A debt of gratitude owed to our rabbinic families.
In the concluding parshiot of Sefer Bamidbar, Matot/Masei, and the introductory parsha of Sefer Devarim, our Torah directs our attention to the multitude of “voyages” our nation traversed in the desert. On the surface, the content seems redundant. Yet the wisdom of our gedolei haTorah and commentators offers us evidence on how each encampment, all the comings and goings, serve as metaphors for the vicissitudes of life. Moreover, the repetition is necessary, particularly those associated with the challenging journeys, in order for us to understand that sometimes it the dark times in our lives that have the greatest impact on our spiritual growth. This is because it is often the “dark” periods that allow us to pay attention to the “sweetness” that we failed to notice before the darkness set in. If we look back, prior to the onset of COVID-19, so many of us were overcome by the pressure we felt in anticipating the Yom Tov of Pesach that was soon to come. Yet, it was only when we sat at a table with so many empty settings that we felt the emptiness and yearned for guests we expected at our Seder table.
These thoughts also led me to think about the import our Jewish ideology places on hakarat hatov, and how we can tap into the “attitude of gratitude” reflected in our morning tefillot, helping us overcome our feelings of anxiety and depression during these challenging times. These sentiments also opened up the well of gratitude Jack and I feel toward the rabbis and teachers who have a large stake in the spiritual gains we made in the journeys of our life. Reflecting back to our beginning as a young couple and onward, I was overcome with appreciation for the hashgacha pratit, Divine Providence, that impacted the choices we made when we selected two communities, led by their rabbis, rebbetzins and rabbinic teams who are committed to guiding their congregants on the path of spiritual growth.
In our first journey, when we made the decision to leave Flatbush where I grew up and move to the suburbs of Fair Lawn, New Jersey, we chose the community of Shomrei Torah as the ideal place to raise our children as Torah-abiding Jews. At that time, we identified ourselves as Modern Orthodox Jews, and the draw for us was a young rabbi and rebbetzin who were known to be approachable, warm, hands on and readily available to their congregants. Still, I never dreamed that I was soon to be the recipient of their amazing chesed. It is a story I told and worth repeating. It happened that my first cousin Renee, a”h, who was also scheduled to move to New Jersey, never made it here because she was diagnosed with a fatal form of leukemia. I never imagined I would call upon him for help in dealing with my test of faith in a God who was disappointing to me.
Yet, his response was well beyond my expectations. When I shared the degree of my disillusionment in a God who could stand by and allow such sorrow to enter the lives of my aunt and uncle, I raised the question that tugged at my heart and soul and cried out: “Wasn’t it enough that they endured years laboring in the death camps, suffering the loss of their parents, most of their siblings, and in my uncle’s case, a wife and children?” Yet, I wasn’t prepared for the magnitude of my rabbi’s response. Given his reputation, I anticipated the chizuk and guidance he would offer, as well as the loving care he would shower upon Renee, my cousin and her husband Marty. Still, I was caught off guard when the rabbi extended himself, far beyond a phone call or two, where he would offer his words of chizuk and guidance to Renee and Marty via phone. I never imagined that Rabbi Yudin would take the initiative of traveling to Brooklyn and visiting with my cousin on a weekly basis for the entire year of her remission. The compassion, strength and support he offered me, as well as to Renee and Marty, most certainly lightened the heavy load all of us carried and went a long way in helping us recover our diminished faith in Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
Yet, it didn’t end there. True to his nature, our rabbi, an exemplary role model in the mitzvot of v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha and nosei b’ol im chaveiro treated Renee and Marty as one of his own. His enthusiasm and love of Torah was contagious, yet, in responding to their enthusiasm in and questions associated with the mitzvot they were taking on, he allowed them to pave the way. He understood that timing was everything, and when he felt it necessary, he cautioned them to take it slow in order to avoid regression. As a result, during the year of Renee’s remission they became full- fledged ba’alei teshuva, abiding by the laws of Shabbos, Yomim Tovim, kashrut and taharat hamishpacha, even moving to a frum neighborhood. A year after Renee’s petirah, Marty married a frum woman who helped him raise Rachel. Rachel eventually made aliyah with her husband and four children. This is just one story among thousands that bear testimony to the part our dear Rabbi and Shevi played in the lives of all those who are lucky enough to find themselves in their surround. After 50 years of service, our Rabbi and Shevi graciously handed over the mantle of leadership to his assistant rabbi of 10 years. We feel so lucky to be beneficiaries of this dynamic team; with Rabbi Andrew Markowitz and his Rebetzin Dr. Sarah, along with Rabbi Yudin and Shevi assuming the status of rabbi and rebbetzin emeritus, it feels as if we won the equivalent of a spiritual lottery.
