Shachar, a’h

IMG_20171207_111725.jpgIn the midst of the hustle and bustle of packing up everything on the eve of our aliyah, my son called.

“If you can get it to fit, would you mind taking something for someone in your lift?”

My son had been storing Shachar Weissberg’s shtender (a type of bookstand intended for supporting heavy tomes on a tabletop) for several years in his shed in Baltimore, with no way to get it to him now that he was living in Israel.

Although Shachar had always dreamed of living in Israel and had strong roots there (his mother is Israeli and many of his siblings live there), you might call his aliyah “accidental.”  While on a visit to Israel, Shachar fell seriously ill, yet another episode in a long string of ups and downs that were part of the degenerative illness that had plagued him for years.  There were many times when he almost didn’t survive, but this time it was clear that he would be unable to travel back to America without great risk to his life.  He was happily “stuck” in Israel, and Jerusalem is where he would spend the remainder of his too-short life.

He made aliyah only with the clothes that were in his suitcase, intended for a short visit.  From Israel, Shachar asked my son if he could store his shtender.

Normally when we think of a shtender, it’s a tabletop model.  But this was a large piece of wooden furniture, designed especially for use with a wheelchair.  Its tabletop stretched across the width of his wheelchair, and its legs reached along the sides, to the floor.  Shipping it was simply not feasible – – until now.

Our lift arrived 4 weeks after we made aliyah to the Galilee, in northern Israel.  At the time I had no car, and couldn’t figure out how I was going to get the shtender to Shachar in Jerusalem.  It sat in a corner of my rental apartment for several weeks. After speaking to his mother, who also didn’t have a car and was immersed in her role as Shachar’s caretaker, it was clear that somehow, I’d just have to make it happen.

Fortunately there is a direct bus from my village in the Galilee to Jerusalem’s central bus station.  With a hand cart, I was able to roll the shtender from my apartment to the bus, load it in the storage area under the bus, and so I made the two hour journey to Jerusalem.  Shachar lived in an apartment near Machane Yehuda, a short 10 minute walk from the bus station, and thanks to the dolly, I was able to roll it all the way to his house.

Although I had davened regularly for Rafael Shachar ben Zehavit, I hadn’t seen Shachar for several years, and I’d heard his condition was poor.  Nothing could have prepared me for the shock of seeing how much he had deteriorated.  He was bedridden in tremendous pain, could barely speak, and was clearly suffering. I will spare you the details, but it was clear to me that he would be unable to use the shtender in his current condition, and things were unlikely to improve.

I felt terrible for bringing Shachar the shtender!  I was bringing him a relic from his past that was a bitter reminder of how much better things used to be, and it only emphasized all the things he could no longer do.  If the purpose of visiting the sick is to bring comfort, this was not it!

But Shachar greeted me with a huge smile.  And his face lit up when he saw his shtender. With great effort to speak, he thanked me profusely for bringing the shtender.

“This shtender is a source of great joy to me,” he said.  “It reminds me of such happy times.  I made this shtender with my own two hands in Camp Simcha.  I worked so hard on building it, and I was so happy that I was able to accomplish it.  That was huge for me.  Every time I learned Torah with this shtender, it made my learning so much sweeter.  Having it now will give me so much joy and strength, even if I can only just look at it.”

And that was the greatness of Shachar Weissberg a’h.  He only saw the good in situations, in people, in life. He lived every moment of his life to the fullest and with meaning. He never took anything or anyone for granted.  He appreciated everyone, and anyone who came to visit him with the idea of giving him encouragement, instead walked away encouraged and strengthened by him!  He loved people from all walks of life and they loved him – – literally thousands of people from across the globe. His neshama was holy and pure.

He transcended his illness with his indomitable fighting spirit, yet was a gentle, kind, patient and loving friend to all who crossed his path.  I confess I wondered how much longer he would be forced to suffer the ravages of his illness; it was awful and so unfair. But the world needed him more than he needed the world, and perhaps that is why he lived as long as he did.

His quiet greatness will never be forgotten.  May we merit filling the tremendous void of his passing with kindness, fortitude, love and hope, as he would have wanted.

Rest in peace, Shachar Weissberg.

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The Second Night of Pesach

Well here is my Pesach tale for 5777 (2017), the first year of our permanent (IY”H) return to Israel.

