These thoughts were written on the day I got up from sitting shivah for my mother over a decade ago. This article appeared in the Jewish Observor.
It was a typical Thursday afternoon. I had just finished cleaning the chicken and peeling the potatoes in preparation for Shabbos, when I glanced at my kitchen clock and noticed that in a few minutes my two youngest daughters would be arriving home from school. I quickly began setting the table for lunch.
I could hear their excited chatter as they bounced up the stairwell. "Ima! I bet you didn’t hear yet what happened today in school.” They were so excited to tell me about their day that they forgot to close the front door.
I stood there watching them, their faces flushed with excitement, their ponytails messed from the wind, and waited to hear the usual news – the latest school party, the books that were lost, the teacher who gave too much homework. Instead, my daughter said, “We had a miracle, a nes, today.”
“A nes?” I asked, my mind on their lunch as I quickly set the table. “Probably she forgot her morning snack,” I thought to myself, “and her best friend had miraculously brought a spare sandwich.”
“Ima, there was a bomb in school.”
I stopped dishing out the mashed potatoes.
“It was set to go off during recess.”
I placed the pot with the potatoes on the table.
“It weighed over thirty pounds.”
I sat down.
The girls stumbled over their words, each one trying to be the first to tell me what had happened on this peaceful Thursday morning. “A lady living nearby noticed an Arab throw a big suitcase into the garbage.”
“No, he gently placed it in the bin.”
“She thought the Arab had stolen the suitcase and put it there so he could come back and get it later.”
“She sent her husband to investigate, and when he saw all the wires attached to the bag …”
“… he disconnected the mobile telephone that was attached to the wires.”
“He really shouldn’t have done that. The police told him it was dangerous.”
“It was right before recess. He ran to call the police."
“The principal locked the front door, so we couldn’t leave the building.”
“A few minutes after the recess bell rang, the police arrived.”
“But before they arrived, the telephone connected to the bomb rang.”
“But it didn’t go off because that lady’s husband …”
“It wasn’t her husband, it was her son.”
“That lady’s son disconnected it.”
“There were lots of ambulances, and fire engines.”
“We watched everything through the window.”
“When it was over, we recited Hallel.”
“Without a brachah.”
My heart was racing. I envisioned all the dreadful things that could have happened, but, thank God, didn’t.
As the children told the story, I found myself alternating between blessed relief and cold fury that someone, anyone, would dare consider harming my precious children. The “hostilities” had hit too close to home.
“Oh, Ima,” my rosy-cheeked daughter interrupted her sister, “the Arab had put the bomb right where our class always plays jump rope.”
Ribbono shel Olam!
That night, as I lit a yahrtzeit candle for my father, I found myself overwhelmed with gratitude that I was lighting only one candle. As I watched the flame ignite and flicker, I had visions of gray boxes, cold, hard earth and endless emptiness.
I quickly shut out those images and began the evening routine. I refused to allow myself to think beyond the fried eggs and buttered bread, the clean pajamas and braided hair, the bedtime story and evening prayers. But as I tucked my children into bed that night to give them their goodnight kisses, I was surprised to discover that my cheeks were wet.
Here in Yerushalayim, we are intensely aware of Hashem's protective hand guarding us constantly. Every day, every minute, miracles are happening. So many times tragedies are averted, and life continues. Not always are we aware of these miracles; we only hear of those who were killed, of the bombs that exploded. But so very often calamity has been avoided by a mere hairsbreadth; we are not aware of the many bombs that almost exploded, but, baruch Hashem, did not.
This miracle reminded me of something I had recently learned. Before Yaakov Avinu tried to appease his brother, Esav, he turned to Hashem and said, “I am unworthy of all the acts of kindness” (Bereishis 31:11).
The Sfas Emes points out that whenever Hashem bestows goodness upon His people, it brings them to greater levels of humility. When His people see how much goodness Hashem has given them, they come to the realization that they are not really worthy of such bounty. They are aware that their successes are from Hashem, and this prevents them from becoming arrogant.
And so, feeling just a bit smug about my lofty thoughts on humility, I continued with the evening routine.
Just a few short days later, I was drinking my last cup of coffee and eating my toast with cheese; enjoying those precious few minutes of peace before jumping into the business of the day. I was, as usual, trying hard to maintain control. I had an article to finish, and was planning to spend the morning opposite the computer screen. "Kochi ve’otzem yadi," My strength and the might of my hand.” I had quickly forgotten the lesson of just a few days earlier.
As soon as the telephone rang and I heard my sister’s voice on the other end, I knew. Even as I asked, “Is everything all right?” I had no doubt that it was not. When my husband heard me say, “Baruch Dayan emes,” he understood as well. My mother had passed away in her sleep just a few hours before.
Within an hour I had finished making all the arrangements for my flight to
, and a few short
hours later I was boarding the plane to attend my mother’s funeral. Things that
had seemed crucial a few hours before were no longer important. St. Louis
It was a humbling experience to stand with bowed head, watching the casket as it was slowly lowered into the earth. Somehow, in the face of death, it was impossible to be arrogant. There is nothing like the stark reality of a funeral to force a person to face his limitations and ultimate mortality.
While the men from the St. Louis Kollel worked hard to cover the grave with the icy cold dirt, I felt as though they were covering my mother with a warm blanket of love and respect. Through the cold numbness of mourning I felt the warmth of their kindness. While facing life’s ultimate conclusion, only chessed shel emes, true acts of loving-kindness, were able to bring comfort into the vacuum of my heart.
Later on, I found myself the recipient of a community’s generosity. As I sat on my stool, not able to accomplish, bound to my mourning, I discovered a community dedicated to Torah, trying their utmost to help another Jew.
Just a few days earlier, I had been given a powerful lesson in bitachon and humility, which I allowed myself to forget. And now I was rudely reminded, as I sat unkempt, unable to do for myself, completely dependent upon others for all my needs. Boxes of food were prepared by total strangers; Jews who I had never met came to comfort a mourner; Hashem had commanded His Nation to emulate Him.
In the face of such chessed, it was impossible to feel arrogance, to think for even a split second that I am in control.
Between shivah calls, I delved into the classic sefer on the Jewish outlook towards death, Gesher HaChayim. There it is explained that death is what gives life value. Only when something is finite are we able to value it, for only then do we realize that eventually it will come to an end. When we fool ourselves into thinking that we are immortal, that our lives are endless, we forget to value and make full use of our precious time.
When we are faced with death, and grasp that our very life is given to us as a chessed from Hashem; when we have attained some level of humility in realizing that our lives are not forever; then, and only then, can we begin to count our precious hours and truly value them. The shivah brings the full value of our days into perspective -- for in thinking about death, one ultimately comes to life.