On April 14, 2013, Rabbi Mike & Denise Stern suffered the shocking death of their precious 12-year-old daughter Shoshie. In the days following, various stories emerged of the Sterns’ ethical-spiritual greatness.
Right after hearing the horrific news, while on the way to identify the body, Denise received a phone call from the mother of Shoshie's friend, whom Denise had never met. Denise blurted out “Shoshie’s dead!” and hung up. Then – in the midst of her emotional panic – Denise had the presence of mind and the sensitivity to call this woman back, apologize for her abruptness, check to see if she was alright and help calm her down.
During the shiva, an eyewitness to the fatal accident wanted to speak with the Sterns. But this woman was traumatized from the experience, and petrified that she would say the wrong thing or break down sobbing in front of them. When she entered the house, Rabbi Stern immediately sensed her trepidation, and told her that her tears were a source of comfort to them, and that she should allow herself to express her feelings so that she, too, can heal. After she left the room, Mike turned to Denise and said, "We need to be there for her – she’s going to need our help.”
Dr. Norman Goldwasser, who personally witnessed this, says: "Imagine the level of other-centeredness, of caring for another's well-being, especially at a time of such extreme personal distress."
One more story: A few days after Shoshie’s death, a man in Boca Raton was in the waiting room of a doctor's office. A couple was speaking with another man – having clearly met for the first time – and inviting him for Shabbos. The onlooker reports:
“I later discovered, to my horror that this smiling couple, so eager to help another Jew, were going through a tragedy that was still fresh, still raw. Yet they were going through it in a manner that showed their total and utter faith in God. Never in a million years could I ever have guessed that these two people, who would be completely justified to think of no one but themselves right now, were caring for the needs of another soul.”
The details of Shoshie Stern’s incredible love for others, and the legacy she leaves us, is described in part one of this interview, posted last week.
The following is based on recent Skype conversations between Israel and Florida.
Aish: Since Shoshie’s death, you’ve been speaking about “the other side of the curtain.” What does this mean?
Mike: Once in a while life sends us a precious moment where the curtain gets peeled back and we are able to see reality unmasked. It’s a clarity that shows us a far bigger picture, where we somehow touch the magnitude of meaning that is pregnant in every moment. Since Shoshie's death, I feel lifted into a different dimension. The moments seem to linger beyond time, in slow motion. Colors appear more vivid, even the food tastes better. My kids' laughter is more enlivening, my wife is more gorgeous, my friends and family are more endearing.
Shoshie's death has catapulted me out of my head and into life. The imperative to achieve my potential is stronger than ever. If I was driven by the desire to be good and have meaning in my life, it is more now. I have more passion, more gratitude for my gifts, and an overwhelming feeling that life is special. God really has my attention now.
Aish: And yet we still live in a mundane world. How do you relate to that?
Mike: Mundane things are more of a drag. I have little patience for the news or nonsensical bantering. What are we here for – to do errands? Sure, I have to take care of shopping, shlepping, cooking, bills, car pool. But is this my higher purpose in life, why the Almighty (so to speak) bothered to create me?
Aish: So how do you attain this clarity about life’s priorities?
Mike: My teacher, Rabbi Noah Weinberg zt”l, taught that the most important question we can ask ourselves is: "What am I living for?" The first thousand times I heard this, I didn't have a clue how to answer. At Aish HaTorah, we did an exercise to attain that clarity: "What would you like written in your obituary?” Mortality – and the knowledge that after death we will spend eternity with whatever we've created – is the ultimate attention-getter.
The Talmud says: “Do teshuva (spiritual correction) the day before you die, because you never know when that will be. Do any of us know when our last second on Earth will be? If we lived with a constant awareness that this moment could be our last, would we be a little kinder? A bit more sensitive? More forgiving? The loss of Shoshie is an important opportunity to ask ourselves the right questions.
Aish: How has Shoshie's death impacted things in your home?
I can never look at my wife and kids in the same way as before.
