved and an affront to the Almighty. As people of faith, we must concede that there is much we do not and cannot understand.
Yet, for all that we don’t know, there is one thing I know for sure. I know that the reaction and response of the Stern family is having a transformative impact on all who are observing them. It is we who are supposed to be supporting them through this agonizing time, but it is they who are giving strength to us. They are displaying extraordinary faith, superhuman strength, and incredible sensitivity throughout an ordeal that can only be described as every parent’s worst nightmare.
Shoshi’s parents, Rabbi Mike and Denise, have spent their career in outreach, teaching Jews how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They have inspired hundreds of families in Philadelphia where they founded the Aish HaTorah branch, Milwaukee and most recently in Boca Raton. Throughout their adult lives, they have shared countless lessons with others, but none as powerful, piercing or penetrating as the lessons they are teaching us this week.
Shortly after learning of the untimely death of their daughter, I was present when the Sterns met with the detective in charge of the case. After he explained that the driver of the car was going the speed limit, was unimpaired and wasn’t to blame, Denise interrupted him before he could continue. “Do you have the driver’s number, can you get in touch with him?” she asked. The officer answered in the affirmative and Denise continued. “Please, I beg of you, get in touch with him and tell him that we are people of faith, we believe in God and we know that this was not his fault. Please,” she said, “tell him not to allow this to ruin the rest of his life.”
In the midst of his heartbreaking eulogy for his daughter, Rabbi Mike gathered himself long enough to make sure to express gratitude to those who have helped his family at this difficult time. More remarkably, he offered words of gratitude to the Almighty Himself for sharing Shoshi with them, even if it was only for 12 short years.
Seeing the way her parents carry themselves and the values with which they live, it comes as no surprise that Shoshi herself was warm, friendly, gracious, kind, and loving. She excelled at making others feel special, that they belong and that she wanted to be their friend. At a mere 12 years old she understood that it is up to us to find the goodness in every human being and to attach ourselves to that part of each individual.
Shoshi was naturally drawn to others, and they to her.
Our community has a Bat Mitzvah program for girls having their Bat Mitzvah in that year. The program brings together girls from different schools and diverse backgrounds. I heard from a participant in last year’s program that naturally, the girls almost immediately broke into their little cliques. There was one exception, one girl who made an effort to be friendly to everyone, particularly shy girls who were reticent and withdrawn. Shoshi was naturally drawn to others, and they to her.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that it is no coincidence that the Hebrew words Aveil (mourner) and aval (but) are closely related. An Aveil, a mourner, feels a profound sense of aval – however, but, things are different and will never again be the same.
For the Stern family, life will never be the same again. For us who identify with their pain and seek to comfort their sorrow, we must pause to say aval, however, we are committed to being different, to change and to grow from this experience. We must cherish our families, hug our children a little tighter, express gratitude to all and especially to God and like Shoshi, to be sensitive and kind to every human being for we are all created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God.
As we buried Shoshi, her mother Denise crouched down and used her hands to push the earth into the grave. As she was lovingly and carefully smoothing it over, I leaned down and invited her to stand up and join us as Kaddish was about to be recited. She told me that she wasn’t ready yet. “I have tucked my daughter in thousands of times, Rabbi,” she said, “allow me to tuck her in one last time.”
Shoshi Stern a”h, a beautiful, pure, sweet flower, has been plucked from the Almighty’s garden, but her enduring fragrance will last forever.
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