The case of the weeping hiker
By: Rabbi Dr Dovid Fox
A few summers ago on a return trip from Israel, my wife and I visited Switzerland. To paraphrase the wise words of many a great rabbinic scholar, we both wanted to see “HaShem’s Alps”. We planned a few weeks of solitary hiking to clear our minds with clean mountain air. Friends of ours frequent Switzerland and advised us of some beautiful valleys and famous peaks. Waiting for that one perfect spot to recite a bracha [blessing] over HaShem’s majestic creations became my inner quest as we traversed hill and dale.
One day, I told my wife that I had a pilgrimage to make. We were going up to Reichenbach Falls. She was curious about how I’d heard of that spot, and why I chose to ascend there. I found myself quiet on the drive and, reaching the foot of the falls and boarding the small cable car, I began telling her how Sherlock Holmes had wrestled to the death with his arch-enemy atop those raging cascades. As we rode up to the hiking trail, I found myself choking up inside, sobbing, as I recounted for her the tale entitled The Final Problem, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I described Holmes’ nemesis, “the most evil man in London”, and how the detective had stalked him across Europe until their fateful encounter atop those falls. Tears streaked down my face as I talked about the death of Sherlock Holmes.
It then occurred to me that, as an adult, I seldom sob that way. I’ve done so at the Kosel or at my rebbe’s kever, when at times such tears come from deep within. Yet I pondered, I do not cry that way over the Ten Martyrs (the elegy to the great rabbis who were executed by the Romans, recited during Yom Kippur). At funerals, lo aleinu (may we not know of such things), I may cry, but without such force. But there I was, weeping as I related how Holmes had gone over the falls locked in a death embrace with his enemy. Anyone who knows the tales will remember that Conan Doyle brought Holmes back in a later adventure where the detective explained how he had survived. Moreover, everyone knows that the stories are fiction. There was no Holmes, other than in the annals of our imagination. And here I was, crying to my wife about seeing the place where a fictional Holmes had perished.
I flashed back on a great Chassidic scholar, who had mentored me as I studied to become a dayan, a rabbinical judge. He had once said, in Hebrew, that in figuring out complex truths “there are times when one must be a Sherlock Holmes”. The fictional detective is a household word from Los Angeles to Katamon. I have visited the Holmes museum on Baker Street in London, have debated fine points with scholars, and now I cried over his alleged demise more than I had cried over some real and personal losses. What’s up, Doc? This required detective work. This required psychospiritual probing.
Analysing the matter, I realised that it was not at all elementary. I had spent hours as a child reading Holmes late at night beneath my blankets, when unable to sleep. I developed some of my early interest in studying the mind through those masterful works. Although I stopped reading fiction during my many years in bais medrash, there actually had been one time when I had been bedridden with the flu, and my late father had sent me a small volume on Holmes as a diversion from my malady. Holmes and the meaning I ascribed to him had been real to me, in a fanciful way. Those tales left an impact, yet I was crying for something else. At first I thought it was sad regret over time which might have been better devoted just to Torah study, or that the tears were over vanished youth, never to return. I imagined briefly that my melancholy symbolised the battle of good over evil, paralleled by Holmes and his enemy fighting to the finish.
Ultimately, however, I determined finally that my tears recalled times when life had felt safer. Emotional nostalgia can be triggered when we reminisce over the way things were when they were better. The Kosel, my late rebbe, goodness and purity; a young child’s fascination with innocent wonder…all represent our idealised memories. We cry when longing for and wishing about unforgettable things, and how life could and should have been.
The difference between the Kosel, the graves, the real departed ones, in contrast with Holmes, is that now that I have climbed those falls, I have no strong need to go back there. I had encountered that past. I had grieved those lost years, those simpler times. As for the Kosel, the graves of loved ones, and the memories of those who have continued to make a difference in my life, I am eternally drawn to the sacred sentiment of that past, which will always beckon. I will always seek to return to those resources. The goodness and the value of those memories hold the key to my future.