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Thursday, September 20, 2018

David Thaler, z”l

Until last week I belonged to a very special chevra, the “Family and Friends of David Thaler.” As a member of that chevra I was privileged to receive a weekly email recounting the family milestones and events, as well as insights David gleaned from his weekly Torah studies. I first met David when he joined an IEP meeting I conducted involving one of the students on my caseload. As the treating therapist, he impressed me with the professional and genuine manner with which he advocated for his patient. His responses reflected a stark contrast to therapists who take the easy route of supporting the requests of the parents who pay for their services. Instead, David helped the parents understand that “more” is not always in the best interest of the child. He managed to convince them to accept the recommendations of a team that “knew” their child, and based on the test results and his progress the remedial plan was consistent with the needs of their child. Even though it wasn’t until years later that David and Eve became our close friends, it was in this first encounter that I realized David was a “seeker of truth,” committed to staying on the “golden path of the right and the just.”

Last Thursday, Jack and I were in Boca, blessed to be celebrating the graduations of Yosef and Shmuli Flug, two of our Boca grandchildren. As a result, when I received David’s email on Parshat Shelach, I neglected to open it up. I took it for granted that I would get to it when my life quieted down a bit. I also assumed that Jack and I could look forward to visiting with David, who was still recovering from a recent medical challenge. Looking back, I am mindful of how we take for granted that some of the most precious gifts we possess will be there for the taking when we choose to fit them into our busy schedules and matter-clogged lives. I never dreamed that the next time we would visit the Thaler home would be to make a shiva call.

It took me some time to take in the reality of the tragic loss of our dear friend David. Yet, when instead of his weekly parsha I received the shul email that began with the words typically heralding a tragedy, “ברוך דיין האמת,” I could no longer deny the truth. It was then that the loss of David and the suffering of my dear friend Eve and the entire family hit me at the core. Yet it took me some time to process the reality that I would never receive another email filled with David’s love and pride for his family, coupled with his Torah insights. It hurt so much that Jack and I could no longer count on David’s friendship, sense of humor and wise counsel in so many areas. It was David with whom I discussed the pros and cons of retiring from my job as chairperson of the child study team. It was David who edited and helped me cut out the extraneous information in my Jewish Link articles without compromising on the messages I wanted to impart. And it was with Eve and David that Jack and I enjoyed sharing Friday night or Shabbos afternoon meals. I also knew that so many others in our Bergen County community relied on David’s support. The overflowing crowd at his levaya was testimony to how many people he touched and their tremendous respect for him.

When I arrived back in Boca, it was with a sense of urgency that I ran to my computer and opened up the missed email on Shelach, and in reading it I received the comfort I was seeking:

Thank God, I am able to resume some of my regular weekly routines and to share the divrei Torah that play a prominent role on my weekly “to do” list. It was a beautiful weekend, much better than observing Shabbos at Valley Hospital, spending time with all five of our grandchildren. It is good to be home. With all of your love and support, I look forward to tackling whatever challenges lie ahead…..

It was so clear that David was growing even closer to Hashem and those in his life; and despite the expected “down” times, when he grew impatient or a bit depressed with the health challenges he experienced, he was still the funny, warm and optimistic David we knew. He never took for granted or felt entitled to the gifts of health, family, friends, professional accomplishments and spiritual growth. He worked hard, took pride in his growth, freely shared his insightful thoughts, and never lost his faith in Hashem. I feel strongly that at some level, without knowing what was coming, David was talking to his family and friends when he wrote, “While Shelach certainly has an overlay of tragedy, it is ironic that I found upbeat themes in the manner in which Moshe tackles the challenge he faced by the meraglim.” That was David, always seeking out the positive side and the truth of God’s goodness. He went on to analyze the pasuk where we learn that Moshe changes the name of Yehoshua, “…Moshe called Hoshea, son of Nun, Yehoshua” (Shelach: 13:16). He then goes on to raise and respond to the question of “What is in a name?” I am not surprised that David, tapping into his persona as “seeker of truth,” managed to find a unique interpretation for the changing of Yehoshua’s name and the reason for the appearance of this event at this point in time in the Torah:

Throughout the five Books of Moses, we have discussed the meaning and significance of names that are given in the Torah. Names are also changed, additional names are given, for various reasons… Regarding the name change of Hoshea/Yehoshua, questions arise as to why Moshe is mentioning the name change here as the 12 leaders are about to enter the land. The Rashbam points out that Joshua’s name had already been changed back in Sefer Shemot. What is going on here?

