A dry hand shakes my shoulder. It is my brother, Mayer. I bury my head in my pillow. “Don’t worry,” I say. “My alarm is set.” “Zach, please. I have some bad news,” Mayer says. I roll over and peer through the darkness. “Ari passed away during the night.”
I tiptoe down the stairs. Afraid to fully enter Ari’s room, I poke my head around the door frame. My kneecaps tremble, my temples thump, my heart pounds. There is my brother, 16 years old, his hair long gone from chemotherapy, lifeless in his bed. My knees give out, and I have to lean on the wall.
The early morning twilight seeps through the windows and casts long shadows. I inch into the room. It feels cold and drafty. It makes no sense. There is Ari’s body, but Ari isn’t there. Where is he? How did this happen?
Recent events replay in my mind. My friends and I were celebrating Sukkot. For one week, we reenacted the time of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, when every Jew, young and old, rich and poor, came together to celebrate their unity with God and each other. We ate our meals together in a sukkah and abstained from driving and using the phone or electricity. Leaving the distractions of the world behind, we focused on God, rejoicing in each other’s company, and enjoying simple pleasures — playing board games, nibbling challah dipped in honey, telling stories, laughing. And that’s what my buddies and I had been doing when our friend Dena hastened into the sukkah.
“Zach,” she said firmly. “Thank God you’re here. You really need to get home. Ari has slipped into a coma.” The words washed over the table, and silence swept through the sukkah.
I ran through the alley and down the hill. My face was hot, and my lungs begged for air. It was early evening, and the sun was going down. I hustled up our driveway and climbed the stairs. I thrust open the door. My parents and Mayer, their hands clasped, were sitting in the living room with Rabbi Kletenik. My mother’s eyes were red and teary.
“Odds are that Ari will not regain consciousness,” Rabbi explained. “He might not even make it through the night. Mayer should say Vidui — confession — and Shema — the prayer of the Jewish people — on Ari’s behalf.” Mayer retrieved a prayer book. “Shema Yisrael — Hear O Israel,” he chanted, closing the door to Ari’s room behind him.
When Mayer completed the prayers, we exchanged places. Ari labored over every tiny breath. By now it was getting dark, and it was time for Ma’ariv — the day’s closing prayers. Bidding Ari goodnight, I stood up to head for our synagogue, and opened the bedroom door.
Before me in the low light of the living room waited the majority of our community. How could all these people have learned about Ari’s condition without their phones? How could they have gotten here so quickly without their cars? My father pulled me aside. “Tonight, because of Ari, we’re going to pray at home instead of at synagogue. Zach, will you please lead the prayer?”
I moved to the front of the room, facing east, toward Jerusalem. Behind me stood the congregation. I began to read. “Barchu et Hashem Ham’vorach — Blessed is God, the one who blesses.” My voice trembled. The congregation bowed. “Baruch Hashem Ham’vorach L’olam Va’ed — Bless God, the One who blesses the world forever,” the congregation responded, rising.
“Baruch Atah Hashem…Golel or mip’nay choshech — Blessed are You, God, who reveals light in the face of darkness.” Now my voice is strong.
I rouse myself now and study Ari’s body. Where is Ari? I look up into the faces of the mourners. Daylight begins to filter through the blinds, and our group comes into focus. Now I know. Ari is here — with me, with my family, with the members of our community. And we are all with God.