No matter how old we are, no matter how much experience we have had with death, it is sudden death that some people feel hits us the hardest. During my 43 years in the rabbinate, I have sat with too many families who had to deal with the sudden death of a spouse or child, a friend or acquaintance. The initial response is usually that it defies belief—“that can’t be true!” A secondary response that is common is regret—“I didn’t get to say ‘goodbye.’” A further response can be anger—“Why did this have to happen?” Another can be philosophical: “Why did someone so young/so loved/so talented/so special have to die?”. And then, after the reality sinks in, the response hopefully should be: “Condolences to the family,” “What can we do for the family?,” “What will I remember about the person who died?” “What can I learn from this tragedy?”
Throughout my career, I would sometimes draw parallels between Judaism and sports. After all, it was possible to be a lover of Judaism and a sports fan simultaneously. Not everyone agreed with me all of the time, but I still see the parallels. You don’t have to be a sports fan to understand the impact a sudden death can have on you or other people, whether the person who died was “great” or not. Basketball great Kobe Bryant has died in a tragic helicopter accident along with his daughter and friends. I have pulled together the reactions of some of his friends and colleagues and sportswriters who covered him, and I find in their words many of the same words that I have heard as a rabbi trying to help mourners. There are lessons we as Jews can learn and appreciate—no matter what our age is or our beliefs are or our experiences may be. They fall into three categories: “No, this can’t be true!,” “He left a legacy,” and “How we should live our lives.” And, with each category, I have provided a quotation from a Jewish source that I feel is appropriate.
“No, this can’t be true!”
“Repent one day before your death.” (Rabbi Eliezer, Pirkei Avot)
“There are days when the sports world just stops, when scores and statistics feel meaningless and feuds and rivalries pointless, when your heart aches and your eyes well because well, there is no longer a game to be played but a death to be mourned. . . .A day to stop us in our tracks? We can barely breathe.” (Tara Sullivan, Boston Globe columnist)
“This is not real now.” (Former Boston Celtics player and current ESPN analyst Paul Pierce)
“Nooooooo cmon someone say it ain’t true… I’m sick to my stomach right now.” (Boston Celtics player Jayson Tatum)
“No No No No No Please God No” (New York Mets player Noah Syndergaard)
“My heart hurts for Kobe and his family. Life ain’t fair man. This can’t be.” (Philadelphia Phillies player Andrew McCutchen)
“15 hours ago man… I actually cannot believe this. Praying for his family and close friends. Hoping it’s not true.” (Los Angeles Dodgers player Cody Bellinger)
“He left a legacy.”
“It is not up to you to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it.” (Rabbi Tarfon, Pirkei Avot)
“He gave his knowledge, time, and talent to tutor so many at the youth level, collegiate level, & NBA & WNBA players. Words can’t express the impact that he had on the game of basketball. I know basketball fans all over the world will miss him, especially the City of Los Angeles. . . . Laker Nation, the game of basketball & our city, will never be the same without Kobe. Cookie & I are praying for Vanessa, his beautiful daughters Natalia, Bianka & Capri, as well as his parents Joe & Pam & his sisters. We will always be here for the Bryant family.” (Earvin “Magic” Johnson, former Los Angeles Laker player and president of basketball operations)
“It’s OK to mourn. It’s OK to cry and ask why. Those are natural reactions. It’s a terribly sad day. The past few years, we saw Kobe transform into an amazing father, a caring soul, and a savant. He had given his all to the game, squeezed every last drop of his talent and desire on the floor before walking away.” (Gary Washburn, Boston Globe columnist)
“He will be remembered most for inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball and compete to the very best of their ability.” (Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner)
“Speechless, angry, sad, confused..@kobebryant was my idol growing up in LA. What he was beginning to accomplish outside of sports was something I was hoping to get the chance to meet and talk to him about one day..can’t believe my idol is gone! Named my daughter after you!” (Kevin Pillar, San Francisco Giants player)
“I don’t think I have the words in my vocabulary to properly articulate the way that I feel. It’s devastating. He was such an incredible basketball player and had such an impact on people’s lives off the court. He had so much left to give. It’s heartbreaking.” (Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers player)
How we should live our lives:
“Days are scrolls – write on them what you want to be remembered.”—(Bachya Ibn Pakuda, 11th century Rabbi.
“Enjoy every single day people, we are always too worried about things that are actually not that important. Life is precious and you never know when it’s gonna end.” (Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz player)
“It’s a constant reminder that you never know how much time you have left. Be present and tell the people you love that you love them.” (Ryan Braun)
On the day before Bryant died, he coached his daughter’s team against a team on which the daughter of former New England Patriots player Lawyer Milloy was playing. Here is what Milloy said on Instagram: “I was gonna go say hi, but I was that upset parent that lost to him and his daughter’s team for the first time in three matches. Figured I’d wait until today to say hi and congrats on the victory. . . . Sad I didn’t get the chance.”
I plan to write in the future for this website about my own experience with sudden death. But, for now, it is important to remember that—no matter what the circumstances of any death—we need to be ready to help ourselves and others cope with the reality of death, appreciate the legacy left by the person who has died, and value the importance of each and every day. These are lessons that I convey in my book FINDING HOPE AND FAITH IN THE FACE OF DEATH: INSIGHTS OF A RABBI AND MOURNER. They are hard, but necessary, lessons.
Rabbi Stephen A. Karol is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Isaiah in Stony Brook, New York. He was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati in 1977, and has served at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, New York, Congregation Sha’aray Shalom in Hingham, Massachusetts, and Temple Isaiah. He teaches at Temple Isaiah and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Stony Brook University, and is a frequent speaker at synagogues, churches, Jewish Community Centers, and various organizations on 15 different topics. Rabbi Karol lives in Port Jefferson Station, New York with his wife Donna.
[Ed. Note: This blog posting also appeared on Jewish Sacred Aging at https://jewishsacredaging.com/sudden-death/].