September 13, 2007
And who shall die?
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Around the time her marriage ended, Marcy turned to Orthodoxy. It was obvious to those who knew her that she sought in Judaism the comfort of community, structure and connection -- things her childhood so lacked.
She became deeply involved in Chabad of North Beverly Hills. She remarried into a prominent Orthodox family, taking her husband's name and living a traditional life. Marcy Asher became Miriam Meisel.
"I think it really helped," Mark Asher said. "That became her life."
But she also became sicker. While still undergoing psychiatric treatment, Marcy was also diagnosed with lupus. She would eventually undergo two kidney transplants and numerous medical treatments. "At one point she spent three months at Cedars-Sinai," Mark said. "They didn't expect her to live."
Her body and face swelled, her hands were crippled.
"She never complained," her mother told me. "She never said, 'Why me?'"
Marcy continued to visit and bring food to her mother, who was by now at an assisted-living facility. She donated money to charities and stayed active in her synagogue. On Passover holidays, she brought boxes of matzah and gefilte fish to a home for the mentally ill.
But as Marcy's medical condition worsened, so did her marriage. She and her second husband, who also suffered from severe health problems, did not mesh. In early May 2006, the police came to the couple's apartment, and Marcy was charged in L.A. Superior Court with inflicting corporal injury on her spouse. "Her anger welled up in her," Wang said. "It was such a turn from the Marcy I knew."
The couple split up, and Marcy moved into a small apartment across from Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills.
On Friday night, May 15, after Marcy had been there just a few weeks, she celebrated the Sabbath alone. On a small table in her kitchen, she lit the Sabbath candles. Marcy then turned around to get something from the refrigerator. Her long skirt caught fire. Her mother said Marcy's hands were too edemic to dial quickly for help.
She ran screaming down her apartment corridor as the flames rose up her body. She collapsed in front of the building manager, who rushed her to the hospital.
For seven days, Marcy lingered in a coma at County-USC Medical Center on life support. She had burns over 60 percent of her body. Her brother, Mark, called Wang and broke the news.
"Marcy's probably going to die tomorrow."
She did, on May 22, 2006, at the age of 46.
About 40 people gathered graveside for Marcy's funeral at Mount Olive Chabad Cemetery in Commerce. It was a very hot day, and Marcy's body lay in a plywood coffin by a couple of folding chairs.
Marcy was buried in a plot next to her husband's father, a man she had never met.
Her mother seethed over the circumstances of her daughter's death: How fulfilling the commandment to light shabbat candles, following the religion Marcy loved so much, could lead to her demise.
Wang despised the rabbi's eulogy, which he felt somehow twisted the tragedy of Marcy's death into a good thing.
"I just hated it," Wang said.
Mark put the feeling bluntly.
"To come through so much and die for this stupid religion," he said.
How crazy is it that a woman who turned to faith was killed being faithful? I understand their bitterness, but what's more, Judaism understands their bitterness.
The Talmud relates a story of a great first century rabbi, Elisha Ben Abuyah. One day he came upon a man who sent his son up a tree to fetch eggs. The son did as he was told, and also made sure, as the Torah commands, to first shoo the mother bird from the nest before taking her eggs. After fulfilling two commandments -- to honor his father and to be kind to the bird -- the boy slipped and plunged to his death. At that moment the rabbi declared, "There is no justice and there is no judge."
Ben Abuya renounced his faith and went immediately to a prostitute.
There is no justice and no judge: Has a greater indictment of religion ever been uttered? And this comes, not from today's anti-religious crusaders like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris, but from the Talmud. Marcy's promise, her goodness, her beauty -- all were submerged in unendurable mental and physical pain and cut short by a cruelly ironic death. Is it so foolish to ask why? Is there anything more Jewish than screaming up at God: How can you be such a jerk!
This New Year, we will enter our synagogues to take the measure of our souls, to account for our actions, to seek forgiveness, to face the fact that God wants something better from us. Is it so unfair to want, in return, something better from God?
The answer is yes, it is too much to ask. My Judaism is not a faith of magical thinking; a faith that promises if you do or say x, some heavenly amalgam of Superman and Lou Grant -- cranky and all-powerful -- may grant you y. Our liturgy tells us we are given life and death, blessings and curses, and we must choose life. But we must, in choosing life, understand how much is beyond our choice, how random and demanding and unceasing are the curses and blessings of this universe. We must live with that knowledge, and act and love despite it.
Few of the people at her funeral knew the youthful Marcy: brilliant, poised, beautiful. One person who did was her first husband, Nathan Wang, who remarried in 1993, had children and went on to a successful music career.
"I felt like I owed it to Marcy to come," he said. "I really wanted to be there to say my goodbyes, to say I remember it how it was."