An incredible tale of forgiveness and fate. Transforming the cracks in our lives into something more beautiful
By Chandrea Serebro
Michael Livni was out walking one day. It was a beautiful, sunny day in one of Johannesburg’s most lush and appealing suburbs. The streets were quiet as usual, the trees shading his walk from the afternoon sun. Michael was taking full advantage of the beauty around him, enjoying the weather and the peace of his surroundings while getting in his daily exercise routine at the same time. Just around the corner, a university student was leaving varsity; he gunned his motorcycle, in a hurry to make it home. To escape the afternoon traffic, he decided he would take a route he didn’t usually take. It would take him off the highway and through the old, leafy suburbs of Johannesburg.
He wasn’t expecting the quiet of the streets, the calm of the roads, the escape from the bustle of the homeward rush. Careening down the hill, for just an instant, he saw a flash of movement across the road. The leaves kept swaying in the dappled afternoon sun. Michael, crossing the street, saw him coming, fast. Too fast. He began running. The impact of the motorcycle hitting him caused Michael to be thrown to the ground, the force of the impact causing fatal injuries. He died two hours later. “My father had lived a beautiful life. He was a happy, giving person. He was a content man,” says his daughter, Natalie. “Knowing that my father died while he was doing something he loved really eased the pain and shock of the accident for us, his family.”
Yet the lives of Michael’s family changed irrevocably on that dark sunny afternoon. Michael was a beloved husband, father, and grandfather, and despite their living across the globe, he had a unique connection with each family member. Described by his family as “a very special man”, he was someone who was always interested in others, and he had an ability to connect with people from all walks of life.
When he volunteered for the Alzheimer’s association, his daughter relates, he noticed that all the support groups were geared towards the caregivers and family members of the Alzheimer patients. But, in Johannesburg at that time, there were no known official support groups for the sufferers themselves. This prompted Michael to begin counselling people with early stage Alzheimer’s, individually and then in groups. “He wasn’t afraid to reach out to this very vulnerable group of people” because he knew he could ease their suffering. “When my father realised he had early stage Alzheimer’s himself, he wrote a book about his experiences – just to reach out to anyone who may be helped through reading his book, and by sharing his own personal experiences.” When he realised that he had written four chapter ones, Michael laughed at himself – even though it was not easy for him to experience the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, he still retained his wonderful sense of humour.
Michael’s mark that he left on the world was one which reinforced the need for all people to extend a hand of friendship to others wherever possible, particularly along the lines of mutual understanding and experience. “My father took over the management of my grandfather’s nursing home. He started group training for the nurses to give the nurses support and develop their compassion for their patients. My father set up a ‘best friends’ programme where each nurse was given a patient with whom to build a friendship, not only to nurse. When a patient left his home to move to another facility that was closer to family, my father would still visit them.” The patients were people first and paying clients second. “There are family members of patients who, to this day, still tell me what a tzaddik my father was.”
When Michael stood in queues at the bank, or SARS, or anything equally as frustrating and time consuming as these institutions can be, he took along Sudoku to keep himself busy. When he noticed everyone else’s agitation and frustrating at having to wait in long queues, he started taking extra Sudoku sheets and pens for them as well. After robbers entered his home by lifting the gate off the rails because there was no anchoring device, Michael went around his entire neighbourhood scouring the driveways for similar gates with the same problem so that he could warn those homeowners of the pitfalls so that they could fix it before a similar fate befell them. He was a man who truly cared for others, and not only that, he took this compassion for all men further and extended his hand of friendship to them, friends and strangers alike.
“After the accident, CCTV footage that had captured the incident showed that the motorcycle was travelling at a speed much higher than the limit, and that this was a direct cause of the fatal accident. My father was crossing the road, noticed the bike approaching at a high speed, and started running to cross the road to get out of the way. But it was going too fast.” Being told about the injuries was very traumatic for the family, only mitigated by the kindness of the doctor who attended to him at Milpark Hospital and knowing that she had done so much to try and save his life, another example of the life Michael espoused.
Travelling home from the cemetery after Michael’s funeral, his son Jason who flew in from overseas started asking about the motorcycle driver, wondering about him, questioning what they knew of him. Who was he? How old was he? What was to become of him? “We discovered that the police had charged the motorcycle driver with culpable homicide. We also found out that my mother had already told the police to drop the charges. However, she was informed that it was not up to her, and that it was a state matter and it had been handed over.”
