Thursday, May 30, 2024

Remembering Dr. Charlie Abbott z”l On His First Yahrtzeit

By now, it was supposed to get better. I am writing on the first yahrtzeit of my dear friend, Dr. Nechemiah (Charlie) Abbott z”l. Upon learning of his petirah a year ago, I was unable to function. I left the office and remained tethered to a keyboard until I could cathartically unburden myself of what I had to say by posting on my website. Exactly one year later, I am again paralyzed, able to function only through my fingers. After a year, the pain and the longing were supposed to subside. Chazal tell us that the ability to forget, to let go, is a bracha from Hakadosh Boruch Hu so that we are not consumed by perpetual grief. It is a bracha to which his friends in Los Angeles have not yet been zoche. Shortly after our return from the levaya, Nasir, one of the Iranian chevrah in our shul, approached our mara d'asra, Rav Gershon Bess. Could he place a lit candle at Charlie's place in shul? No, he responded to quizzical mispallelim, he could not say that this was an Iranian custom. In fact, he said, he wasn't sure why he felt compelled to do it, but it just seemed so right to him.

Our shul revolves around limud haTorah and dikduk in halacha. It is the last place you would look for the invention of a new minhag or ritual. Yet, Nasir’s suggestion resonated with many people, and candles burned at Charlie’s makom kavuah the entire shivah.


A year later, I think I understand why.


Throughout the year, light and darkness have trailed after Charlie’s memory.


There has been plenty of darkness; Charlie is sorely missed. You look around in shul after Kedushah. Charlie used to daven the longest Shemonah Esrei of anyone in Kehilas Yaakov. (The shul he davened at was named after his father.) He was a constant reminder of how to take davening more seriously, a silent gadfly to upgrading your quality of tefillah. We used to look towards the front right of the shulchan for the reminder. Now there is just a void.


(The reason for the long Shemoneh Esrei, it is speculated, is that he kept in mind a long list of cholim for whom he davened. He was that kind of physician. Years ago, a child born to a family member had a serious vision problem that, boruch Hashem, subsequently cleared up but was initially a harrowing challenge. Charlie, of course, was called in to advise. He never met the baby, but years later he would ask for the child using his name and his mother’s. He let on that he had been davening for the child each day since the problem was noted.)


Roshei yeshiva who were beneficiaries of Charlie’s largesse still come to Los Angeles. What we don’t see anymore is the figure of Charlie reminding everyone else what kavod haTorah is supposed to be like. He used to wait on them like a servant. He hung on to every word he could squeeze out of them. Charlie had internalized an ethos of mahn malki – rabbonon. He treated every talmid chochom like a walking diadem, for whom providing a small payback for the words of wisdom he hungrily devoured from them was an honor.


Los Angeles remains a Torah center, but we don’t have the living example in front of us of the distance that the motivated runner can go. Rabbi Berish Goldenberg, the principal of Yeshivas Toras Emes, put it pithily to talmidim: “Dr. Abbott began adulthood with a limited Torah-study background. He pushed himself, till he became a successful physician who also learned much Torah. He continued pushing himself, till he became a Torah student who also worked as a successful physician. Ein dovor omeid bifnei haratzon!”


There has been plenty of Charlie’s light in evidence as well. Charlie did such a good job in what he turned to, that the projects he started or oversaw had lives of their own. He had an extraordinary sense of responsibility, refusing to divide up the community into “his” areas and those to be left to others. Any problem potentially became his. And when he addressed a problem, he bypassed the “let’s-mull-it-over-for-a-week-and-see-if-we-can- meet-on-it-later” stages, and threw himself into the solution immediately. (Within one day of Rabbi Yaakov Krause, the menahel of Toras Emes, and Rabbi Goldenberg suggesting to him the attractiveness of an afternoon kollel for mechanchim, Charlie had secured a place and a rosh kollel.)


Chazal typify tzaddikim as saying little and doing much. In a tribute to Charlie, Rabbi Krause observed that we usually stress the second phrase, about doing much. This may be a mistake. Chazal’s major praise may be associated with the first phrase: saying little. The rest of us put much of our well-intentioned energy into speaking about our plans. That is often the best we can do. The tzaddik doesn’t expend any of his energy on the words, because he knows how to turn them into effective deeds. Charlie was like that.


Because of his sharp focus, so much of his light remains in evidence. In some cases, like Yeshivas Toras Emes (the largest Torah school west of the Mississippi), while remaining very much involved, he had handed over the reins of lay leadership to others after decades of stewardship that put the school on a steady course. In other cases, he had generated so much love and admiration, that friends in the community met after his petirah to guarantee that his Kollel LeMechanchim in Los Angeles and the multiple kollelim in Israel that he singlehandedly supported would be able to continue.


There was, throughout the year, plenty of darkness and plenty of light. It has been a year of ohr v’choshech mishtamshim be’irvuvia.


Rav Yitzchok Hutnerzt”l essentially argues in Pachad Yitzchok that you can reduce the neis shemen on Chanukah to very few words: Ner became ohr. Any ner has dimension; its contents have predictable properties. You can calculate how long it will burn. Ohr, on the other hand, is disembodied light. It is dimensionless, infinite. In regard to Chanukah, the light of Torah Sheba’al Peh that was generated in the last two centuries of Bayis Sheini became an infinite light of kedushah, illuminating the long, bitter golus that would follow.


Ner Hashem nishmas adam. Charlie’s ner has become ohr, burning brightly beyond the expected influence of a single person who is no longer with us. That ohr is all the more needed, because associated with his name is a pocket of insufferable darkness that still envelops his friends and family who miss him and are still not consoled.


Nasir may not have realized the importance of his candle, but we can explain it by now. The candle was a representation of an ohr that would remain in his place, a light that would be needed for a long time to dispel the darkness and miasma left to those who remember his greatness.


Yehi zichro boruch.



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