Oh, I was cocky!

This was the first year in so many years that we would be keeping ONE DAY of Yom Tov!  No second seder for us!

When an olah chadasha (new immigrant) friend, also due to experience her first ONE DAY Yom Tov as an Israeli living in Eretz Yisrael, found out that she’d be getting visitors from the US for Pesach, and therefore wouldn’t be able to have ONE seder as she had sorely yearned, I felt genuine pity.  Because I was going to have ONE DAY of Yom Tov this year, and NO ONE and NOTHING was going to stop me.

You see, we olim chadashim from America tend to have a chip on our shoulder.  Because WE MADE ALIYAH, usually from more comfortable circumstances than where we find ourselves once in Israel, and secretly perhaps some of us feel we deserve some sort of prize for our “sacrifice.” Oh, we are strong! Because we are idealists living in the Holy Land.

And that’s perhaps the mistake many of us make.  Because even though it’s wonderful and admirable to make aliyah, and even though Israel is a great country, we are still in spiritual galut (exile) because for whatever reason, Mashiach hasn’t yet come.  But it’s easy to forget this when things are calm, especially when one is able to live in Israel and experience the holiness, the beauty, the spirituality, the uniqueness, and yes, even the craziness up close and personal; when every day one feels like one is fulfilling one’s destiny as a Jew in the Holy Land.

Nearly every Israeli can personalize the Seder, that evening of the recounting of the escape from slavery in Egypt into the complex privilege of freedom and redemption.  In Israel it’s not just an ancient story, it’s a modern one, full of elderly Holocaust survivors, Ethiopians, Sephardim expelled from Islamic lands, war widows, survivors of terror attacks, etc, all with their own stories of struggle and loss and redemption and now living in the Promised Land.

Now that I was living in Israel, I was going to have only ONE day of yom tov and ONE seder.  But I wouldn’t be hosting it this year.

Because our personal belongings arrived by ship only a week before Pesach and our temporary rental accommodations are in complete disarray, our friends kindly invited us to spend Pesach with them in Efrat.

This was a great decision because we got to spend time with our friends; we could take our dog with us (they had just gotten a new puppy and it was great to socialize them); Efrat is close to Jerusalem which meant that we could visit the Kotel the day before, as well as do a quick tour of meaningful historical sites in Gush Etzion (like a 2000+ year old roadside mikva that was used by pilgrims a few days before Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, as they made their way on foot to Jerusalem to the Temple, only 18 km away); as well as consume a REAL Hillel sandwich (matzo, maror, charoset, and GOAT meat!); and experience some very different types of prayer services in a myriad of synagogues within different neighborhoods of Efrat.

Indeed, it couldn’t have worked out better.   We had a wonderful seder, with lots of discussion and people of all ages making thoughtful contributions and commentary.  The next day we visited a different set of friends in another neighborhood of Efrat (it’s always inspiring to hear success stories from new immigrants about acclimating to and loving life in Israel).  We returned home for a short nap, and as darkness approached . . . that was IT.  Yom Tov was OVER.  There was no second seder, no desperate need to hit the shower.  If I was tired I could go to bed – – because there was no second seder, no second day yom tov, no overeating and indigestion.  Hooray!

So what did we do?  Over matzo lasagna and kosher-for-Passover Ben & Jerrys ice cream, we learned to play mah jongg!  Our friends and their teenaged sons are mah jongg whizzes, and they kindly and patiently explained the two million rules so that we could get in on the action.

And then, around 1:30 a.m., I decided to go to sleep.  Because the next day we could DRIVE since there was no SECOND DAY YOM TOV.  And we had planned to visit friends in a chareidi suburb of Jerusalem.

Exhausted, I fell asleep.  But around 2 a.m, my husband woke me.  “The dog has been coming up to me and poking me with his nose,” my husband said groggily.  “He needs to go out.”  This translates into, “YOU NEED TO TAKE YOUR DAMN DOG OUT.  NOW!”  At which my husband promptly rolled over and fell back asleep.  While I, on the other hand, having been awoken from a blissful sleep, was throwing on whatever article of clothing I could find so I could take my dog out at 2 a.m.

