A life ended suddenly on a highway north of Manhattan early one Sunday morning the week before Rosh Hashanah a year ago, and it merited barely a few paragraphs on a local news website — a New York man, mid 50s, was driving his motorcycle at a high rate of speed, hit a side rail of an exit, was thrown onto the road and died instantly.
But for Danny, who lives in the neighborhood near the exit, it was an encounter with a stranger — actually, the stranger’s body — that affected his High Holydays davening.
Danny, who had joined friends for an after-Shabbat meal in nearby Teaneck, NJ, was driving home in his hatchback shortly after midnight, when, in the dark, he felt a bump on his car’s driver side. Shocked, he pulled his car into the service lane, looked in the rearview mirror, and saw the driver’s body, motionless in the road. Danny stepped out of his car to see if he could help — but it was too late; observing the Harley Davidson careen down the highway, without a driver, for several hundred feet, he approached the accident victim. “He was gone.” His helmet was thrown off; his head, bloodied, was crushed.
Danny called 911, waited for an ambulance and the police to arrive, answered the officers’ question to their satisfaction that he was not drunk and was not to blame for the collision, and drove home, shaken up, at 5:30 a.m. “I was upset.”
Why did it all happen? Why did Danny witness a man’s sudden death? And why did he emerge unscathed? The motorcycle had hit his vehicle at an angle, a “glancing blow,” Danny says — had the motorcycle struck his car at a right angle, he might not have walked away unharmed — or at all.
Danny, a friend of mine, a frequent Shabbat host, did not give thought to those questions. He described the accident, and its aftermath, in muted, measured, tones. A teacher by profession, a former EMT volunteer, he says his spiritual strength is doing, not contemplating.
“I don’t ask those kind of questions,” says Danny, the son of a child survivor of the Holocaust. His father, who has lived a life of mitzvah performance for the last 75 years, also has not asked the “Why?” or “Why me?” questions. “The universe goes on,” Danny says. “I don’t challenge it.”
“It wasn’t my time to go,” he says simply.
On Monday morning, he drove to his teacher’s job.
He repaired the damage to his car, including a smashed sideview mirror; but for a few weeks he couldn’t get the image of the dead motorcyclist out of his mind.
Came Rosh Hashanhah.
In his 50s, Danny is accustomed to the machzor’s moving words, which he reads every year, with varying degrees of kavanah. Last year, he says, he paid more attention than usual. “When a man knows he is going to be hanged in a fortnight,” Samuel Johnson famously said, “it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Danny’s near brush with death concentrated his mind on the Rosh HaShanah liturgy.
Especially the verse in Untaneh Tokef, one of the key readings, which spells out the varied ways in which Man can meet his end. “On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed, and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth.” A few words in particular caught Danny’s eye: “ . . . who will live and who will die, who will die at his predestined time and who before his time.”
“That hit me. That brought it close,” Danny says; he had witnessed the death of someone who had died, ostensibly, “before his time.” But for the angle of an errant motorcycle, the words might have referred to his own sudden demise.
Danny says the near miss has brought no major changes in his spiritual life. He still goes to shul regularly. He still teaches his students about Judaism.
But . . . his driving is different. “I’m more careful on the roads.” When possible, he tries to avoid taking that same exit of the highway when headed home.
And . . . his prayers in shul every week since then have been different, noticeably more intense, he says.
Danny has taken those words to heart.
His mind, he says, does not wander as much as it might have previously. He pays more attention to the words of the siddur. “I’m a little more concentrated. I show up with more kavanah.”
Rosh Hashanah this year will mark, approximately, the first anniversary of the sideswipe that nearly ended Danny’s life. He may not even notice the date. But, he says, he will probably notice the words of Untaneh Tokef — as he did last year. He expects it to ring as loudly as it did a year ago. “I think it might.”
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