The Unusual Eulogy of Jack Nakash
By Ron Zweig
[Rabbi Schnagel is standing at the pulpit in front of the Southfield Hebrew Memorial Chapel. Behind him is lies a plain, pine casket, covered by gorgeous maroon velvet embroidered tapestry, resting on a beautiful silver plated platform. A gleaming candelabrum graces both ends of the platform. The measurements of the casket are16 feet by 22 inches.]
Good afternoon, friends, neighbors and congregants. First I would like to express my appreciation to all of you for assuring that we had a large turnout today, especially since in my email last night I did not, for reasons which will soon become obvious, reveal the identity of the…niftar. I need to start with a little background.
I’m sure you all remember our dear friend and neighbor, Mr. Lawrence P. Duckman, Eliezer Pinchas ben Yaakov, alav hashalom, who passed away just under three years ago. As you probably recall, Larry was a tad eccentric and something of a recluse. While he was not a particularly religious man, he did attend services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and whenever Yizkor was to be recited. While I wasn’t close to Mr. Duckman, I was one of the few people in town with whom he would have an occasional conversation.
About three months before his passing, Mr. Duckman came to see me in my office. He had with him his attorney and what appeared to be some sort of legal document. He told me that on his most recent visit to his doctor, he was informed that he had developed Plotnik’s Syndrome, named for the brilliant, world renowned research scientist, Dr. Gerald Plotnik.
Incidentally, I happen to know Dr. Plotnik personally and I’m here to tell you that his mother, Genendal Plotnik, G-d rest her soul, was none too happy when her Tatala decided to go into research. I happened to be there for the conversation. “What kind of mishugas is this?” she bellowed, “Research? Who cares about research? For this I spent money on Medical School? Johns Hopkins noch derr tzu! What will I tell the ladies at canasta? They know from a cardiologist, a urologist, a pulmonologist. Who the hell knows from research? You’re not gonna be any kind of ologist? How will I face them? Trudy and Myrna will just plotz! Do you live to aggravate me Gerald? Do you?”
But I digress. Plotnik’s Syndrome is extremely rare and the completely idiopathic. In other words, no one knows why someone develops it. There is a school of thought that it is acquired by eat excessive amounts of Matjes Herring. In Mr. Duckman’s case the point was moot; the doctor told him he would be dead within a year. Of course Larry decided to get his affairs in order. You probably know he had never married, so there was no wife, no progeny, virtually no family except a half-brother named Murray to whom he had not spoken in thirty-two years, and, sadly, no friends to speak of.
Well, it turned out that Larry had appointed me executor of his estate. While I was flattered, I was surprised that there existed any estate to speak of! As you all know, Mr. Duckman lived like a pauper; his home was a run-down shack in the industrial part of town, he drove a 1962 DeSoto and dressed in tatters. Imagine my utter shock when, while perusing his will, I discovered that during his lifetime he had managed to amass quite a tidy sum. Ladies and gentlemen, Lawrence P. Duckman, our town enigma, was worth three point two million dollars!
When I recovered, I read that he was leaving ten thousand dollars to his half-brother Murray inWichita,Kansasand the rest of the money to our congregation! There were however, two stipulations: Murrayhad to agree to take care of his only friend Jack, who apparently was quite elderly and could not fend for himself, and that I officiate at Jack’s funeral upon his demise. Well, suffice it to say I was flabbergasted, but of course I agreed to the rather bizarre caveat. I signed the codicil and the lawyer notarized it. But I was curious about this mysterious Jack fellow. Where was he? Could I meet him? Perhaps I could offer him some solace or spiritual advice. Mr. Duckman smiled; I think it was the only time I had ever seen him smile.
“Sure,” he said, “I’ll introduce you to him now.”
Larry and I drove to his home. There was no air conditioning in the DeSoto and it was July, so it was a very uncomfortable ride indeed. We finally pulled up in front of his ramshackle abode. We walked around the clutter in the front yard, the tires, the old fridge, a piece of a toilet and walked inside. Larry pulled a string and brought a single sixty watt bulb to life. It took a moment or two for my eyes to adjust, but when they did, I took an involuntary step back and gasped. “Rabbi Schnagel, Mr. Duckman said grinning broadly, “this is Jack. Jack, meet Rabbi Schnagel.”
It took me a few moments to catch my breath and process what I was looking at. For there before me, not more than three feet away, sat one of the largest serpents I had ever seen. That’s right, Ladies and gentlemen, Jack was a scaly, slithery snake. A Burmese Python, to be exact.”
