September 16, 2019

Where the Light Enters

Photo courtesy of Pexels.

I didn’t know Rabbi Tzemach Cunin z”l, the founder and co-director of Chabad of Century City, who died suddenly at the age of 43 on July 5.

I am, however, familiar with his brother, Rabbi Menachem Mendel “Mendy” Cunin, director of Chabad of Larchmont Village; and his father, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the West Coast head of Chabad.

To know the Cunins — with their intoxicating love of Jews, Torah and good deeds — is to be in the presence of people who bring God’s words into earthly practice with unmatched enthusiasm. Their devotion has always reminded me of the edict, “I have set before you life and death. … You shall choose life. …” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

In fact, the word, “life” seems part of the Chabad brand, especially in Southern California, where banners promoting the annual Chabad Telethon show a dancing rabbi and the words, “To Life!”

How can a family and a community move forward in the face of such unimaginable pain? The late rabbi is survived by his wife, five children, parents and siblings.

The loss of any son, husband, brother and father is devastating. But the more I think about it, the more I process the rabbi’s death in the context of that to which he devoted his whole being — Jewish ritual life.

It’s how the way Tzemach Cunin lived that makes it impossible for me to forget that he has died.

“How can a family and a community move forward in the face of such unimaginable pain?”

When I heard the news of his death on a Friday afternoon, I immediately thought of future Shabbat dinners. Who would sing “Eshet Chayil” to his hard-working wife? Who would say the kiddush blessing over wine? Who would place his hands gently over each child’s head to recite the priestly blessing that Jewish fathers have given their children for years?

And who could bring themselves to look over at the empty chair, where a husband and father once sat, lovingly sharing words of Torah and giving thanks for the bounty before him, both in terms of feast and family?

For more observant Jews, Jewish life comprises ritual, and my heart sank as I thought about every ritual — whether daily, such as the morning minyan; or weekly, such as Shabbat meals; or annually, such as the family’s Passover Seder, that will forever hold an empty space for the Cunin family, whether it’s a chair, a siddur, or a father’s set of tallit and tefillin that are now irreplaceably precious.

I thought about the sight of Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin dancing at the annual Chabad Telethon, which he founded in 1980.

Who will dance this year?

If I know Chabad, I have a pretty good idea. The studio may be filled with more men celebrating “To Life!” than ever before, and as the rabbi watches from the sidelines, I’ll be among the first to call in with that pledge.

Finally, I thought about the future weddings of the family’s five beautiful children. To know Chabad is to also know that one day, these children’s weddings will be graced with the kind of thunderous joy that every Chabad community brings to Jewish souls around the world. I know it’s not an appropriate thought at a time like this, but it needs to be said that the notion of a community celebrating such future events is exactly what comes to my mind when I imagine Chabad’s insatiable love for life and mitzvot. And I believe the soul of Tzemach Cunin will be present in each chuppah, alongside his children.

The 13th-century Persian poet Rumi wrote,
I said: what about my eyes?
God said: Keep them on the road.
I said: what about my passion?
God said: Keep it burning.
I said: what about my heart?
God said: Tell me what you hold inside it?
I said: pain and sorrow.
He said: Stay with it. The wound is the place where the Light enters you.

I believe there is a light that enters through the rabbi’s chair, whether at home or in shul. May his family’s hearts and homes absorb light and life, and reflect it back to the thousands whom they inspire through faith, humility and service.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.