Jason wanted to meet with this young man. He had a friend who had done something similar years ago and the incident had led to a downward slide, including drug use, and it had ruined this friend’s life. He wanted to prevent the same thing from happening to this motorcycle driver, and the entire family agreed on this point. With Jason at the helm, Natalie, Karin, and Odette, together with their mother, were all on board, consumed with a pervasive sense that what Michael would want was understanding rather than anger and hate.
The family invited the motorcycle driver to the shiva house, each one wanting to be a part of this meeting. “He arrived with his parents. Just a boy. He walked in looking terribly nervous and scared; a tall, strapping teenager, but with a frightened baby face.” Jason took charge, telling this boy about Michael and how he was a man who only wanted to bring joy and happiness to others, to ease their pain through his tremendous caring. “If it had been me who had been knocked down, G-d forbid, my father would have said what we are going to say now. ‘Don’t let this ruin your life. Turn it around, turn it into something good,’” Jason said to the boy.
Yes, he would need to learn from his tragic mistake, take responsibility, and be punished for what he had done. But the family knew that incarceration wouldn’t achieve a greater good, and that for the boy to take the values of the man he had mown down forward would be the best possible way to transform this tragedy into an opportunity for growth. The family requested that the police would consider that the man should pay for his actions by way of community service in an organisation like Headway, a rehabilitation organisation for accident victims, and also to attend a safe driving course so that it didn’t happen again. “My brother said to us: ‘If we can’t forgive, then who are we really harming? Not the driver! Only ourselves! Not to forgive and to harbour hatred and resentment is like drinking poison.’ I was so proud of my brother for carrying on the legacy of our father, a man who would never want someone to suffer on his account.”
Michael’s daughters were too emotional to say much at the meeting with the driver, but just being part of the family togetherness was important to them. ”Everyone deals with trauma differently and we were all able to respect each other’s different styles and needs in the meeting, which is exactly what our father role-modelled for us.”
Natalie was strong about the message she wanted to impart. “I wasn’t sure if I would be able to overcome my emotions at the meeting, so I had written a letter containing a moshal from the Dubna Maggid (a story about taking the things that happen to you in your life which are negative and redirecting them to become a thing of beauty, and how one can reframe his negative experiences to become the start of a positive new story – see sidebar) which had helped me in a previous trauma in my life. It also helped me now with the loss of my father, and I wanted to share it with the motorcycle driver so that it could help him turn around his experience of killing another person into something that would make him a better person. I wrote it in a letter to the driver because I know that people don’t always hold onto everything they hear in a meeting that’s so emotional. I wanted the driver to have something to look at in the future as well, to remind him of this very day. But most of all, I did this all to bring honour to my father, and emulate the way my father related to others, which had been so clear when he lived and also after his death.”
She wore a headscarf rather than a sheitel to the meeting so that the boy and his family would know that they were Jewish. “I wanted to make a Kiddush Hashem, to bring honour to my Father in Heaven, and also to my father, in Heaven.” She wanted to show the boy, through the Dubna Maggid’s tale, that not only are we capable of overcoming trauma, but we can turn it into something that will make us more beautiful people. “The pain will always be engraved on our heart, but we can turn the pain into something good.”
Why did they do this? What did Michael ever do for the boy and his family? Nothing, but he treated all people with respect and kindness. He made everyone feel like a million dollars. After shiva, Jason and Odette cleared out Michael’s belongings. Some things were only fit for the dump. When they arrived at the dump in Michael’s car, the men working at the dump asked, ‘Where is the madala (old man) who drove this car?’ Hearing about his passing, the men at the dump burst into tears.
“With that kind of father, how could we not treat the motorcycle driver as a fellow human being? Someone who made a horrible mistake, but someone who would have to live with what he did for the rest of his life. That, in and of itself, is a hard burden to bear. At least we could show him some compassion. We could use the principles of love and friendship our father lived by to try and transform this boy’s tragedy, which turned into our own worst nightmare, into something good.”
It is a tale of fate and of forgiveness, and how the two intervened in the lives of Michael and his family and a motorcyclist and his family, to become an inspiring example of the capacity we have as humans to forgive as well as be forgiven. “As a Chumash teacher to high school students, I ‘happened’ to be teaching about Aharon HaKohen at that time. He was instructed to clean out the lamps of the Menorah. The word ‘kaper’ means cleansing. We know that a kapora (atonement) is an opportunity for a person to be cleansed. Seeing this in the Chumash at the time of the accident was a relief, and it felt like a message of comfort from Hashem. That, as horrific as the accident was, it was for my father’s benefit, that he should go to Heaven cleansed and pure.”