“Just under fourteen feet,” Mr. Duckman continued, reading my mind. “He’s really quite small for his age. They can grow to nineteen feet.”
Ladies and gentlemen, I was still trying to recapture some semblance of composure, and almost literally could not speak. Contrasting completely with the surrounding décor of the hovel or lack thereof, Jack’s enclosure was magnificent. It was constructed of a fine mahogany that was polished to a shine which any piece of fine furniture would covet. Mr. Duckman kept talking.
“Jack was named for my Dad.” He said, “His Hebrew name is Yaakov, so that’s the name that should be used at his funeral. On his matzeivoh too, of course.”
“Um…oh, of course.” I said. I figured I better go along with this; there was a new gymnasium, a new chapel and possibly a new rabbi’s study riding on this. Feeling like a total meshugana, I asked,
“and I assume his last name is Duckman?”
“Rabbi,” he said, “come on, really. Now you’re just being silly. Jack and I aren’t related! He’s a reptile, for G-d’s sake! No, no, Jack’s just a friend.” His eyes began to well up. “A dear, dear buddy who’s kept me company for the last twelve years. He’s also the only one in town who never laughed at me while I was walking down the street or made fun of me behind my back. Don’t be ridiculous; his last name isn’t Duckman.”
I said I was sorry that I made such a foolish mistake. Larry then said,
“It’s Nakash. His name is Jack Nakash.”
Anyway, I won’t bore you with any more details, but suffice it to say that Jack Nakash was shipped via Federal Express to Wichita, where Mr. Duckman’s half-brother Murray took care of him for the past two-and-half years. At the beginning he did it grudgingly but, as I understand it, he became increasingly fond of the beast and was actually quite distraught upon his demise. He even asked me whether it would be halachically permissible for him to sit shiva. That has got to be the strangest question I have ever been asked in all my years in the Clergy.
The one stipulation in the will that I haven’t yet told you is this: Mr. Duckman insisted that at least three hundred people attend this funeral. Our beloved shammas, Reverend Blenko, kept track of everyone entering and, ladies and gentlemen, there are three hundred seventy one of this in this room, so all that’s left now is for me to say a few words about the niftar, our beloved friend and neighbor, Yaakov Nakash:
As you know, our Torah portion this week is Parshat Chukat. There is an episode where the B’nei Yisroel complain about their wandering.
“Lamah He’elisanu Mimitzrayim Lamut BaMidbar ki ain lechem v’ain mayim; why did you bring us up from Egyptto die in this wilderness, for there is no food and no water!” Well, my friends in response the Ribono Shel Olam sent “nechashim ha’serafim,” fiery serpents, who attacked the B’nei Yisroel and many folks perished. So the people came running to Moshe Rabbeinu, pleading with him to intervene on their half and entreat Hashem to stop the deadly onslaught of snakes, which Moshe did.
Amazingly, our Heavenly Father told Moshe to craft a serpent and mount it on a pole. He said that anyone who had been bitten shall look at the snake and he will be cured. And so it was; whoever looked at Moshe’s sculpture did indeed recover.
Ladies and gentlemen, what can we learn from this rather bizarre story. Well the mussar haskeil is quite obvious: the role of the snake, so reviled by humanity since the days of Adam and Eve, is not determined by the snake himself; it is determined by the Master of the Universe. The very creature that Hashem sent to punish the multitudes was the same one He used to heal them.
You and I know very well that we did not treat Lawrence P. Duckman properly. He was never invited by any of us for a Shabbat meal. He never felt welcome when he came to Shul. Isn’t it ironic that into that little shack where he lived, G-d sent solace and comfort and companionship in the form of a lowly reptile? Perhaps this was Jack Nakash’s tafkid from the day he was born. Or hatched. In Pirkei Avot our sages teach us, “Al tistakeil b’kankan eloh b’mah sheyesh bo.” As you know, this translates basically to “don’t judge a book by its cover.” Had any one of us seen Jack Nakash slithering down Main Street, we would have screamed and yelled and run and called the authorities and have him disposed of. Yet we would have been wrong, wouldn’t we? Dear congregants, we are soon entering Tammuz, shortly followed thereafter by the difficult month of Av. We all know that the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam. Let’s try to be nicer to one another. Let’s try not to judge each other. Let’s take a lesson from Lawrence P. Duckman and Jack Nakash and realize that judging is not our job. We must accord each other, and, indeed, all of G-d’s creatures, the benefit of the doubt, for only HaKadosh Baruch Hu knows what rests deep inside our hearts and in our souls.