Mike: I love basketball but I simply don't have time to sit there and watch a game. I would much rather invest in my family and others. I am looking at my wife and kids with far more clarity of their greatness. Our family was always very close, but there is more peace in our home than ever before. We seem to be more forgiving of each others idiosyncrasies and faults. I can never look at my wife and kids in the same way as before. I more easily see their greatness and am not as bothered by the things I might have been critical about before. Shoshie's death has opened my heart, mind and soul. Things are more connected, more vivid and alive.
Aish: You lost a brother many years ago. How did this affect you and your family?
Mike: Unfortunately, my brother Gary passed away when I was 21. I saw and learned a lot from that time. There was life before Gary, and there was a new life after Gary. So I am able to help my children engage in appropriate mourning – to grieve freely, but not to the extent of destabilizing.
Yet for us today, we had life before Shoshie but have no idea what life will be like after Shoshie. One part of me still believes that Shoshie will come walking through the door. How does one possibly get used to the idea that there will never again be a care-free moment when everything will feel complete. Just the opposite – there will be an overwhelming void that something is missing, messed up, out of place.
My mother told us that the day will come when our load will be a bit lighter. Hearing it from her means everything in the world. But it is just not imaginable now.
Aish: Three years ago, your young son had a near-drowning experience, found at the bottom of a pool.
Mike: That happened within 24 hours of our moving to Boca Raton. It was touch-and-go whether he would survive. That experience shifted and moved us. We were shaken hard. I see now that the Almighty was training us, giving us a certain head start with what was to come with Shoshie.
Aish: You constantly speak of God’s tremendous love for us. How does Shoshie’s death redefine your understanding of God's love?
Mike: Denise and I know that God is only good and it's all for the good. Before this happened, we had full clarity that He is the infinite, pure perfection Who runs every detail of this world. Everything that appears “bad” is really driving things toward the ultimate good. We love the Almighty and He loves us. I don't believe anything could change that. In fact I love God more now because I am more aware of the reality of His constant presence.
Aish: How do you deal with the “Why?”
Mike: Shoshie had a mission to complete on Earth, and she completed it in 12 years. Her mission was to set an example of rising above pettiness to touch every human being with genuine love. Shoshie’s mission was to wake us up and inspire us forward. So despite the utter devastation, I feel closer to Shoshie now more than ever. I am totally committed to carrying her legacy forward.
If I was striving to improve the world, I am more determined now than ever to show that life is meaningful and that we must be completely dedicated to doing the right thing. In whatever time I've got left in this world, with God's help, I will fight, scratch and claw every ounce of my being to make the biggest difference. It's the best thing I can do for my precious Shoshie.
Aish: You've alluded to an ongoing relationship with Shoshie. How does that work now that she's gone?
Mike: Just because Shoshie is not here does not lessen my love. It only intensifies it. She is entirely spiritual now. My heart and soul is connected to hers without the limitations of the physical and material. So too, Shoshie can now feel God's total love for her without boundary, without limit. What a realization.
Aish: You have said that Shoshie is getting you closer to God. How so?
Mike: It starts with the idea that the relationship of parents and children is the paradigm, the microcosm of our own relationship with God. My unceasing love for Shoshie, the constant ache of missing her – this teaches me about God's total imminence in our lives, His constant love for us. How proud I am to have a daughter who is teaching me so much about life.
Every second is an opportunity to feel God's gifts. The fact that we breathe, the heart pumps, we digest food, we can see, hear, touch, smell, balance, learn, have cognition – all that is possible only though the will of God on a moment-to-moment basis. There is never a split-second where God takes the foot off the pedal. God is all that exists. There is not a millionth of an inch that God doesn't both fill and encompass. How anything else has life and existence is an eternal mystery that Jewish mysticism describes as God’s total unity.
Aish: Maintaining this level of belief is a monumental challenge. How do you grapple with it?