“It became so obvious to us that the entire episode was orchestrated by Hashem. That this is what had to happen. When you can change your mind-set to think like that, it helps to ease the questions of why, why us, and how could it be. We handed everything over to Hashem.” This, and knowing that Michael had lived a full life, without regret, enabled Michael’s family to forgive the motorcyclist who killed him in this horrific accident.
The entire experience made Michael’s family question anger and forgiveness. “Why do I get angry in other areas, often so much smaller, but here, at the death of my beloved father, I could rise above myself? I believe that my father’s neshama was so close to us during shiva that we could tap into his energy and love for others, for his patients (many of whom would not know him again due to their dementia), and direct it to where it is needed in our own lives.”
Because of this act of forgiveness, Michael’s family have been able to be more forgiving in other areas of their lives as well. “It’s a wonderful feeling of freedom, freeing myself from resentments, and being able to be a bigger person,” says his daughter. “We benefited most from forgiving the motorcycle driver. It allowed us to use our energy to mourn our special father, cry with sadness, laugh at our happy childhood memories, and not waste energy on anger. It was incredibly liberating. We also felt that we could hold onto our father by behaving in a way that he expressed his view of others. We kept his legacy alive.”
Of course, Michael’s family still get angry; they still have challenges with letting go in response to different life challenges. Their tragedy did not transform them into angels who belong in another realm. But, their experience showed them the way, and they know what to work towards going forward now. They know that even if a person doesn’t have a father like theirs to teach them, we all have Hashem. And the task of man is to emulate Hashem, who constantly forgives man for his shortcomings. “But what about the people who are really victimised and humiliated? How can they be forgiving? It’s very, very hard. When someone is victimised, their power is taken away. One way to get back that power is choosing to forgive. You feel so good about yourself, you come out the winner, you are the bigger person, and you get your power back.”
This story is dedicated l’ilui nishmas Michael Dovid Ben Shlomo.
IN A BOX
What helps to forgive – advice from Michael’s daughter, Natalie
1. TIME is a big healer. Give yourself as much time as you need until you are ready to forgive.
2. Having support and knowing you have others who understand and acknowledge what you have been through is ESSENTIAL.
3. HONOUR YOUR FEELINGS. Cry and sob. But don’t beat yourself up for feeling angry or vengeful. If you fight the feelings they just persist and then you end up feeling guilty on top of everything else.
4. PUTTING HASHEM INTO THE PICTURE is very comforting, and helps you to see the bigger picture and process things in a different way.
5. PREPARE yourself before hard times hit. Because I’m a teacher, I tell my Grade 2 students every day before saying Krias Shema: “When we say ‘Hashem Echad’ we are reminding ourselves that Hashem is One, one G-d , and also that everything comes from one Source. The good as well as what looks bad. If Hashem loves us and only wants the good, then it means the pain is for our benefit, perfectly designed by Hashem just for us!” If you tell yourself this every day, eventually it starts to sink in and, when you get knocked down, there will be a hook that you can draw on to pull yourself up.
6. MAKE SHALOM A PRIORITY in your life. It’s worth it to go out of your way to overlook or talk through misunderstandings.
7. START SMALL. Practice being forgiving on the little things so that it starts to become part of your personality.
8. DAVEN. Ask Hashem to help you let go of anger.
9. LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITIES to do chesed and show compassion to others. You can change yourself into an Ahavas HaBriah – a person who is filled with good feelings towards others.
10. Fill up your lives with lots of good things so that you don’t have time to waste thinking about how rude the taxi driver was to stop right in front of you.
A moshal from the Dubna Maggid (as heard from Rabbi Dr David Pelcovitz, who called it a “post-trauma moshal”)
There was once a king who wore a royal crown with a magnificent diamond in the centre. Wearing the crown brought the king great pleasure, for the villagers admired it. One day, the king woke up, alarmed to find an ugly crack running through the diamond. The king called upon many experts from far and wide to fix the crown, but no one could mend it or get rid of the crack, which ruined the beauty of the diamond. At last, one man offered to try his hand at fixing the diamond. He began to work, but instead of repairing the crack it seemed like he was making it worse. He began to engrave further cracks around the original centre crack, and soon these engravings took on the form of branches, and flowers, beautifully designed. Instead of trying to remove the crack, this man added more cracks to the diamond. He took the ugly crack and transformed it into a beautiful tree that added even more splendour to the king’s crown. The lesson: The pain of our trauma stays engraved in our hearts, but we can turn that pain into something that makes us more beautiful.