Efrat is a city of 10,000 people.  I understand that 2 a.m. is not exactly a busy time, but wouldn’t you think there would be SOMEONE outside at that hour?  But no.  My dog and I seemingly had the entire city of Efrat to ourselves, and I walked the dog (he really DID have to go!) and happily returned to our friends’ apartment, anxious to get back to sleep.

I trudged up the 2 flights of stairs, rubbing the sleep from my eyes.  When I got to the door, I turned the handle, but nothing happened.  I pushed it.  Jiggled the door.  Nothing.  It was locked!

Until now, my friends had always left the door unlocked, even at night.  So they hadn’t given us a key, nor had they given us the door’s security code.

I truly felt bad about doing so, but I rang the buzzer.  Once. Twice.  Five times.  I knocked at the front door, softly at first, but then more persistently and then quite loudly.  NOTHING.  Everyone was sound asleep and I was locked outside.

So I walked back down the two flights of stairs and waited.  Surely a family would be returning late at night from elsewhere in Israel.  Surely someone else would need to walk their dog.  Surely a security patrol would eventually come by.  Surely someone, anyone, would have a cell phone that I could borrow to call my husband and rouse him from his sleep, so he could unlock the front door.

But no.  No one was returning home late.  No one was walking their dog.  There wasn’t even a security patrol.  And the buses had stopped running at midnight.

I hadn’t thought to take my phone, because I knew I was coming right back upstairs after the dog did his business and after all, who would I call at 2 a.m.?  I was dressed in a thin shirt and skirt.  Now the wind was picking up, and I was getting cold.  I was getting tired of walking, and even my dog was tired of walking around outside.

I tried laying down on a bus bench, and then a park bench a few hundred feet away, but both were made of metal and the cold surface invaded my bones.  So I did more walking, just to stave off the cold.

Finally I made my way back to the apartment.  Maybe someone would need to get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, realize my dog and I weren’t there, and be concerned.  But no, my husband slept on, completely oblivious to my lack of physical presence in the bedroom.

I went back outside. And then back up the stairs, waiting by the front door, testily ringing the buzzer and knocking and then returning back outside.  Up and down I went, between the apartment and the street, trying to devise new strategies.  A few hours passed, but morning was still a long way off, and I was really tired.  I returned to the apartment, dragged a few doormats from different apartments together in a line, and lay down on the filthy, scratchy doormats.  It was clear I wouldn’t be getting to sleep this night, but at least I had a ½” barrier of doormats against the cold marble floors underneath me.

I wasn’t scared (it felt like really uncomfortable urban camping), I was Just. So. Tired.  But so was the rest of Efrat, apparently, because they slept on through the night.

I won’t even describe the panic I felt when I had to go to the bathroom (I figured there must be hidden outdoor security cameras everywhere, so peeing behind a bush wasn’t a possibility).  Mercifully, finally, it was daylight and my husband soon would be going to minyan.

At last the front door was unlocked and I peeled off my very dirty clothes and unable to utter a sound, I collapsed into the bed under a pile of warm blankets.  My dog, who hadn’t slept a wink, let out a large, tragic sigh, gave me a reproachful look, and immediately fell into a deep sleep.

So no, I didn’t have a second seder or a second day yom tov.  But I might as well have.  I spent the night utterly homeless and outdoors, truly experiencing an ancestral déjà vu of yetziat Mitzrayim.  I had no one to rely on but HaShem.  It was layl shimurim in the deepest sense of the word.  I was surrounded by 10,000 people yet I was alone in the world.

Yet I was not.

The purpose of the Seder is a retelling, to ensure that from generation to generation we Jews understand we are a link in the chain, and will go from slavery and repression to ultimate redemption.  It might be a long way off, but we believe this with every fiber of our being – – that redemption WILL come.  Yet somehow, sometimes, when we are living with plenty, and are surrounded  by loving family, and despite the gratitude we feel, it’s kind of hard to feel the intensity of the Exodus.

When I was held captive by the night, I was initially upset.  When I calmed down, I realized it was about more than just being locked out; that HaShem was sending me a message.  Even though it was only for a few hours, I needed to feel my own personal yetziat Mitzrayim; to experience doubt, dependence, fear, exhaustion, deprivation.  And to know that it would eventually be over, and all would be well.

At dawn, slowly at first, Efrat began to stir.

And when daybreak came, I was redeemed.