In responding to this question of why the name change appeared in the Torah at this point in time, he referenced Rabbi Shalom Rosner quoting from the Kohelet Yitzchak:

Moshe davened only on Yehoshua’s behalf. This was because there are two types of sins. One category reflects a blatant violation of a commandment. The other category, however, is far more dangerous. In this category the sins are “dressed up as mitzvot.” Moshe and the whole Jewish camp knew that Eldad and Medad prophesized that Moshe would die before they entered the land. Moshe was therefore concerned that Yehoshua would be tempted by the ulterior motive of having more time with his beloved rebbe, Moshe, in the midbar, and as a result would rationalize the act of giving a wrongful report by convincing himself that by reporting the dangers of entering the land, he would actually be saving or prolonging Moshe’s life.

Viewed from this perspective, it wasn’t that Moshe feared Yehoshua would be persuaded by the other meraglim. Rather, when Moshe prayed for Yehoshua, he was beseeching Hashem to direct Yehoshua to avoid falling into the trap of justifying his actions as a way to save Moshe’s life. In order to prevent this from happening, Moshe prayed that Hashem would lead Yehoshua to report the truth. Moshe did so, despite the reality that if his tefillot were answered, the result would lead to his own demise. Moshe learned this lesson from our Avot. He also understood that Yehoshua’s rationalized false report would reflect the category of an “aveira that was wrapped up as a mitzvah.” I believe that in referencing this interpretation of Yehoshua’s name change, David was teaching us the import of following in the footsteps of our Avot and Moshe Rabbeinu, who always sought out the truth.

In reading David’s last email, I realized that the message he imparted was in fact what David was all about; and that is why his midah of “seeking the truth” consistently appeared in so many of his weekly emails on the parsha. In fact, in his last email he expressed an attraction for “learning different and new angles concerning very familiar biblical events.” Indeed, this attraction was rooted in his midah as a “truth seeker,” and as a result, he was truly a role model to all of us in this midah. David understood that even the best of intentions can be self-serving and lead to rationalizing one’s actions with lies. He held on to this truth in every aspect of life, and could never be forced to compromise on his beliefs. I know this because in our discussions on the negative impact state laws had on the education of our students with special needs, he expressed his concerns and his disappointment in his administrators, and his frustration grew when the decisions of administrators and local school boards were clearly inconsistent with the best needs of the special education population. At that point of his career, David’s quest for truth became painful. Still, he never wavered off the shvil ha’zahav, the golden path of truth modeled by Moshe Rabbeinu. As the quintessential advocate for his students, David often found himself swimming against the tide, taking the unpopular stand against “weak” or “clueless” administrators. It hurt him so much when he was forced to recommend something he did not feel was in the best interest of a child. I felt his pain because I was also put in that position numerous times.

Yet, on a positive note, these setbacks led David to make best decision of his life, taking the road of early retirement. He never regretted his decision or felt the loss of his identity like so many retirees do. Instead, he basked in the gift of tightening his connections with Hakadosh Baruch Hu and his beloved family. It was such a pleasure to watch David grow into the role of “super papa,” always there for his children and grandchildren, with a big smile on his face. He also took such pleasure in being the “go-to friend” to those of us who turned to him for his wise counsel. The “standing-room only” crowd at his funeral was expected. While we will miss him dearly, his kindness, compassion, sense of humor and love of God, mankind and Eretz Yisrael will remain indelibly imprinted in our hearts; and when faced with doubt, anxiety, feelings of sadness or any other challenges, we can continue our relationship with David by emulating his commitment to always seeking out the truth and avoiding rationalizations. We can also be fortified by the knowledge that when finding ourselves challenged we can look to David as an example, asking ourselves, “What would David do in this situation?”

May David’s wife, my dear friend Eve; his children, Shani and Jeremy, Rebecca and Ari, and Steven; his grandchildren, Mori, Ezra, Jacob, Dalya, Gavi; and his siblings, Rita, Elaine and Lenny; and the entire Thaler, Goldstein and Mann families be comforted, know no more sorrows and hold on to David as their guiding light.

By Renee Nussbaum, PhD, PsyA


Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst with training in Imago and EFT. She also facilitates a chavruta in Cyberspace on the weekly parsha, edited by Debbie Friedman. She can be reached at [email protected]