When Jack and I first began to plan for future retirement, we knew we were not yet ready to commit to actualizing our dream of making “chatzi aliyah,” given the reality that all of our children and grandchildren still resided in the U.S. As a result, we were looking for a community in the south that paralleled what we had in Fair Lawn. Once again, it was hashgacha pratit that our daughter Penina, along with her husband Josh and their children, relocated to the BRS community in Boca Raton, Florida; after spending a series of Shabbatot and Yomim Tovim with them, it was the warmth and diversity of the community, where all were welcomed, as well as the overall level of spirituality under the guidance of Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, his rebbetzin Yocheved and his rabbinic team, at the helm, that led us to choose BRS over settling into the Beach community in Miami, where we previously enjoyed our winter vacations.
Yet while the bonus of kosher restaurants and shuls, along with ocean, were enticing, they were no longer enough of a motivation for us to settle in on a long-term basis. We were never disappointed in the choice we made when we selected the BRS community. Rather, we always felt as if our “cup runneth over.” Still, this year, when we arrived at the end of December, we never dreamt that the relaxation, vacation mode we enjoyed would only last for a short period of time before we were faced with the challenge of COVID-19. Yet, the direct contact and chizuk offered by Rabbi Goldberg, Rabbi Moskowitz and their rebbetzins were over the top. Most importantly, such exemplary role models in the mitzvah of nosei b’ol im chaveiro delivered hands-on acts of chesed, shiurim, pep talks, videos, YouTubes, and programs available in a multitude of venues. The volume and level of support left us to wonder how our rabbis had the energy to conduct their personal lives and get the sleep required to continue in this fashion. While we are acutely aware that our pre-COVID certainty of being in “control” was a myth, we are also comforted by the Torah strategies our rabbis teach us in dealing with this challenge. Yet the overarching theme of responding with positivity rather than negativity offers us many choices and paths in finding strategies that resonate for our individual emotional/spiritual proclivities. Moreover, while there is still is no way of determining when this pandemic will end, based on the Torah principles taught by our rabbis, we all possess a personal “fix-it” kit that we can adapt to our unique proclivities and personality types in dealing with just about any challenge we face. The principle that rings out so strongly for me was delivered by Rabbi Goldberg in one of his six-minute videos of inspirations that I listen to during my morning walk along the lake surrounding the shul.
He explained that there are two opposing perspectives through which we can view the challenge of COVID-19 and any other nisayon Hashem sends our way: We can look at the space between the “now” of life with COVID-19 and the “then” of the post-COVID world we will return to, and fill it with the positive thoughts generated by emunah and bitachon in our savior, Hakadosh Baruch Hu. In doing so there will be no room for the negative feelings of anxiety, fear and depression to trickle in. On the other hand, we can make the mistake of taking Hashem out of the equation. In doing so we will create an empty space in our hearts and souls, allowing the negative feeling to occupy the vacuum and overwhelm our psyche, making matters far worse than they have to be. There are not enough words of gratitude that can adequately express the hakarat hatov we owe to our rabbis and teachers for their part in encouraging us to do our part in making the choices that will put an end to the pain, suffering and loss engendered by this pandemic. As we anticipate Tisha B’Av, which is less than a day away as I complete this article, I will pray that our hakarat hatov to Hakadosh Baruch Hu, our rabbis and all those who impact our lives, as well as our enthusiasm and desire to return to our journey of kedoshim tihiyu, encourage Hakadosh Baruch Hu to turn this year’s Tisha B’Av into the Yom Tov that will herald in our final geulah. At the very least, may He put an end to this pandemic k’heref ayin, with the blink of an eye, in the same manner he brought it on.
Renee Nussbaum is a psychoanalyst, with training in imago and EFT She can be reached at [email protected]