Charlie Abbott, zt”l
Los Angeles yidden lost one of their most beloved yesterday. I lost a cherished friend. It will take a long while to remember and reflect. What I offer here are just a few early thoughts, more cathartic to me than a proper tribute.
I have lost friends, close relatives, and even students before. I have witnessed the sudden, unexpected loss of young people. I have grieved for my own losses, and shared in the grieving of others. Something was different here. Charlie Abbott was not supposed to die. Sure, everyone gets called back to the Yeshiva Shel Ma’alah. But nobody thought it would happen to Charlie.
We all reacted to the news of his melanoma just slightly differently than Esav. The day that he yielded the bechorah to Yaakov, Esav had been guilty of the three cardinal sins of Yiddishkeit – the worst of the worst. It was the day of their grandfather Avraham’s levaya. The ba’alei mussar explain that Esav recoiled in shock at his zeide’s death. He wasn’t supposed to die. Shouldn’t a tzadik like Avraham weather any storm or crisis? The magnitude of his merit was immeasurable. Wouldn’t G-d hold him in the palm of His hand, and protect him from ageing and infirmity? If all his mitzvos and merit couldn’t do that, then who needed them? He was ready to live his life free of any constraints.
None of us is going to throw off the yoke of mitzvos. I expect that many will, at least for a while, turn to them with even greater resolve – some of us because we will keep Charlie’s image in front of us, and others to try to offer something to his pure neshamah. But we all thought that if anyone would be pulled out of his medical straits, it would be Charlie. Gedolei Yisrael, upon first hearing of his illness, reportedly reacted the same way. He had so, so many zechusim. How would they not stand by him in his hour of need? There was a huge outpouring of tefilah in Los Angeles and elsewhere. We never know how Hashem will receive our tefilos, but we thought to ourselves that this situation was different. We weren’t so much asking Hashem to change His midah so much as calling upon Him to make a small withdrawal from a huge account of merit.
We go back well over thirty years, when we were both relatively recently married, and lived on the Pico side of Los Angeles. I remember him trekking many miles – and back – on Shabbos to UCLA hospital, where he had to do rounds as a resident. He never looked perturbed. It was something that had to be done, so just do it.
Just do it. I don’t know if he ever said the words, but it could have been his motto. When the small haredi day school needed someone to take charge, he did it, for many years. That meant the dirty, unappreciated work, not the get-your-picture-in-the-paper work. Begging people in town to lend money to cover each payroll. Seeing to it that the tuition committee treated people with respect. Building the new buildings when the small school became the largest this side of the Mississippi. Starting an afternoon kollel (and continuing to take responsibility for it) as a way to both augment the salary of mechanchim in the city, and to make sure that those mechanchim would keep their heads in learning. (This was the kollel people knew he supported. They did not know of a few more in Israel, completely dependant upon him.) Charlie (or Nechemiah, as people who knew him more recently called him) became an icon of community responsibility and chesed – one of a small number who built a community not because he shared his wealth (he wasn’t wealthy), but his talent, his lev, and his will.
He did what had to be done, as long as he could be assured that the Ribbono Shel Olam wanted it. He did not seem to have any other interests or hobbies, other than following that ratzon. He knew where to best find what that ratzon was, developing a close relationship with major roshei yeshivah. He became their close talmid, not just another donor. When they came to town and stayed with him, it was their words of Torah he appreciated, not the honor he received. He completely identified with their outlook on life and their ideals. Learning was at the top of the pyramid. He learned, and wanted more than anything else for his sons to elevate learning to the highest value in their lives. They all became b’nei Torah – something that cannot be taken for granted today; some are kelei kodesh or learning full-time.
He worked at his ophthamological duties, including surgery and multiple offices, with the same dedication and nonchalance. There was nothing frenetic about him, in a practice that itself was often frenetic. He was just so focused and even-keeled. But he was the furthest from machine-like or even stoic. In conversation with his patients and his friends, the twinkle in his eye never departed, with the possible exception of literally the last days of his life. Children loved coming to his office, because he knew each one by name, and made conversation with them as if they were his peers. He couldn’t be condescending if he tried.
He defined those opthamological duties in a characteristically Charlie kind of way. He had know-how and ability, so his duty was to share it. Always. His home dining room was a frequent operating room theater. When kids had nasty gashes on Shabbos, parents ran to his house, where he kept a set of instruments and sutures. (He just didn’t want people to have to wait in hospital emergency room.) Of course, he thoroughly familiarized himself with all the shailos of suturing on Shabbos, and found out what gedolei poskim held about what was sakanah and what was not, when a physician could violate a d’orayso, and where only a derabbanan. (One of my grandchildren opened a huge gash over his eye approximately three minutes before candle lighting on Erev Pesach. Hatzolah responded and told us we could either go to Cedars-Sinai, or to Charlie. We took the patient in a stroller to shul, and didn’t bother him till after davening. He looked at it, and insisted we come to his house, where he delayed the start of the seder for an hour while putting in many stitches.)
There was, however, only one thing of importance in his life, and that was the Ribbono Shel Olam. He was the chief presence in his medical practice. He knew that Hashem was the Rofeh kol basar. One of my grandchildren seemed to have an alarming visual deficit at birth. Some doctors assumed the worst. Charlie was consulted, of course, even though the baby was in Israel, and was an immense source of strength. Baruch Hashem, it turned out to be a rare case of a late development of part of the eye, and the child’s vision is fine today. It was more than stressful along the way. Two years after, Charlie would still inquire regularly about visual progress, and refer to him by his full Hebrew name and that of his mother. He let on that he had been davening for him since birth. Every day. Who knows how many other patients he had been davening for? How many of us now realize that his tefilos for a refuah for others may have been more effective than for his own? Who will daven for those patients now?
Charlie wasn’t supposed to die. HKBH has His own, better judgment, and we will of course accept it. Our tziduk ha-din will be helped along by remembering the depth of Charlie’s emunah.
We won’t be able to figure out Hashem’s thinking, nor do we have to. We will try to remember Rav Kook’s, zt”l, explanation of tumas meis. Death, he wrote, conveys tumah because it is the ultimate lie and falsehood. We all fear it, tremble in its presence and run from its anticipation. In truth, however, death is an important part of life, perhaps the most important. It moves a person from one kind of life to a much deeper and richer one. As humans, we can only mouth the words, without really understanding them. So we still recoil before Death as the ultimate horror, when it is not.
If there ever was someone in Los Angeles about whom we could have this confidence of now moving to the next level up, it was Charlie.
תהא זכרו ברוך