Mike: We can’t always understand why God does what He does. Shoshie’s death was the perfect storm, the work of a Master Artist whose painting is an evolving and unfolding tapestry. But we are so limited by time and space that up-close it looks to us like an impressionist painting – dots and blobs of paint that seem to have no relationship with one another, let alone forming a picture.
One day we will merit to see that breathtaking canvas. We will forget our suffering as if it was a dream. We will understand how all these errant deaths, illness, darkness, poverty, wars and setbacks became the seeds to set into motion a deeper understanding, motivating us to build a better world.
Aish: You’ve devoted your adult life to sharing this ethical-spiritual message with others. What is your goal, your vision moving forward?
Mike: We are picking up the shattered pieces of our lives, and committing ourselves more than ever to promoting respect, peace and unity. We need more of this in our homes - between siblings, spouses, in-laws. We need more of this in our schools, our workplace and communities.
I am working to launch a new initiative called "One Heart" which addresses these three things by providing practical tools, talks and workshops on how we look at, think about and relate to one another. I am also working on a program called "Green Speech," which teaches us how to take ethical responsibility for how we speak to one another. Our thoughts and words matter and we must use them to build our world, not destroy it. Shoshie engendered so much unity in her life, so I think it's a good direction to go. We have also set up a foundation in Shoshie's memory to "keep Shoshie-ing (www.shoshiestern.com) and accomplish these same goals.
Aish: It is reported that your wife – after learning that Shoshie’s death was not caused by driver negligence – beseeched the police officer to tell the young man driving the car, "We are people of faith. Please don't let this ruin your life."
Mike: I previously did not know how holy Denise is. We really have no idea who we’re married to until something happens to shake the foundations. In a way, everyone exists below the radar, lying in wait to reveal their greatness. Even in marriage so much of life is routine: shopping, cooking, homework. Day-to-day, what can you really see?
This situation squeezed Denise and out came pure holiness. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. She is operating with infinite wisdom, from a place that is beyond her conscious mind, a pure expression of Godliness.
At the hospital Denise wanted to see Shoshie's body. The rabbi understandably discouraged Denise, but she insisted. So that's what we did. Then the next evening, Denise insisted on being at the funeral home while they were performing the tahara (ritual cleansing) on Shoshie’s body. After they were done, she went and personally participated with the other women in performing the tahara. This is unprecedented; no parent does such a thing. But Denise was totally in touch with her maternal needs and the grieving process. She needed to do it in her own way.
At the funeral the next day Denise got down on her hands and knees and buried Shoshie with her bare hands. She said: “I’ve tucked in my daughter thousands of times. This is the last thing I can do for Shoshie and I want it to be perfect.” Can you imagine a more pure expression of love?
I am filled with awe at this woman who was right under my nose.
Sometimes we fail to recognize true holiness and greatness because it's so naturally integrated into someone’s personality. Denise has no ego in the way – no need for self-importance, approval, validation, affirmation, recognition. I am filled with awe at this woman who was right under my nose. Between Denise and Shoshie, I had two great teachers in my midst and I didn't even know it.
Aish: It’s now six weeks later. At the risk of an insensitive question, how are you doing?
Mike: Denise and I are in sheer horror, total agony. Everyone deals with their grief and pain in their own way. Denise has looked at Shoshie's pictures, videos, scrapbooks and has visited the cemetery many times. I have not – it's all too painful and I can sense it will be unproductive. We invested our kishkas in building up Shoshie to fly – only to have her taken away from us. And yet would I have rather had Shoshie for 12 years, than not at all? Absolutely no question whatsoever, we are eternally grateful for the time we had.
This is all leading us all somewhere better. The seeds of redemption are sown through our overwhelming challenges. I would never have asked for this challenge, but I know in the end it's all good.
To make a donation in Shoshie's memory, or to buy "Be Positive and Keep Shoshie...ing" bracelets to help support the work of the Shoshie Stern Memorial Foundation, go to shoshiestern.com
Or write to:
Shoshie Stern Foundation
7328 San Sebastian Dr
Boca Raton, Fl 33433