My children do tae kwon do and we spent last Shabbat at a dojang in Winston-Salem. Black-belt testing is a once-a-year event. If you’re a black belt yourself, you have to wait two to four years to test for each successive don (degree). The tests themselves feature a performance worth watching, and so my resident green belt and my resident high yellow belt begged to attend the black belt tests in lieu of (believe it or not) the state fair. Secretly glad at the prospect of foregoing the traffic jams, parking pitfalls, money leaks and hurry-up-and-waits of the fair, I happily agreed.
When we arrived, we took the last few seats availble. Under my seat, I found some boards that would later be broken for a black belt test. This is what they said:
The date was October 25…the English Yahrzeit of a student my former congregation and I had lost to suicide exactly 13 years ago. His name? Alex Jasman. I felt a chill run down my spine.
Alex’ Bar Mitzvah portion, Lech L’cha (Genesis 12:1 ff) was the same as mine had been 27 years earlier. We shared a kinship over that commonality, but it didn’t make life, or studying, any easier for Alex, for whom it hurt to live. He had friends, he had family who loved him, and he had a spot-on wit that endeared us all into his world… and none of us could reach him fully through his pain. I think of him often, especially on October 25. Especially especially during Lech Lcha which, this year, this week, marks the 41st anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah; the 14th anniversary of Alex’ Bar Mitzvah; the 13th Hebrew anniversary of his Yahrzeit.
Exactly who today “Jazmin, A.” was became clear before long. A compact dynamo with a single braid down to her waist took the floor with her fellow black belts for their poomsei (form) tests. Their limbs and torsos transformed them into cranes, eagles, and other fine beasts from whose forms humans borrow the power sense to execute breathlessly beautiful moves in the Korean art of self-defense. Little by little, the group on the floor diminished until only the braided dynamo was left. She would be the only black belt that day to test for 4th Don, and so she would at last test alone.
As the other black belts settled down to watch her, the room grew pin-drop silent. She made every execution look easy as the headmaster called out sequence after sequence for her to enact. Only once did she falter for a nanosecond while balanced on one foot, but she quickly regained her equilibrium. I whispered to the black belt sitting closest to me, “What’s her name?” and received the reply, “Jazmin A—-.” The name on the block under my chair. Her age? Thirteen.
I don’t even know quite what to do with this, except record it, because it would be a shame to forget it. The truth that I may glean from this experience is truth for me; not fact for humankind. I know better than to say it’s a message from my student from the world beyond. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t think it – however briefly. Jazmin A. did earn her 4th Don, and now must wait several years before she can test for her fifth. The discipline and philosophy she gleans from her tae kwon do study will stand her in good stead through life’s challenges, and I wish her a beautiful, exciting, fulfilling ride.
The three words that come up for me are, “Life Goes On.” I used to take that phrase as a “get over it already!” message, which hurt and angered me and made me think no one cared about the life of a young boy that ended too soon. Nowadays the words “Life Goes On” mean exactly what they say – that there is always something yet to live for; another adventure to be had; another lesson to learn. It doesn’t mean we have to stop remembering. It doesn’t mean we have to stop loving. It doesn’t mean we have to stop missing.
A part of me died when Alex did. The rest of me has had to regenerate, like the arm of a starfish. Because Life Goes On, and it’s waiting for me… but it won’t wait forever. The modern translation of “Lech l’cha,” God’s words to Abram, are… “Get going.”
Here is the song of my Torah portion …. and Alex’s….